At this point in the 2008 campaign, Hillary Clinton seemed to have the Democratic nomination pretty wrapped up. She led Barack Obama in the polls by more than 15 points, and by October she would increase that lead to more than 25 points.
She would go on to lose the primary.
This trauma — and it was, for Clinton and her team, a trauma — left a lesson: Timing matters. Obama ran a lackluster campaign until November 2007, when he set Iowa's Jefferson-Jackson Dinner aflame with one of the best speeches of his career. That speech arguably led to his win in the Iowa caucuses, and his win in the Iowa caucuses inarguably led to his nomination.
These have been bad weeks for the Clinton campaign. Her lead over Bernie Sanders has fallen from a comically high 55 points in May to (a still pretty damn high) 25 points today. Perhaps more importantly, Sanders has pulled roughly even with Clinton in New Hampshire, and some Clinton advisers now say privately that they wouldn't be surprised to see him win the state altogether.
Sanders's successes reflect a stronger-than-expected campaign, but they also reflect Clinton's mounting failures to excite Democrats — or anyone else.
In particular, Clinton's handling of State Department emails continues to eat away at the public's trust in her; according to the latest Quinnipiac poll, 57 percent of voters doubt that she's honest and trustworthy. The news isn't better in swing states: Only one in three voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida think Clinton is honest and trustworthy. Her approval rating has gone from slightly positive at the year's start to sharply negative now.
The bargain with the Clintons is supposed to be that though they may get into scandal, they're pretty savvy about getting back out. Hillary Clinton, however, seems flummoxed by questions over her emails, and comes off as, by turns, defensive, secretive, and inappropriately comedic. And that's left a lot of Democrats wondering whether Clinton is as safe a bet as they thought. One of those Democrats is Vice President Joe Biden, whose team is aggressively leaking that their boss is thinking about entering the race. Last night, it leaked that Obama gave Biden his "blessing" to run for president, whatever that means.
What's interesting is how little Clinton's campaign is doing to make her own headlines. She's not running many ads or spending much time attacking her rivals, or attempting many rallies. She's not picking huge fights or giving big speeches. So far, she's running slowly, calmly, with an emphasis on small group events. Her campaign, despite its cash reserves, is being gentle on the airwaves and relatively restrained in its use of the candidate. It's the campaign Clinton's team previewed early on, but it's not the campaign you would expect from a team desperate to change the narrative.
One reason may be that Clinton's campaign isn't all that desperate to change the narrative — at least not yet. They remember peaking in September and October, and how little good it did them in 2008. Clinton's allies speak with a kind of awe about Obama's patience, and particularly his campaign's willingness to let Democratic "bedwetters" (in David Plouffe's memorable term) fret while they stuck to their strategy.
Privately, Clinton's allies think the problem right now is primarily Democratic anxiety and not anything intrinsic to the candidate — they're going to win the nomination, and then they're going to make the American people absolutely terrified of the Republican nominee (something Republicans are helping them do right now), and they'll win the campaign. They just need to stick to their strategy. They can't let the media or restive Democrats knock them off their game.
In a new interview with CNN, Clinton said as much. Asked by Brianna Keilar what's changed with Clinton's relationship to the press, she replied, "I just have a different rhythm to my campaign. I'm not running my campaign for the press, I'm running it for voters."
Of course, that assumes their strategy is a good one to begin with and that the candidate can get voters excited when the vote is near. Obama was a sui generis candidate in 2008. It's not clear Clinton is his counterpart in 2016. And it's not at all clear that she's being done any favors by facing such a sparse Democratic field right now.
Which is one reason I've come to think it would actually be good for Clinton if Biden entered the race. Part of Clinton's problem right now is that media outlets don't believe the Democratic primary is competitive enough to cover, and so instead of covering the race between Hillary Clinton and her rivals, they're just covering Hillary Clinton. And covering Hillary Clinton means playing by the Clinton rules — covering her scandals, her distance from the press, her inability to "connect."
Clinton's fortunes will improve if and when she's in an actual race. My guess is she'll beat Biden if he runs, but it won't be effortless, and it'll allow Clinton to look like a candidate running for office rather than a dynastic juggernaut awaiting coronation while she swats away questions about secrecy from the press. That's a much better look.
Clinton needs to be in an actual fight to remind Democratic voters that her candidacy is historic: that she's running to be the first woman president of the United States, that the likeliest alternatives are all white men, and that it's entirely possible, if she loses, that the next few presidents, like all past presidents, will be men, too. Moreover, an actual fight will give the press a Democratic presidential campaign to cover, rather than simply a frontrunner to investigate. And an actual fight will sharpen Clinton's political instincts, which, at this point, are looking rustier than most thought.