Clinton candidacy lacks premise

Recently I spent two back-to-back days interviewing voters the old-fashioned way — in person, face to face, and one by one.
These short, confidential, and relatively unstructured interviews were primarily devoted to exploration of a ballot measure that Florida voters may decide in November 2008. But as a warm-up to each dialogue, I asked about the forthcoming presidential contest. The interviews — conducted in two Democratic-leaning counties — initially seemed to suggest that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) is a shoo-in. Even most of the Republicans whom I spoke with seemed inclined to vote for her. But on further reflection, I am not so sure of her advantage. The absence of a central premise for her candidacy may be a fatal flaw in her bid for the presidency.

Rather than asking voters a standard battery of favorability or approval questions, I simply inquired why each Clinton backer chose her over her opponents. Voters could say anything. Justifications offered spontaneously for supporting Clinton were all over the place. Some mentioned experience, both in the White House with husband Bill and, more recently, in the Senate. Image-oriented comments were common. Several liked her style of speaking. There were some mentions of her “strength.”

One particularly interesting set of comments focused on the angle of her candidacy as a symbol for change. These voters mentioned her gender, of course, and their sense that it’s time for the first-ever female president. But even as some characterized her as an agent of change, they seemed embarrassed to admit that she is also a status quo candidate. Like the Bushes, the Clintons are hardly a novelty, some thought aloud.

Mentions of issues were rare. One voter mentioned her “opposition to wars,” but other than that, there are no particular issues driving her supporters. A few mentioned that they “like what I’ve heard her say,” but when asked a follow-up seeking clarification, the responses were all about style. No particular substantive policy position or accomplishment was evident.
Out of this mélange of responses, I conclude that there is no unified premise underlying Clinton’s appeal. There is nothing
thematically that rises to the level of her husband’s appeal as The Man from Hope, or even The Audacity of Hope that seems to float Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) boat. It’s more like her fans are just hoping she wins, but for no particular reason.  If campaigns are about cultivating and reinforcing extant political beliefs and opinions, then it’s a challenging task that Clinton’s team faces.

While a non-random flight of interviews conducted over two days in a single state doesn’t rise to the level of a proper poll, I have played this game long enough to know that I am onto something here. Because there is no consensus in justifications for electing Clinton, her campaign may instead have to execute the more complex bank shot, first fostering broad-based agreement about a particular virtue of Hillary’s and then executing a campaign to reinforce that message.

The easiest approach for Clinton would be to ask for election as the standard-bearer for women. This would work, but I think the senator would reject the tactic, preferring to be elected for more than symbolic reasons.

Clinton will find irresistible the allure of advocating a popular issue. But is it too late? She’s been in public life for almost two decades, yet few link her to any particular policy, save for a fumbled healthcare initiative. It’s one thing for a newcomer like Obama to flunk the issue-association test, but Hillary Clinton is no newcomer. She is playing the role of an incumbent officeholder and therefore should have some issue identity. In my experience, incumbents who are not systematically associated with one or more specific issues are enormously susceptible to defeat.


Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.