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Hillary Clinton's move to the left could help her win the general election

Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs after speaking at the Center for American Progress March 23.
Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton departs after speaking at the Center for American Progress March 23.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

There's a counterintuitive reason for Hillary Clinton's recent shift to the left: it could help her win the general election.

First there was her embrace of same-sex marriage in a video for the Human Rights Campaign shortly after she left the State Department in 2013. Then she started talking tough on corporate tax dodgers. And in just the past couple of weeks she's said she would protect more undocumented immigrants from deportation, reverse elements of her husband's 1994 anti-crime law, and equip police departments across the country with body cameras.

Separately, each item is a small but significant step toward a core Democratic constituency: gays and lesbians, African Americans, Latinos, and unions. Taken together, they're a giant leap to the left.

The quickly gathering conventional wisdom about Clinton's hop, skip, and jump to the left is that she's thinking about the Democratic primary — specifically, how to avoid getting blindsided like she did in 2008, when Barack Obama took her out in the trial heat. But there aren't any Barack Obamas on the Democratic horizon, and Clinton's commanding lead in the Democratic primary field — fueled by numbers that are highest among self-described liberals — makes it hard to believe she's really looking over her shoulder.

The truth is that her move to the left is a general-election strategy that has the benefit of working well in the primary, too.

Clinton allies say one of the lessons she learned from 2008 was to follow her gut — to be herself — rather than mold her platform to the politics of the moment. That's what she's doing now, they say. While that may be true, it's also the self-serving part of the picture.

The fuller view shows a tactical decision to update her positions in areas where the country has become more progressive since her last run for the White House, and to play up the parts of her agenda that appeal to core Democratic voters. If the moment were right to talk about her muscular approach to US foreign policy — and surely that time will come — there's little doubt her team would be doing just that.

Here's the gamble Clinton's taking: targeted policy shifts will activate key Democratic voting constituencies early in the campaign without alienating swing voters. If it works, African Americans, Latinos, gays and lesbians, and straight white men (the group that seems to like her the least among Democrats) will see her as a true champion and remain energized through the general election. Her campaign views the risk of pushing away independents as minimal compared with the advantage of rallying Democrats.

"Over time, the landscape has shifted on so many of these issues that now Democrats don’t have to hide from them," one campaign official said. "The data is pretty clear: the independent voters are on our side on issues like gay marriage. So leaning into them comes with a benefit, not a cost."

Meaning that, at least on these issues, the same positions could rally the Democratic base now and appeal to independents in November 2016.

By the numbers

There's good reason to think these strategists are right.

  1. 57 percent of respondents said undocumented immigrants should be able to stay in the country and apply for citizenship, according to a CBS/New York Times poll released this week, while 29 percent said they should be deported.
  2. 63 percent told Pew last year that it would be good to reduce prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, and, according to a December CBS poll, 91 percent of Americans favored universal use of body cameras by police. By comparison, Pope Francis's favorability rating among American Catholics was at 90 percent at last check.
  3. 58 percent of Americans favor a Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, according to an April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll.

Moreover, Republicans have adopted similar positions on some of the issues — and declined to attack Clinton on others. For example, Rand Paul has been on the leading edge of bipartisan congressional efforts to change sentencing laws and has advocated for equipping police with body cameras.

When Clinton announced her support for Obama's executive action on immigration — and said she would go even further — most Republican candidates didn't react (a telling indication of the tension between reaching out to Latino voters and satisfying Republican base voters who do not support efforts to give legal status to unauthorized immigrants who are already in the US).

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, perhaps sensing an opportunity to distinguish himself in the GOP primary field, did take a shot at Clinton on Twitter.

Kellyanne Conway, a Republican pollster and strategist, said the danger for Clinton isn't necessarily in the particular policies she's advocating for now but rather in reinforcing a sense among some voters that she's too willing to change her position.

"This is precisely what voters don't like about politicians," Conway said, adding that Clinton "seems to be incredibly reactive" rather than leading the way on issue.

Fellow GOP pollster and strategist David Winston said Clinton may be placating base constituencies now to make up for centrist positions she'll take later in the campaign. And, he said, the piecemeal approach undermines Clinton's effort to create a cohesive narrative for her campaign.

"The problem she’s had overall with her rollout is there’s no theme to this. There’s no sense of what’s the direction, what’s the vision," Winston said. "As a result, everything seems very isolated in its context. I don’t think that’s a good thing for any candidate."

The bet, though, is that reaching out to particular constituencies will help energize them for 2016. Obama's ability to turn out minority voters was a key part of his 2012 reelection victory in a year in which the number of black and Hispanic voters went up by more 3 million from the previous election and the number of white voters dropped by 2 million. Clinton would very much like to sustain or improve on those figures, and taking up causes important to the black and Hispanic communities is one way to try.