As Hillary Clinton emerges from a hard-fought primary into what promises to be a bruising general election fight, her campaign is making a rather frank admission: As familiar as she is to the public, voters know little about her record.
Her advisors have grappled with the problem since she launched her run for president more than a year ago. To combat it, Clinton's campaign has spent more than $20 million to air new television ads in battleground states to reintroduce her to voters.
"She would grow up to be one of the most recognizable women in the world. But less well-known are the causes that have been at the center of her life," begins a new 60-second advertisement from the campaign, which then breezes through highlights of Clinton's decades of public service as first lady, senator and secretary of State, but begins with her work at the Children’s Defense Fund, “helping get disabled kids out of the shadows and into their local schools.”
The strategy represents a Brooklyn twist on what in 1992 was dubbed “the Manhattan Project,” a research-driven effort to revive then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s battered public image as he emerged from his own presidential nomination fight.
By the summer before that election, voters knew little about Clinton beyond questions about draft-dodging and infidelity, and the elite education he’d received from Georgetown, Yale and Oxford, recalls Paul Begala, a veteran of the 1992 race and who now advises a pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC.
“People stitched those together and thought he was just a spoiled, rich brat who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and therefore would not care about the plight of poor and working Americans,” Begala said.
The solution to that was based on what Samuel Popkin, part of the Manhattan Project team, calls the theory of “low-information rationality”: the answer was not simply to rebut the negative impressions, but to offer more data to help voters form a more complete picture.
Popkin, now a professor at the UC San Diego, recalls asking a simple question of his fellow aides: “Quit talking about what people are saying. What is it you want people to know about Bill Clinton?”
“That got the campaign focused on what turned out to be ‘The Man from Hope,’” Popkin says.
That was the title of a documentary-style video produced for the Democratic National Convention and shorter television advertisements based on it, in which Clinton talked about his humble roots and what inspired him to get into public service.
“You have to let people know who you are, for them to be able to identify that you mean it, and that it’s in you,” said Popkin, author of “The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold — the White House.”
Bill Clinton, though, was still a relatively unknown governor from a small state in the midst of his first national campaign. Hillary Clinton is running her second presidential race after having been at her husband’s side for two more, not to mention another decade-plus as a senator and secretary of State.
But the Clinton campaign still wants to fill in gaps in what the public knows about her. Aides began the effort at the very start of her campaign, but it takes on greater importance as a much wider swath of the electorate begins to pay closer attention to the race.
Aides point to a second television ad about Clinton's work to launch the Children’s Health Insurance Program as an example of what they’re trying to do: offer concrete evidence of her ability to deliver on behalf of the causes she supported. A campaign official said this ad was being aired in heavier rotation than two others that debuted after she became the presumptive nominee this month.
”That's really, really important," said Begala, whose work with Clinton’s super PAC is focused instead on Trump’s record. “Hillary has a million policy positions. They’re great. They’re substantive, they’re important, they’re detailed.… Ideas matter. But so does the person, and the biography, and getting behind the public image. And it’s especially important for someone this famous.”
The message appeared to be breaking through to voters.
Fran Ryan, a former chairwoman of the Franklin County Democratic Party here, recalled meeting Bill Clinton when he was running in 1992.
Asked about how voters viewed his wife now, Ryan brought up the ad about the Children’s Health Insurance Program.
“I think they know her. But I think now these new ads introduce you to her in a different way,” she said as she waited for Clinton to take the stage this week at an event in Columbus. “Her record, her feelings about children – all of that is now combined.”
While waiting to enter Clinton’s rally in Raleigh, N.C., a day later, Pam Evans also raised the CHIP ad, also without prompting, as well as another targeting Donald Trump for his comments about a disabled reporter.
“I like the new TV ads. The ones with children are very heart-gripping,” she said. “She needs to do more of that.”
Clinton has also highlighted her biography on the campaign trail.
In a major speech in Ohio on Tuesday designed to disqualify Trump’s economic vision, Clinton talked about the many lawsuits that small businesses filed against Trump to recover payment for work they had done for his businesses.
“My late father was a small businessman,” she said. “If his customers had done what Trump did, my dad would never have made it. So I take this personally.”
And in North Carolina a day later, the state’s former governor praised her at length for her work to create what was first called the State Children’s Health Insurance Program. Clinton began her remarks joking that, with a new grandson born this week, she had “double the grandmother glow.”
A child shouldn’t have to have grandparents who were former presidents and secretaries of State to have every opportunity to succeed, she added.
“Every single child deserves the chance to live up to his or her God-given potential, and that has been the cause of my life,” she said. “It’s rooted in the values I learned from my family and my faith. We’re all in this together. And we have a responsibility to lift each other up.”
Times staff writer David Lauter contributed to this report.
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