Hillary Clinton is no stranger to criticism of her politics, credibility, her family’s foundation or even her fashion sense. But after the launch of her campaign, a new line of attack was opened up.
The latest isn’t a novel argument about her voting record or personal email server, but instead fundamentally questions her campaign strategy — a strategy that even down-ballot candidates can replicate.
This critique, published in the New York Times, pans Clinton's state-focused campaign in favor of a nationwide one. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but what the sources in this piece seem to forget is that when Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, the demographics and political leanings of the country were strikingly different than they are today.
Moreover, Ross Perot being on the ballot changed the calculus considerably and put many states “in-play” for the governor of Arkansas which wouldn't have been the case without Perot syphoning votes away from then-President George H. W. Bush.
The thesis of the Times piece is that Hillary Clinton’s strategy should be modeled more like her husband’s was, as a campaign focused on states across the entire country rather than on a handful of swing states, in order to create national buy-in to Clinton, should she win the presidency. This buy-in will allow for an easier time governing as people across the country feel more connected to the actions and decisions the president is making in office, in a way that running a state focused campaign (as Clinton seems to be doing) doesn’t allow for.
On a theoretical level, there’s some truth to this argument. If Clinton runs a nationwide campaign, she could potentially get more buy-in from uncontested states like New York, Montana, or Texas. But if we look at this idea outside of an academic world and apply it to actually running for President in 2016, a nationwide campaign is not only a colossal waste of time and money, it also neglects the reality that governing in today’s political arena has more to do with getting a bill through Congress than with America’s buy-in.
With this in mind, what Clinton appears to be doing is running a smart, data-driven strategy that has grown out of the 2008 Obama primary campaign. The 2008 primary was revolutionary in that Obama’s campaign didn’t look at the most desirable states from a size standpoint, but instead figured out what the actual end goal was (in this case how many delegates he needed) and what the best path to get there was.
This shift took the campaign away from going after glamorous states with the largest number of votes, and instead pointed it towards how to get to the ultimate goal on Election Day in the quickest and most cost effective way. Granted, it now sounds ridiculous to call this revolutionary, but at the time this was a vastly different approach than had been done previously.
So what does this mean for candidates who aren’t running campaigns with billions of dollars at their disposal? There are still three important lessons to be learned in how to apply Clinton’s strategy to smaller races.
A successful campaign needs to clearly identify its goals. Once that’s done, it must determine its current place in voters’ minds by understanding the political landscape of the district and what voters’ priorities and motivating issues are. Finally, the campaign’s strategy should revolve around how to successfully move from the current standing to reaching the stated goals.
Ultimately, campaign strategy at any level needs to be understood more deeply than just getting to 50 percent-plus one vote. Even at a city council level, candidates shouldn’t be wasting time going to every forum they’re invited to or calling every registered voter. Instead, time and resources should be spent figuring out which voters already stand with the candidate and which voters are never going to move to the candidate’s side. Only then can it be determined who’s in-between those two groups and how to reach out to them.
Nationally, the group of voters who’re truly persuadable is incredibly small. As our past research shows, only 5 percent of Americans are truly “independent” voters: ideologically centrist and unaffiliated with either political party.
But as we move lower down the ballot to smaller races, these groups of movable voters begin to increase. This is because a race for city council, for example, tends not to be as politicized, nationalized, or as publicized as a large campaign. So while smaller campaigns won’t fundraise or spend over $1 billion as Clinton is likely to do, these campaigns do have more truly persuadable voters to work with.
Even if they have a smaller budget, they can still run a smart data-driven campaign. Every campaign and every candidate should be able to point to numbers as the reason for why they’re allocating their time and money to certain areas.
Remember: campaigns are about winning, not trying to get buy-in to what you may do when in office.
Stefan Hankin is founder and president of Lincoln Park Strategies, a Washington D.C.-based public opinion firm. Follow him on Twitter at @LPStrategies.