After a long wait, Hillary Clinton will finally makes her second presidential bid official Sunday with a social media “soft launch,” followed by a trip to Iowa to meet with voters, sources tell msnbc.
Unlike her 2008 bid, when Clinton sometimes came off as imperious, aides to the all-but-declared presidential candidate say this time she will focus on smaller, intimate events that will allow her to spend quality time with voters and connect with them in casual settings.
But how does the biggest political celebrity in the world go small? How does someone who travels with a large coterie of reporters, aides, and Secret Service do intimate? It’s a challenge the nascent Clinton campaign acknowledges they don’t yet have a perfect solution for, and likely never will.
“It’s really hard,” said former Obama White House communications director Anita Dunn. “You have to balance the needs of the press corps and their wish to be in every event, with trying keep the event from feeling as though a small number of people are performing a staged play for the benefit to the press corps.”
“Candidates love this part,” Dunn continued. “You want to make sure the press can cover the campaigning without becoming the campaign.”
Aides want to showcase Clinton’s warmth and sense of humor, which can be lost in larger events, and bring the high-flying former secretary of state down to the earth. But they acknowledge it won’t be easy and will likely frustrate the press at times.
Every candidate has to deal with this problem at some point if they’re lucky and make it to the big leagues, but Clinton is in the unique position of starting from day one with a footprint closer to that of an incumbent president running for reelection than an upstart primary candidate.
She’s already under Secret Service protection, thanks to her time as first lady, and has had a dedicated traveling press corps for more than a year.
Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who was Mitt Romney’s press secretary in 2012, thinks Clinton’s team is dreaming.“It’s utterly impossible,” he said. “My guess is Hillary Clinton’s intimate campaign will be nothing more than a staged photo opportunity designed to look like something that it’s not. You’re at a stage where it should be open access to voters, spontaneous interaction with voters, and that’s just going to be very hard for her.”
When Clinton returned to Iowa last year for the first time since she lost the state’s critical caucus in 2008, more than 200 reporters showed up from as far away as Sweden and Japan.
She and her husband pulled up in an eight-car motorcade of armored SUVs, and a metal barricade separated her from voters as she worked a ropeline with federal agents looming on either side of her.
When Romney got Secret Service protection after winning the Republican nomination in 2012, “it was night and day,” Williams said, explaining the agents make everything more complicated and want to preserve a buffer between the candidate and the public.
Clinton’s campaign-in-waiting has worked with the Secret Service to try to pare down the agency’s footprint around Clinton as much as possible, and give the candidate room for spontaneous interactions with voters. They’ll also have to push back on local law enforcement, who often seek to add a second, more visible layer of protection around candidates.
But Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary who traveled with Obama extensively during the primary, said Clinton’s team is smart to focus on small events. “There’s no doubt that the logistics are hugely challenging for these things,” he said. “But the pictures are really great, and those stories are the kind that candidates tell for the rest of the campaign.”
And Gibbs said Clinton handled this well in New Hampshire, when a flurry of town hall events helped her come from behind to beat Obama.
Iowa native Tommy Vietor, another former Obama aide who helped Clinton with her book tour last year, said the issue will sort itself out over time.
He predicted a huge crush of press coverage for Clinton’s initial foray on the campaign trail that will die down quickly. “If she spends time in Iowa, her events will be competing with Rand Paul and Ted Cruz going for the jugular, and that will make for sexier copy, and she’ll have a chance to have a slightly more relaxed conversation with voters,” he said.
And campaigns have long known that the further they venture from Des Moines, the fewer reporters who will be willing to make the trek. “It’s totally doable,” he said.
Still, no one disputes that reporters will end up frustrated at times. Some events may be closed to the press, others may have limited access, and many may have access to only a select “pool” of reporters who represent each type of outlet on behalf of their colleagues.
To offset perceptions that’s cutting off the press, Clinton may regularly take questions from reporters after events where some were denied access. Or she could prioritize local media and give a few minutes to the local TV affiliate or newspaper, like Obama did during the primary.
The format of the events could further inflame relations between Clinton and the press, which she acknowledged are “complicated,” but pooling coverage may be the only way to satisfy all sides. After all, Clinton wants reporters to cover her small events as much as they want to cover them. If a touching connection is made with an Iowa voter and there’s no reporter around to Tweet it, does it make a sound?
The awkwardness of huge media attention combined with small spaces was on display last month when Jeb Bush visited the house of a former state Republican Party chairman in New Hampshire. Aides removed the furniture from the living room and reporters piled in.
C-SPAN broadcast live from the kitchen, showing a room packed wall-to-wall with reporters watching a handful of voters chat.