Every journalist welcomes instances in which they publish a piece that generates conversation, but yesterday’s front-page New York Times report on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 strategy appears to have sparked more criticism than the authors probably intended. It’s worth appreciating why.
The Times’ Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman made the case in their piece that when it comes to competing in a general election, the Democratic frontrunner is already eyeing a “narrow” path to success.
Hillary Rodham Clinton appears to be dispensing with the nationwide electoral strategy that won her husband two terms in the White House and brought white working-class voters and great stretches of what is now red-state America back to Democrats.Instead, she is poised to retrace Barack Obama’s far narrower path to the presidency: a campaign focused more on mobilizing supporters in the Great Lakes states and in parts of the West and South than on persuading undecided voters.
The piece added that by focusing on competitive states, instead of every state, Clinton will likely miss out on the opportunity to have a “spirited conversation” – the kind of discussion that could be “a unifying feature of a presidential election” – which in turn could make it difficult for Clinton, if she wins, to work with a Republican-led Congress.
The thesis here is built on a mistaken foundation, and if the Beltway discussion of the 2016 race is going to accept the premise as true, much of the coverage will be flawed.
Let’s unpack this a bit before certain assumptions take root.
Right off the bat, it’s awfully early to say with confidence what kind of general election Team Clinton is preparing to run. Not to put too fine a point on this, but Election Day is 74 weeks away. If we’re going to start criticizing the Democrat’s targeting strategy, we might want to wait until we’re within a year of someone actually casting a ballot.
As for what the Times sees as her likely strategy, Clinton reportedly intends to “focus more” on the East, Midwest, and “parts of the West and South.” I don’t mean to sound picky, but that doesn’t exactly sound like an overly narrow approach to a national campaign. Indeed, though the article didn’t mention it, let’s not forget Clinton’s stated commitment to a 50-state strategy, at least insofar as grassroots organizing is concerned.
The article lauds “the nationwide electoral strategy” embraced by Bill Clinton in the 1990s, but (a) American politics was far different a quarter of a century ago; (b) Bill Clinton ran in a three-way race that created different kinds of opportunities; (c) even Bill Clinton skipped plenty of uncompetitive states; and (d) Bill Clinton’s strategy didn’t do anything to help his relationship with Republicans (who impeached him) or bolster Democratic strength at the state or local level.
As for whether President Obama relied on a “narrow” path to the White House, let’s not forget that Obama won 51% of the popular vote twice, becoming only the third president in the last century to achieve this feat, and only the seventh in American history. He won support in every region – even twice picking up a Southern state Clinton lost twice – and in 2008, he won an electoral vote in Nebraska.
A variety of adjectives come to mind to describe this kind of broad, national success. “Narrow” isn’t one of them. (Obama’s relatively easy campaigns offered him the benefit of a strong electoral mandate, which Republicans immediately ignored.)
The message at the root of the article is that Clinton should invest time, energy, and resources in states she’s all but certain to lose. This is a spectacularly bad idea – not just for the likely Democratic candidate, but for the winner of the Republican nomination, too.
There are limited resources available to national candidates, who have a responsibility to maximize their chances of success. It would be political malpractice, for example, for the GOP nominee to make a concerted effort to win Vermont, Illinois, and Hawaii, simply to gain the experience of a “spirited conversation.” Similarly, there’s no reason for Clinton to spend a lot of time in Utah, Alabama, and Louisiana. The same is true in the inverse – Clinton probably shouldn’t campaign too hard in Maryland, just as the Republican nominee shouldn’t give too much thought to Oklahoma.
But, the argument goes, if Clinton sticks to a battleground-based tack, Republicans will refuse to work with her if she wins. The trouble is, if we’re being honest with ourselves, if Clinton won 45 states and 60% of the popular vote, GOP lawmakers wouldn’t care in the slightest. This is, quantifiably, the most radical American political party in generations. The margin and style of a Democratic victory is hopelessly irrelevant to a Republican Party that will not compromise, will not accept concessions, and sees all Democratic priorities as dangerous ideas that must be resisted and/or killed at all costs.
I have no doubt that every major-party candidate in every presidential cycle would love nothing more than to be competitive in every state in the Union. Ideally, Clinton, like her rivals, would be thrilled to have a shot at 538 electoral votes.
But here in reality, politics just doesn’t work that way.
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Skipping the 'spirited conversation'