Remember–Not one primary vote has been cast nor one caucus delegate stood up to show support for a candidate. No primaries have been held and no caucuses have begun. Yet despite the fact that the official presidential race has yet to begin, winners and losers are already being declared, often no more than based on polls, pundits, and the game of perception which is at the heart of American presidential politics. More so than any other candidate, this is the fate of Hilary Clinton. Yet we should be skeptical of what all this pre-primary noise tell us in terms of assessing the presidential candidates, including Clinton.
One presidential candidate (Rick Perry) has already dropped out. Others will no doubt do the same before the real start of the presidential race on February 1, when the Iowa caucuses take place. Expect this week’s CNN Republican presidential debate to winnow out the fortunes of a few more candidates. It could be Pataki, Christie, Graham, Walker, Jindal, or someone else. But one or more of them will have another bad debate performance, their money will dry up, the media will declare them dead, and their campaigns will fade away. But for others, such as Trump, Fiorina, and Carson, who have never received a single political vote for them in their entire life, they seem to be riding tall, with poll numbers that almost seem ephemeral. The test for them will be delivery in Iowa and New Hampshire, the ability to attract donors, volunteers, and voters who will actually turn out for them when they need to be counted. Can they translate name recognition and personal brands into a real campaign? This is really the only thing that should matter. For now, it is all about perception. Look to see the Wednesday debate to be pugnacious, no one can afford to let Trump steal the show again.
Perception in many ways is the fate of Hilary Clinton. I know of no candidate subject to more speculation and expectations than her. Some of it is self-inflicted. Her resume as Senator and Secretary of State are impressive, although her real record of accomplishment is thin. First in 08 and now in 16 she seems to be building an impressive political machine, raising money, securing endorsements, capturing super-delegates. She also started months ago with the best name recognition among Democrats, high approvals from her Secretary of State days, and great poll numbers and a lead that towered over her rivals. This year as in 2008 she has created an air of inevitability and invincibility.
Yet as with 2008 her political campaign seems to be floundering. Yes she is still in the lead in terms of endorsements, money, and many polls, but in the last two months much has changed. Polls show Sanders beating her in New Hampshire, a new poll this week shows Sanders tied with her in Iowa among likely causes attendees. Her enormous popularity from her Secretary of State days has lapsed and her negatives have gone up. Head to head polls show a tight race with her and Republicans in the swing states or over all, and some polls show Biden (so far a non-candidate) and Sanders doing better than her in the presidential race. In so many ways, Clinton looks better as a candidate when she in not one.
Clinton’s problems are multiple. She is the target of enormous sexism. Republicans hate her, and she is the subject of many false claims. Seriously, does anyone really think she ordered troops to effectively surrender in Benghazi? Her private e-mail server while Secretary of State smacks of aloofness and privilege, but at the end of the day she was not selling secrets to the enemy. She is neither a socialist (Sanders is) nor a closest one. She is a mainstream Democrat, self-proclaimed.
But Clinton has created her own problems. She never appreciated the political baggage of the private e-mails. She thinks that the proper response to criticism that she is not authentic is to send out a press release saying she will be more authentic. She has build a campaign strong on her personality, but more importantly, one based on expectations. Specifically, her greatest strength is her perception of her great strength–it is the impression she has created that she is inevitable and unbeatable that is the source of both her power and her ultimate weakness.
If one runs as inevitable everyone wants to beat you. Everyone looks for dints in the armor, for signs of weaknesses. This is where Clinton is again in 2016. She ran as a bully in 2008 and lost and she seems to be doing that again. People want to beat the bully, to take down the front runner, to beat the person everyone declares will win.
Yet remember, as well as Sanders is doing and as badly as Clinton seems to be doing now, no caucuses or primaries have taken place. Polls are flawed, especially in predicting caucus and primary attendees. They have margins of error and sampling problems. Polls are merely snapshots in time that can change rapidly. They fail to capture ground games or other intangibles that make for good candidates and campaigns.
The point is that one should never declare a candidate a winner or a loser until the votes are counted. This is true with Clinton. She has both many assets and liabilities as a candidate and judging her now as in trouble or fine months before the first votes are cast is risky. But if politics is often about perceptions, and you are a candidate like Clinton who has played politics your entire career based on it, be ready to be judged by these standards and not simply by actual votes.
Final Note: This week I had a wonderful time speaking to the South Metro Senior Caucus in Apple Valley. Thank you for hosting me. It was also great to meet so many wonderful people including Senator Carlson, Angie Craig, and Mary Lawrence.