During a Tuesday night CNN town hall, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) tried to tackle her biggest campaign problem: name recognition.
Gillibrand, who is running as a resistance candidate, is trailing far behind the frontrunners in national polls of the 2020 Democratic field. She took direct aim at President Donald Trump on Tuesday, even calling him “weak and a coward.”
But voters wanted her to talk more about her own record. Gillibrand spent a lot of time saying she was wrong for taking moderate-to-conservative stances on issues like guns and immigration earlier in her political career and explaining how her positions have evolved.
She also won the crowd over several times, after answering a number of potentially tough questions.
Before becoming a senator, Gillibrand served in the House, where she represented a moderate district from upstate New York. She took more conservative stances on issues like immigration. She opposed “amnesty for illegal immigrants” and advocated closing the border, according to documents obtained by CNN. But last year, she went so far as to call for the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, during the height of Trump’s family separation crisis at the border.
“I was always for comprehensive immigration reform, but I didn’t lead on the issue,” Gillibrand said on Tuesday, adding, “We are a better country when we care about one another, when we believe in the golden rule, when we treat others the way we want to be treated. And because I did not do that as a House member, I was ashamed.”
That wasn’t all. One audience member asked Gillibrand a pointed question about her past A rating from the National Rifle Association. Another wanted her to square taking money from a pharmaceutical executive with her current support for Medicare-for-all.
On the issue of gun violence, Gillibrand again said she had been wrong as a House member, and that her position on guns changed when she started meeting with the families of gun violence victims.
“What I recognized pretty quickly when I became a senator was that I didn’t spend enough time thinking about other people around the state and other families who were really suffering,” she said. “When you talk to a mom and a dad who lost their teenage daughter because she was at a party with friend and a stray bullet hit her and killed her, and you meet her whole class, not only do you immediately know that you were wrong, but you know you have to do something about it.”
Even though the town hall audience started out seemingly skeptical of Gillibrand, they applauded her story about how she changed her position on guns. It was a sign that voters might be willing to listen to a candidate who has evolved — as long as they believe that evolution is genuine.
Gillibrand could use a breakout moment
Gillibrand was one of the first Democratic candidates to get into the race for president. But as the field has ballooned to 18 candidates, she’s struggled to break through. She is currently polling at just 1 percent in national polls, far behind frontrunners Sen. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden (who hasn’t yet declared) and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA).
Political town halls have been platforms to launch other candidates in the 2020 race. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg went from being a relative unknown to the latest rising star of the presidential race after his CNN town hall a few weeks ago.
Gillibrand is using this national stage to introduce herself to voters, many of whom may not know who she is. Lack of name recognition is perhaps her biggest challenge in 2020, according to two national pollsters who spoke with Vox. To illustrate how big that problem is, it’s not just national voters who aren’t aware of Gillibrand — it’s voters in her home state as well.
“One thing with Sen. Gillibrand that has become a recurring theme when we’ve done polls in New York state, there’s a high number of people who don’t know enough about her to form an opinion,” said Mary Snow, a polling analyst for Quinnipiac University.
A full 35 percent of New York residents said they didn’t know enough about Gillibrand to form an opinion of her, according to a March 21 Quinnipiac poll. And Gillibrand was far from their first choice; Biden (still undeclared) led the pack, followed by Sanders.
“She’s been a senator for a decade, and this is in New York,” Snow said.
Gillibrand’s name recognition issue isn’t relegated to her home state. Although she’s been a frequent face in early voting states like Iowa and New Hampshire, national polls have her closer to lower-tier candidates like Andrew Yang and John Hickenlooper than to the frontrunners.
Some of Gillibrand’s low name recognition may have to do with the issues she has focused on, according to Patrick Murray, director of polling at Monmouth University Polling Institute. Beyond her shifting stances on issues like immigration and guns, Gillibrand made her name as a leader of the #MeToo movement and has been an integral part of the resistance movement on Capitol Hill. She was one of the main figures who pushed to oust Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) after numerous women came forward accusing him of sexual misconduct.
But even though the 2018 midterms were known as the Year of the Woman, #MeToo isn’t as prominent an issue to voters as health care and the environment, Murray said.
“When voters boil down what they really want in a nominee, they want someone that can beat Donald Trump, but the two issues that keep cropping up are health care and the environment,” Murray said. Gillibrand is “considered to be a moderate but has made her name on the #MeToo movement, and quite frankly, that’s not the main issue that’s driving Democratic voters.”