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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Overexposure and Peaking Too Soon vs. Advantages of an Early Start

The media, traditional and otherwise, are all abuzz with discussion of Hillary Clinton’s huge lead in the polls in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. What seems to be lurking in the shadows of the chatter is a concern that Clinton may peak too early or become boring from overexposure. Indeed, her campaign seems to be aware of the problem, carefully limiting her appearances and statements.
It’s probably a wise strategy. American voters can be pretty fickle. Plus the more public participation, the more opportunities for a momentum-destroying gaffe or blunder. There’s also a natural sentiment to support underdogs. One danger is that talk of “the coronation” will provoke knee-jerk opposition from those who view themselves as anti-establishment, or independent-for-the-hell-of-it voters. Some tough competition might do Clinton some good, if and when she reaches the endgame.
At Time Magazine Sam Frizell notes in “Hillary Clinton Faces the Limits of the Controlled Campaign“:

…Holding a sizable lead over her Democratic primary competitors, the former Secretary of State has kept reporters at arms’ length, using controlled events to discuss the issues with voters and trying to avoid some contentious topics like the possible trade deal.
The hiccups at Clinton’s event Tuesday morning [an appearance at a bike shop] showed some of the problems Clinton faces with the grassroots, activist-driven campaign she’s chosen to run so far: she is a candidate, but she is waiting to clarify many of her policy positions until likely next month. She aims to do the handshaking and cheek-smooching that Iowans expect, but her campaign’s sheer size can get in the way. She has a larger entourage of press, security, and staff than any other announced candidate, and spontaneity doesn’t always come easy…
…Clinton’s sparring with the press on Tuesday revealed some of the difficulties of her small-bore campaign. Before Tuesday, she had not taken questions from reporters for four weeks, avoiding eager journalists with waves and smiles. When she answered questions in Keene, New Hampshire, about allegations surrounding the Clinton Foundation, she brushed off criticism and left before she could face a long line of questioning.

At Newsweek Peter Suderman observes in his article “Is Hillary Clinton’s Rope-a-Dope Strategy Working?“:

…To the extent that the DNC’s debates are supposed to inform the party’s presidential candidate selection, they will be almost entirely for show…These pseudo-debates will, of course, give Clinton some exposure and serve as practice rounds, giving her a chance to sharpen her off-the-cuff speaking skills in advance of next year’s presidential face-offs. And yet even with her virtual lock on the nomination, I think the debates do carry some risk for her.
Given that she is essentially a lock for the party’s nomination, she has more to lose than anyone she’ll share the stage with. She can minimize this risk by being extremely cautious and careful, of course, but that may not be exactly the image she wants to project.
This, however, is all fairly manageable. I do wonder, however, if there’s a bigger risk–which is that the exposure will do her more harm than good…

Good points, all. But what could also happen is that she begins to lose steam and her favorables drop precipitously. Then all of a sudden, she is the underdog — and may benefit from whatever sympathy comes with that. It could help energize her base activists, if they don’t get too burned out by then.
So, this is a unique situation in American politics, and it’s very hard to predict what will happen. Still, measuring her exposure at this stage seems like a prudent strategy in our media-saturated environment. It also helps that the legions of GOP candidates are preparing for a demolition derby of historic proportions. It makes sense for Clinton — and all Democratic candidates — to lay a little low and let the public watch the Republican mess, with all the flip-flops, equivocation, gaffes and blunders to come.
It’s the old stratagem, “When your adversary is destroying him/herself, get out of the way.”
Better to use that time to prep — marshall the best arguments, narrative, soundbites, ads, messages, turnout mechanics, optics and other software of a winning campaign. Oh, and raise enough dough to build an ocean liner. A formidable early lead, especially when the adversary’s party is muddled in chaos, can give a campaign room to enhance such advantages.
The battered and bruised GOP nominee will likely be a little tougher than usual, as a result of the primary wars, but will also have some deep, exposed wounds to exploit. Obama did very well hammering Romney’s elitism in 2012, and that is a tactic that will likely resonate well again in 2016. It is the glaring weakness of every Republican candidate, and it isn’t going away, unless Democrats allow it.
The closing argument of the Democratic nominee — Clinton or otherwise — must demonstrate mastery of two memes, 1. That the Republican party is wholly devoted to elitist privilege to benefit the wealthy at the expense of the middle class; and 2. The Democratic party and it’s leaders are genuine champions of average Americans who work and struggle for a better life.

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