clock menu more-arrow no yes

Bill Clinton's speech was a high-stakes effort to change who voters think Hillary Clinton is

Hillary Clinton is not popular.

Only about 39 percent of Americans view her favorably. Sixty-eight percent say she’s not honest and trustworthy; 56 percent think the FBI should have charged her with a crime. Considering all that, it makes sense that she’s neck and neck with the (also extremely unpopular) Donald Trump in polls.

Bill Clinton knows this is an enormous problem for her campaign. So in his speech at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, he tried his best to change it.

The former president made a case — aimed at swing voters watching on TV, not delegates in the hall — that the "Hillary Clinton" that Republicans describe is a fictional "cartoon." He knew "the real one."

This was the culmination of an argument that Clinton made throughout his speech, and that convention speakers made throughout the night — that the "real" Hillary Clinton is a hard-working "change-maker" who ceaselessly tries to improve people’s lives.

All in all, this was a planned and deliberate effort to try and change the public’s core understanding of just who Hillary Clinton is.

We don’t yet know whether voters will respond to this new argument. But the stakes are high — because if a bunch of voters don’t change their minds about Hillary Clinton fast, Donald Trump will have a real shot at becoming our next president.

The former president tried to convince voters that he knew the "real" Hillary Clinton

Speaking for 42 minutes, Bill Clinton interwove the details of various policy battles that Hillary waged over the years into a story of their personal relationship, all designed to further the narrative that she cared deeply about improving the lives of ordinary and marginalized people.

"This is a really important point for you to take out of this convention," Bill said. "If you believe in making change from the bottom up, if you believe the measure of change is how many lives are bettered, you know it is hard and some people think it is boring."

But eventually he made the subtext text, by making clear he was deliberately trying to rebut what he views as the false image of Hillary Clinton that Republicans are peddling.

"Now, how does this square with the things that you heard at the Republican convention? What is the difference in what I told you and what they said? How do you square it?" he asked. "You cannot. One is real, the other is made up. And you just have to decide which is which, my fellow Americans."

The former president went on to say that the "real" Hillary had done more "positive change-making before she was 30 years old" than "most politicians do with their whole lives in office."

"The real one," Bill continued, "has earned the loyalty and respect of people who have worked with her in every stage of her life, including leaders around the world who know her to be able, straightforward, and completely trustworthy." (Note the use of "straightforward" and "trustworthy" there.)

After a few more riffs on this theme, he concluded by saying that Republicans were trying to create "a cartoon" that was "two-dimensional" and "easy to absorb." (He never made it explicit, but he could well have been referring to Trump’s nickname for her: "Crooked Hillary.") They were doing this, he argued, because Hillary Clinton is "a real change-maker" who "represents a real threat" to them.

A convention provides an opportunity to change the narrative — and can have a real impact

The convention period is critical for presidential campaigns. You get four days to present a mostly unchallenged narrative, on national primetime television, to try to win any reluctant partisans back to your side and covert as many swing voters as you can.

Furthermore, the net effect of the two conventions really does seem to have a serious impact on the outcome. Each candidate usually gets a bump after his or her respective convention concludes, but when the dust settles, one candidate usually emerges on top — and that person usually ends up winning.

Indeed, some research suggests that the convention period is usually more important than anything that happens in the entire rest of the election season. "Once the conventions are over, further campaign events — even presidential debates— rarely result in dramatic change," political scientists Bob Erikson and Christopher Wlezien have written.

The nature of the convention gives a campaign an opportunity for something just like this — a pitch aimed directly skeptical voters, aimed at convincing them that their preconceptions about the candidate are wrong.

Again, we don’t yet know whether the former president’s effort to do this was effective. We don’t know whether voters will find his low-key, heavily improvised delivery charming or scattershot. And we don’t know whether perceptions about Hillary Clinton’s untrustworthiness are just too hardened to be changed at this point.

It’s best not to overreact to short-term polls, but within the next two or three weeks we’ll start to get a clear idea about whether this worked. We’ll see whether Clinton surges out in front of Trump or remains locked in a tie with him. And we’ll see whether those stubborn "honest" and "trustworthy" numbers, which have just gotten more dreadful as the campaign goes on, finally start to turn around.

Overall, though, there was no better time for former President Clinton to make this case than tonight. Because the clock is ticking.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.