Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign has said from day 1 that they expected a competitive primary. But a challenge from the sitting vice president is competition they would just as soon avoid.
Rather than attempt to directly push Joe Biden away from a run, however, Clinton backers are biding their time and hoping the veep decides against a run himself. Baring that, they’re counting on their superior organization and fundraising to carry the day.
This week, Clinton is subtly demonstrating the firepower of her campaign organization as Biden takes the most basic first steps to learn about legal and logistical deadlines.
The former secretary of state was supposed to be on vacation this week, but instead she traveled to Iowa on Thursday to campaign with the state’s popular former governor and current U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who endorsed her earlier this week. And on Thursday, she spoke to volunteers in Ohio with that state’s popular former governor.
Ohio is not typically a stop for candidates at this phase of the campaign, when White House hopefuls tend to spend time in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire. But the visit underscores what team Clinton believes is their secret weapon: March 2016.
While other candidates are focusing on the four states with nominating contests in February, Clinton’s vast resources have allowed her to already begin laying the groundwork for contests the following month, when more delegates and states will be in play, including Ohio.
March kicks off with primaries and caucuses in 13 states on one day -- known as "super Tuesday" -- and continues with another 17 before the end of the month. While the early states can be won with face-to-face contact with voters, the contests in March favor candidates with more resources, since they can deploy staff to multiple states around the country and run more TV ads. And unlike Iowa and New Hampshire, many of the March states have large minority populations, where Clinton tends to outperform her rivals.
By the end of next month, Clinton will have visited a dozen of the states with contests on super Tuesday or in the beginning of the month. The campaign has dispatched surrogates to visit the rest. And with a staff of hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars in the bank, Clinton’s operation has a big head start in organizing in these states.
“Hillary has a presence everywhere,” said Clinton campaign primary states director Tracey Lewis.
That’s a lesson her campaign learned from the 2008 primary election, aides say, when Obama’s team more seamlessly pivoted from the early states to the contests held in March.
A late start could make breaching the March firewall more difficult for Biden. Former President Bill Clinton got into the race in October of 1992, but times have changed, Clinton backers say, and campaigns need more time to build infrastructure today.
Biden is a bigger threat to Clinton than any of her current challengers. As the sitting vice president, he’s more well known, more experienced, has more access to big donors and has stronger ties to the party establishment than other Democratic candidates.
And unlike Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders or former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who are trying to go around Clinton by running to her left, Biden’s path to victory is straight through Clinton.
“I don't think there is a lot of daylight between their policy agendas,” said Jared Bernstein, a former Biden economic adviser. “Given that his policy agenda is very similar to that of Hillary Clinton, if she were to stumble, his path makes more sense.”
While Sanders draws support from voters who would never have picked Clinton as their first choice, Biden may only gain from Clinton’s loss. And that could lock the two in an ugly zero-sum game for support of the center of the Democratic Party, with potential spillover damage into the general election.
The Clinton campaign is keenly aware of this. The only candidate who truly worries them is Biden, according to outside sources familiar with the campaign’s thinking.
"I think he has to make what is a very difficult decision for himself and his family, and he should have the space and opportunity to decide what he wants to do,” Clinton told reporters Wednesday in Iowa after an event.
So far, at least, Clinton and her outside allies say they won’t try to influence Biden’s decision. “I don't think it's useful to be behind the scenes asking this or saying that," Clinton said. "I've done none of that."
David Brock, who founded the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record, which has targeted Sanders and O’Malley with trackers and opposition research, said it’s not time to go after Biden. “I think it’s premature,” he said in an email.
Any moves against Biden -- even behind the scenes -- could backfire for Clinton at a time when Biden is mourning the death of his eldest son, Beau Biden, who died after a battle with brain cancer.
Still, in an interview with The New York Times Wednesday, Clinton-backer Tom Harkin, a former Iowa senator, suggested Biden could play a role in a Clinton administration and said a presidential run would not be a “wise move.”
Others in Clinton’s orbit are likely to take a softer tact. On Wednesday, Vilsack cut short a vacation to campaign with Clinton for the first time. “I didn’t time this endorsement,” Vilsack said while making a joke about his tan. "I love Joe Biden,” he continued, but vowed to stand behind Clinton "until the last dog dies."
"She is the best candidate from my party to win this election,” he added in his prepared remarks.
Vilsack was a top Clinton ally in 2008, and his former chief of staff now runs Clinton’s Iowa campaign, but he supported Biden in 1988 and is a member of the Obama-Biden cabinet, so many read the endorsement as a shot across Biden’s bow.
Clinton remains the prohibitive front-runner in the Democratic primary both in polls and endorsements, which political scientists say are more important than surveys at this stage. The former secretary of state is sitting on an enviable cache of endorsements she can roll out when they’d be most beneficial.
But it’s the map and schedule that most benefit Clinton.
Clinton has already fired up crowds at Virginia’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner, led a grassroots organizing meeting in Colorado, given a voting rights speech in Texas, campaigned in Michigan and Miami and Florida and spoken to a black church in Missouri -- all states with March contests.
After her visit to Ohio Thursday, Clinton will travel to Minnesota for the Democratic National Committee meeting. Both are March states, as are Maine and Louisiana, where she will travel soon.
“Since day 1 of the campaign," said Lewis of the Clinton campaign, "we’ve been preparing for a competitive primary by building a robust, grassroots-driven volunteer infrastructure across the country that will help us capture the Democratic nomination."
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Clinton had already run ads in Arkansas.