The convention the Republicans just wrapped up in Cleveland, with its prime-time plagiarism, back-stabbing rivals and missing dignitaries, may not be a tough act to follow, but Democrats are nonetheless in a state of high anxiety as the spotlight shifts their way this week.
The party will take the stage for its own presidential nominating convention in Philadelphia at a time Hillary Clinton would be breaking records for unlikability were she not outdone by Donald Trump. In addition to distrusting her, too many voters are not clear about what she stands for and question whether she can bring about the change they crave.
The convention is a crucial opportunity for Clinton to shift the narrative and define herself as something beyond the anti-Trump.
But Clinton has strained for months to come up with an overarching message despite a website filled with policy plans and a think tank scholar’s grasp of most every imaginable issue. Voters are more likely to know about her email troubles and speeches to Goldman Sachs than her plans to boost the fortunes of the middle class. It’s a reality Clinton’s team has been struggling with in every stage of planning for the event.
“So much of the campaign is based on defeating Donald Trump rather than talking about Clinton,” said Democratic pollster Peter Hart. “There does not appear to be any spear point in the Clinton agenda. It is everything yet nothing. Their challenge in Philadelphia is to really provide a sense of not everything she wants to do, but the most important things she wants to achieve.”
Hart is unimpressed with the “Stronger together” theme the campaign has settled on. Too vague, too uninspired, too reactive to Trump’s “I alone can fix it,” he said. Clinton campaign officials say it will be a powerful program, showcasing the breadth and force of the coalition backing Clinton, which extends from the mothers of unarmed black men who died in police custody, to the children of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, to President Obama.
“We will offer a very different vision,” Clinton promised during a rally in Florida on Friday. “This is about building bridges, not walls. It is about the economy working for everyone, not just those at the top. It is about embracing the diversity that does make our country great.”
The struggle to come up with a defining message is familiar for candidates trying to win a third consecutive election for their party. After two terms, voters almost always are in the mood for change, and addressing that hunger while defending the status quo is a tough assignment.
Some have succeeded: George H.W. Bush helped cement his eventual victory with a convention speech calling for a “kinder, gentler” nation. Al Gore had more trouble pulling it off.
Just 39% of registered voters see Clinton as a candidate who can bring the country needed change, as opposed to 50% who saw that in Trump, a recent ABC News poll found. Clinton was seen as honest and trustworthy by just slightly more than a third of voters in the poll. Trump scored slightly higher.
Such problems for Clinton could be compounded if restive Bernie Sander supporters protest loudly at the convention over Clinton’s pick of a moderate establishment-type as her running mate — Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine. They are also angry about internal Democratic National Committee emails published Friday by WikiLeaks that bolster assertions the Sanders campaign made during the primary that the DNC was working to undermine it.
But Democratic insiders say Clinton, despite her uneven performance on the campaign trail, is skilled at leveraging conventions. She is going into the event with the party mostly unified, with a full slate of beloved, charismatic leaders determined to rally the skeptical, and with perhaps more public service accomplishment than any nominee in history. It is a stark contrast to what the nation saw at the GOP convention in Cleveland.
“The Clinton campaign knows how to put together a strong convention,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, pointing Hillary Clinton’s role as a key player in both the convention that gave her husband a big bounce in 1992 and the one that put Obama on a path to victory in 2008.
In both cases, Democrats crystallized an uplifting message. Bill Clinton focused on economic opportunity and fixing a broken healthcare system and Obama galvanized voters around his “Hope and Change” slogan. Hillary Clinton plans to offer a stark alternative to the fear and loathing and hostility projected in Cleveland, where the crowd chanted “Lock her up” and one Trump advisor called for her execution by firing squad.
“The message that will come out of this is one party is ready for prime time and the other is caught up in chaos,” said Neera Tanden, who was Clinton’s policy advisor during her 2008 campaign. “I don’t think we will have delegates calling for Trump’s murder, or chants of ‘Lock him up.’”
Despite Clinton being one of the best-known nominees in history, convention organizers say the average voter knows little about her upbringing, advocacy or public service accomplishments. They will, yet again, reintroduce Clinton to the world with a mix of expertly produced video, spirited addresses from high-powered surrogates and personal anecdotes delivered by Clinton and her family.
“When I first arrived in the Senate and people told me who to emulate, they told me to emulate Hillary Clinton — to put your head down, work hard,” Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey told reporters in Cleveland last week, offering a preview of the kind of things that will be talked about at his own party’s convention.
But at a time the electorate is looking for change, Clinton’s biggest asset may still be her alliance with a president at the end of his second term. Obama’s resurgent popularity and mastery of campaigning makes him a key player in the bid to boost Clinton’s stock with voters this week.
White House officials have been heavily engaged in convention planning. The president’s surging approval ratings come as a large swath of the electorate alarmed by Trump finds renewed appreciation for Obama.
In Philadelphia, Obama and other Democrats will define Clinton as a leader who is trustworthy, battle-tested and prepared to take over as commander in chief while stoking fears that Trump is erratic, divisive and self-absorbed.
Obama road-tested his message recently in a campaign appearance with Clinton in Charlotte, N.C., where he highlighted the role Clinton played as an advisor in the White House Situation Room the night Osama bin Laden was killed.
It is for that reason that some leading Democrats feel Trump did them a favor by putting so much emphasis on national security during the Republican convention. Clinton’s resume makes it easy for the campaign to draw a distinction from Trump’s inexperience.
But as Democrats prepare to gavel in, Clinton has yet to hit on a compelling, succinct message that resonates on the economy. Voters are tiring of hearing about the turnaround Democrats orchestrated after inheriting the Great Recession, particularly as middle-class incomes stagnate. And despite all her multi-point plans, Clinton has not been as skilled as her husband at generating enthusiasm for such wonkery. There is the danger that slogans about debt-free college, a $15 minimum wage and expanding Obamacare leave voters with a jumble rather than a unified economic theme.
Party leaders, though, say they are less worried about reinventing Clinton than reintroducing her and leaving voters with a clear impression of what she is offering that Trump is not.
Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), who has been helping lead the Clinton campaign’s outreach to Latinos, summed up the task before Democrats in Philadelphia by quoting one of Vice President Joe Biden’s favorite lines: Don’t compare me to the almighty; compare me to the alternative.
“Hillary Clinton will tell you she has made mistakes,” Becerra said. “She is not the almighty. But she is not the alternative.”
Follow me: @evanhalper