Democrats might as well face the fact that Hillary Clinton is just not a good candidate. She lacks charisma, the ability to empathize with voters, and even the ability to appear clean to voters. This should not be a surprise to the party, yet it seems to be. But the writing has been on the wall for some time.
Consider her first bid for public office–a New York Senate seat. Her opponent Rick Lazio, a no-name Republican, somehow managed to win 43 percent of the vote against the popular first lady. This cannot be explained away by the presidential election. Bush only garnered 33 percent of the vote in the state, meaning Lazio outran his party by a whopping 10 percent. That can largely be chalked up to Clinton running a lackadaisical campaign.
Her 2006 reelection campaign should have been a cakewalk and was. She won with a strong 67 percent, but even this was below expectations. Her 2008 presidential campaign was expected to be a coronation. But then, as now, she struggled to connect with voters via retail politicking, and it cost her Iowa. Her inability to connect with anybody not blue-collar white or Hispanic doomed her candidacy.
This time was supposed to be different. She had a massive lead in the polls (far larger than any she held in 2007), hired the best and brightest young staffers in all the early states, and downplayed her celebrity and past. That past, and her inability to connect with voters, seems to keep catching up with her.
Despite her best efforts to tell her personal story, it has largely fallen flat. Voters are willing to be enticed by a 73-year-old socialist senator from Vermont named Bernie Sanders. Democrats are freaking out over her falling poll numbers, not to mention the ongoing email scandal (drip, drip, drip). To make matters worse, Joe Biden is thinking of running and, yes, even Al Gore’s name has been floated.
Democrats seem to be coming to the conclusion that it is more about the candidate than the campaign. Sure, Obama has weak approval ratings and the economy is struggling, but that should not explain a candidate with almost 100 percent name recognition losing to candidates with barely 50 percent.
This is not just conjecture. Chris Cillizza, over at The Washington Post, spoke with several Democratic operatives, and they echoed a familiar theme: Clinton is just not a good candidate. Said one senior Democrat, “She has always been awkward and uninspiring on the stump. Hillary has Bill’s baggage and now her own as secretary of state — without Bill’s personality, eloquence or warmth.” Still, he expected her to win the Democratic nomination.
Clinton recently joked at a Des Moines, Iowa even that she liked SnapChat because the messages disappear. It is this kind of tone-deaf rhetoric that makes even allied Democrats cringe.
“The combination of messy facts, messy campaign operation and an awkward candidate reading terrible lines or worse jokes from a prompter is very scary,” admitted one unaligned senior Democratic operative.
Those disappearing messages have already had a serious impact on her campaign. At the start of the campaign, Clinton had a wide lead on voter “trust” in opinion polls. Now poll after poll is showing that voters have lost faith in her. Worse, this is hurting her among being able to understand voters (the issue on which Romney lost the election).
Clinton’s response to the email scandal has not made things better. Since March she insisted she would keep her sever private, but she turned it over to the FBI last week. Since then, Clinton has insisted she never stored or sent classified information from her private server, but evidence has emerged to counter that argument. Now it appears there may be hundreds of emails that contain classified information.
Even if Clinton did nothing wrong, the appearance is terrible. Voters may not know whether she did it deliberately or not, but they also have to wonder whether she is even competent enough to be President. As Cillizza points out, I cannot imagine smart campaign staff thinking this is the way to win a campaign by allowing the story to continue in the news and have their candidate appear indifferent to the issue.
In many ways it is classic Clinton–“I am a Clinton therefore I am above the law and do not have to play by the rules everybody else does.” But in reality she does. The FBI and CIA are not going to simply let this go. Neither are voters. Even if they like Clinton on the issues, the fact they don’t trust her probably ensures she loses in a landslide.
Democrats are stuck. That cannot simply replace their frontrunner. She is strong among women and minorities largely on her identity politics appeal. Even Bernie Sander’s has been unable to shake her core support among the group.
What you are left with is a party lacking any viable alternative to a badly damaged frontrunner. Candidates still do matter in campaigns. Romney struggled to connect to voters and lost. Close elections especially depend on the personality of the candidate (think “I want to have a beer with Bush over Gore and Kerry”).
The good news for the party is Clinton has time to get better (or worse). Sanders might force her to hone her message down to an effective theme. A long and bloody GOP primary might allow her to face a weak GOP opponent. But, if not, then what?
Democrats do not have a lot of options. Clinton has now run for President two of the last three elections and for Senate twice. One would think she would have her message and appeal down. Apparently not.