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Hillary Clinton is running out the clock

The former secretary of state is in no rush to announce her presidential campaign, and a formal launch could come even later than expected.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston on Dec. 4, 2014. (Photo by Elise Amendola/AP)
Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at the Massachusetts Conference for Women in Boston on Dec. 4, 2014.

Time is on Hillary Clinton’s side.

The former secretary of state is more or less set on a presidential run, but is in no rush to make it official – and why should she? She’s run up the score, has possession of the ball, and is running out the clock on a Democratic primary while taking as much time as she needs to prepare for the main event. 

She blew right past November, when some in her orbit wanted her to launch an exploratory committee, has flown through January, the month she announced her 2008 campaign, and now some Clinton insiders are saying she’ll even sail past the early April launch window they previously had their eye on.

Talk in Clinton’s circle is increasingly looking to a later announcement, raising the specter of a summer launch. “It’s not happening April 1st,” one Democrat in the know told msnbc, noting that her husband didn’t announce his 1992 presidential campaign until October of 1991. Politico first reported the potential delay Thursday morning.

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Clinton, the once-ubiquitous jet-setting public speaker, is now almost nowhere to be seen, with just four scheduled public appearances over the yawning stretch of months between mid-December and the end of March. The message from her team is to hunker down for a lengthy period of public inactivity.

The strategy makes perfect sense for Clinton, as she explained last week. “Right now, the status quo that we’re in is, in my view, in our interest, so I don’t want to do anything that disrupts that status quo,” she said during a speech in Canada. Granted, she was discussing U.S. negotiating policy with Iran, but the principle remains the same.

The once and likely future presidential candidate is beating her opponents, Republican and Democrat, by double digits in early polls, and only endangers that position by moving up her bid. The longer Clinton stays above the partisan fray, the slower her poll numbers will regress to the mean

"The longer Clinton stays above the partisan fray, the slower her poll numbers will regress to the mean."'

She’s compressing the Democratic primary calendar as much possible to make it less likely for something unexpected -- another candidate to catch fire, a self-induced error -- to derail her before the party’s nominating convention, which was conveniently set for the earlier of two possible dates in the summer of 2016.

And while her absence could have created an opening for potential Democratic opponents, so far they’re not seizing it. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who only left the governor’s mansion last week, is giving paid speeches and working on a book; former Sen. Jim Webb is recovering from surgery and in no rush; Sen. Bernie Sanders is making trips to Iowa and New Hampshire, but doesn’t appear to be a mortal threat to Clinton; and Sen. Elizabeth Warren is not running.

Another candidate would sacrifice precious fundraising opportunities by delaying an entrance, but Clinton will have no problem amassing an enormous war chest, and will save on operating expenses with a truncated campaign. She’s not even reaching out to donors in any kind of systematic way yet, said Alan Kessler, who served as Clinton’s national finance chair in 2008. “That is not happening,” he said, describing the situation as “quiet.” 

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But in the void, donors are organizing themselves and activating their networks, preparing to open their checkbooks and inundate Clinton’s campaign with money the moment she has a means to accept their largesse.

In her absence, the media, which spent much of 2014 prodding and scrutinizing Clinton, has been eager to turn to the Republican contest. And Republicans have been happy to oblige the onlookers, taking shots at each other and declaring their comrades unelectable against the mighty Clinton, who gets to take it all in from the sidelines.

That leaves Clinton firmly in control of her destiny, and free to choose time with her new granddaughter over glad-handing in Iowa in January. 

While Clinton is quiet in public, there is action happening beneath the surface, as she huddles with a newly expanded team of advisers helping her with polling, strategy, and outreach to get her ducks in a row ahead of an official announcement. 

The members of that team are likely to take senior roles once a campaign apparatus exists, but that’s not formalized yet and could still change. Another unknown is how they will be paid for their service before she launches a campaign. The skeleton crew of eight or so aides who have handled her personal affairs since she stepped down as secretary of state have been operating informally, but a more formal structure may be needed.

Much of the campaign apparatus can wait, but one piece that has to come early is a digital strategy, and Clinton and her aides are turning their attention to that now. 

The first thing Clinton will do as a candidate is declare her intention to run, and that requires a website, the capacity to accept online donations, an email program, social media accounts, and a robust technological backend to handle the massive influx of traffic she’s sure to receive on day one.

Fortunately for her, Clinton will have her pick of the litter when it comes to Democratic tech talent. Numerous Democrats in and outside Clinton’s world point to a handful of strategists likely to lead the effort. 

Andrew Bleeker led online advertising for Clinton in 2008 before joining team Obama for both of his campaigns. Bleeker went on to found the well-respected firm Bully Pulpit Interactive and earned plaudits for his innovative work on the 2013 campaign of Virginia Gov. Terry Maculiffe, a close friend of the Clinton’s, whose campaign was managed by the same operative expected to manage Clinton's 2016 effort, Robby Mook.

Another top contender would be Teddy Goff, who was Digital Director for Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign before founding Precision Strategies with fellow Obama strategist Stephanie Cutter. In Chicago, he managed a team of over 250 and raised $690 million online.

Josh Ross led digital efforts for Clinton’s 2008 campaign and still manages the email list of her dormant campaign, which earned over $100,000 in the 2014 election cycle by being rented out to Democratic candidates. 

Ross’ firm, Trilogy Interactive, has worked with top-tier Senate candidates like Elizabeth Warren, and is one of the few that has the backend capacity to handle the deluge of traffic Clinton can expect on day one, Democratic digital operatives say. 

Another longtime Clinton alum, Katie Dowd, is often mentioned in Democratic digital circles, but is likely to stay at the Clinton family’s charitable foundation, where she currently works. Dowd worked on Clinton’s 2008 campaign before joining Clinton at the State Department and then moving to the White House.

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Other top digital hires could include Nikki Titus, who has earned respect for her work leading digital efforts for the pro-Clinton super PAC Ready for Hillary, and would be an opportunity for Clinton to hire a woman in the face of some criticism about the diversity of her team. 

Democrats also mention Eli Kaplan of Rising Tide Interactive and Brandon English, who has led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s lucrative email program for several years. 

Blue State Digital, perhaps the marquee Democratic digital firm, which was integral to Obama’s campaign, may be involved as well, though its founder, Joe Rospars, is likely to stay on the sideline of a day-to-day campaign.

Democratic strategists who have worked on presidential campaigns in the past and could be involved in Clinton’s describe a nearly perfect storm of challenges in rolling out her campaign, which would strain the resources of even the biggest and best digital consulting firms.

“It's unprecedented,” said one, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “There's no margin for error here. You don't get to do your launch again.” 

The disastrous rollout of looms large, as do the frequent but underreported cyber attacks on Obama’s campaign. 

Website crashes on launch day are not just embarrassing, but can cost the campaign millions of dollars over the long term in donations not made and email addresses not added to the list. 

Digital strategy touches every area of the campaign, so it has to be baked into the operation from the start.

While a basic website could theoretically be stood up in as little as 48 hours, experts say they would prefer several weeks or at least 7-10 days to prepare; meanwhile the website will likely be the first concrete sign of an imminent campaign launch.

For the moment at least, it will all have to wait as Clinton bides her time.