Democrats are worried that the furor surrounding Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonSanders to headline progressive 'People's Summit' The Hill's 12:30 Report Schumer confronts wealthy Trump supporter in restaurant: report MORE’s private email server will be prolonged and intensified after her sudden move to hand it over to the FBI.
The Clinton campaign’s decision to give up the server and a thumb drive containing backup copies of emails left Democrats scratching their heads as to why the former secretary of State had resisted for months turning over the server.
Coupled with new polls that suggest Clinton is vulnerable, Democrats are nearing full-on panic mode.
“I’m not sure they completely understand the credibility they are losing, by the second,” said one Democratic strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “At some point this goes from being something you can rationalize away to something that becomes political cancer. And we are getting pretty close to the cancer stage, because this is starting to get ridiculous."
“Look, this is a classic example of the cover-up being 10 times worse than the so-called crime — though in this case there wasn't a crime,” said another progressive strategist.
“The culture of secrecy that has surrounded the Clintons — understandably, in some cases — has now yielded a situation where she did something that wasn't necessary and looks nefarious.”
The former secretary of State remains the odds-on favorite the win the party’s presidential nomination. But the pattern seen in the email controversy — months of stonewalling followed by an eventual concession — has stoked worries about her flaws as a candidate.
The slew of unimpressive poll numbers is exacerbating the situation. Some have shown slippage against her main left-wing rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Others have indicated her losing swing states against Republican opponents. Still others have revealed continuing weakness in her ratings on trustworthiness and favorability.
Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based Democratic strategist who has worked with Clinton in the past, argued that the general suspicion that the former secretary of State is concealing something is much more damaging than the specifics of the email matter.
“It’s hard to imagine Americans in the heartland wondering about whether Hillary Clinton gave up an email server or not,” he said. “But [it adds to] this constant battering she's taking, which is that people don’t trust her. It increases the feeling that something is not being told to them.”
Joe Trippi, who served as campaign manager for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid, concurred.
“The thing that’s hurt has been losing the ground she’s lost on trustworthiness and honesty. It’s on trust, not on the specifics of emails or anything like that,” he said.
A new Franklin Pierce University poll from New Hampshire on Tuesday showed Clinton losing to Sanders by seven percentage points in the Granite State. Another survey from the Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling (PPP), also released Tuesday, indicated Clinton getting the worse of hypothetical match-ups with four separate Republican opponents in the swing state of Iowa, which President Obama won in both 2008 and 2012.
The margins in all those polls were within the margins of error. But the same cannot be said of findings indicating voter skepticism about Clinton personally.
The PPP poll showed 52 percent of Iowans holding an unfavorable view of Clinton and only 38 percent holding a favorable view. In a Quinnipiac University poll released late last month, a clear majority of voters nationwide said they did not consider the former secretary of State honest or trustworthy — 57 percent to 37 percent. It was only the latest finding that indicated deep trouble for Clinton on that issue.
Still, her most adamant supporters insist she has done nothing wrong.
“Everybody is just looking for a ‘gotcha’ moment,” said long-time Clinton loyalist Lanny Davis. “They're ignoring what the inspector general said, which is that there was not one single accusation of wrongdoing alleged against Hillary Clinton and her use of email.”
The Clinton campaign and its allies are also pushing back hard at their critics. The campaign’s communications director, Jennifer Palmieri, sent a mass email to supporters on Wednesday, warning, “You might hear some news over the next few days about Hillary Clinton's emails.”
The Palmieri email went on to assert that there was “a lot of misinformation” around the issue, that “Hillary has remained absolutely committed to cooperating,” and that “this kind of nonsense comes with the territory of running for president.”
Separately, Media Matters for America — the liberal watchdog group founded by Clinton ally David Brock — sent out a statement under the subject-line “Myths and Facts about Hillary Clinton’s email.” The first fact it listed was that “none of the emails sent to Clinton were labeled as classified or top secret.”
But concerned Democrats keep coming back to the same question: Why did the Clinton campaign not simply hand over the private server when the controversy first erupted in March?
“It’s bizarre,” said the Democratic strategist. “Let me give you some simple strategic communications advice: Put everything out first, on your terms. If you wait, or you are forced to do it, you always lose and look bad. … That is exactly what is happening here, and I find it inexplicable.”
Clinton’s problems are stoking speculation that another candidate could, even now, get into the Democratic race. The two most-often cited potential contenders are Vice President Biden and progressive icon Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Others suggested that Sanders could expand his support even further.
Robert Borosage, co-director of the liberal Campaign For America's Future, said that while Clinton remains “very popular amongst Democrats,” there remains an opening for another Democratic alternative to emerge.
“If Hillary continues to sink in the polls and is beleaguered by all of this stuff, there will be more and more interest in other candidates — including and not limited to Sanders,” Borosage said.
Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive Democracy for America, said that liberals believe Republicans are amplifying the issue. Still, he argued that Sanders appears to be exciting the Democratic base more than Clinton.
“Sanders is holding huge events with big crowds and engaging in a two-way conversation with voters — these are things Clinton isn't doing,” Chamberlain said.
Even if Clinton is vulnerable, she remains the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination.
Trippi said another Democrat might well get into the race, but that beating Clinton was a very different proposition.
“I don’t think Joe Biden has given up on his desire to run for president and I’m sure there are others out there who want to get into this race. I just don’t see a path yet for how you get to the nomination,” he said.
Trippi also raised the issue of whether a more left-wing candidate such as Warren could end up making a Clinton coronation more likely, rather than less likely, given that she would almost certainly divide the progressive vote with Sanders.
“Why is he now going to bow and curtsy to Elizabeth Warren?” Trippi asked. “And if he isn’t going to move aside, doesn’t she actually divide that 30 or 40 percent?”
That leaves many Democrats in a painful place: Believing that, in the end, Clinton will be the nominee but worrying that her vulnerabilities could negate the many advantages — from demographics to the electoral college map — that they believe the party nominee should enjoy.
The progressive strategist wondered “how much longer this drip, drip, drip” of controversy surrounding the emails would continue.
“There's a hesitance that emerges in terms of her trustworthiness,” the source said. “At some point, people will start to ask whether this hurts her electability in the general election.”
Sheinkopf insisted that, at a minimum, the Clinton campaign needed to set aside any set of complacency.
“There are no guarantees. The ship has to get righted. You need to deal with the email issue very differently, by tackling it head-on.”
How confident is he that such a direct approach will be adopted?
“Fifty-fifty, at best,” he replied.
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