I wouldn’t say I’m firmly in Camp Hillary. It’s not for the reasons touted by the irrational right. No, her gender is not a barrier. Yes, she has ample experience. No, Benghazi was not a grand conspiracy.
Speaking for myself, I have some issues with her on matters of policy and qualms with some of the decisions she’s made both politically and financially. And while I won’t go so far as to say her server wipe was a colossal betrayal of the American people, deleting those emails was one of the stupidest things she’s done in a long time, particularly for a seasoned political operative and pending candidate. I like her, but I’m not in the mood for a coronation. I, like many other Democrats, want to see a healthy debate in the primaries between progressive candidates.
All that said, there’s no arguing that Clinton’s candidacy announcement this weekend was pitch perfect.
I’ll admit I was skeptical when it was revealed that she would be declaring her candidacy via social media without a corresponding event. Social media is undeniably an incredible force when it comes to the court of public opinion, but politicians rarely get it right. The White House has (generally) done a decent job of harnessing its power, but even there, it’s been a fairly bland and mediocre channel of communication punctuated by a few solid moments. The inherently quippy nature of the beast has made social media a place for talking point regurgitation primarily, while the few figures who’ve dared to be bold have stumbled pretty significantly. It’s an obligatory platform at best, and dangerous at worst.
But the Clinton camp nailed it on this one. If you haven’t seen the video yet, it’s worth a watch:
Let’s break this all down. The first thing you should notice is who the video emphasizes. The beginning focuses on the lives of average Americans and the different challenges they face on a regular basis. You don’t even see Clinton until the 1:32 mark, leaving a grand total of 46 seconds of promo time in the video. There was no platform presentation or “vote for me because” line. The construction here was deliberate, and very, very careful.
While she might not have articulated a nuanced platform, she did imply which issues she would be focusing on with the story selections at the beginning of the video. Career changes and starts pointed to jobs. Launching a new venture spoke to small business. Retirement carries connotations with social security and Medicaid concerns. The family moving to a new home in order to be in a stronger school district may have been the start of education reform conversations. Same-sex marriage was deliberately featured and affirmed. Even the sillier stories alluded to bigger issues. From gardening to playing a fish in a school play, there were subtle undertones on the environment. The joked about folks who just wanted their dog to stop eating trash started with comments about major home renovations in a nod to housing and construction.
But even when nervous about the challenges they faced, each story featured hopeful, smiling faces. It wasn’t fear laden or negative; these folks were ready to tackle the future head on. In many ways, the video was a love letter to the tenacity of the American people. With already declared candidates Cruz and Paul spouting fire and brimstone, the RNC fundraising over stopping her outright, and even potential Democratic candidates like O’Malley and Sanders preaching doom and gloom, it was like a breath of fresh air, and far more in line with the lived daily experiences of the public.
Even though reminiscent of Obama’s “hope and change” message, Clinton didn’t try to replicate his preacher-style message. She can’t, and she knows it. Instead of relying on lofty rhetoric and dramatic cadence, she went for an almost folksy delivery. There was definite potential for that to backfire, given that her wealth and career give her a life light years beyond what the bulk of the public can fathom, but she walked that tightrope well.
And let’s have a moment to appreciate the curation of demographic representation here. Talk about of mosaic of different races, genders, sexual orientations, family compositions. A different language was spoken among English speaking Americans — not just in a Spanish campaign ad. Try to imagine that happening during the ’04 election. I dare you.
(Personally, I’d have liked to see some transgender representation, but I know I’m likely in a statistically insignificant minority there, and this is still political maneuvering, after all.)
In her spoken section, Clinton hit the perception of her being an out of touch elitist hard with talk of income inequality. This was a nuance that matters. The GOP has, to date, repeatedly beat the drums over the economy falling apart, but they tout numbers like unemployment without consideration for the fact that unemployment has improved dramatically under Obama’s reign. Democrats have, by and large, similarly missed the boat here, focusing on statistics that support the argument for a growing economy without regard for the disparity in how the recovery has benefited different segments of the population. Clinton struck the right balance, acknowledging the economic comeback while recognizing it as incomplete. Wage stagnation and underemployment are the right message for her here, and, more to the point, an accurate assessment of the bigger economic concerns in play.
It was also partially an overture to those eager to see progressive populist Elizabeth Warren run. Warren has repeatedly insisted that she’s not running, but appealing to her supporters could be key to winning the nomination. Clinton’s Wall Street alignments — most notably with Goldman Sachs — are a weak spot for her. Her rhetoric here, though, smacked of Warren’s trademark persona. While it’s still going to be an uphill battle for her, and she’ll need to put forth some policy proposals to back up the posturing, it’s a good start, and positions her well against Sanders, who has a similar message with a far more dire flavor.
But it goes beyond the issue focus. Clinton made it about the people when she talked about her candidacy. She drew a parallel between herself and the average people highlighted throughout the bulk of the video by saying she was “getting ready to do something, too.” She focused on the needs of the population over her own credentials and goals. She framed herself as the “people’s champion” without calling herself that, emphasizing the need to earn such a title. She asked people to join her on a journey, appealing to the grassroots organization inclinations of her party. With so many wondering if she’s too out of touch to really represent the people, this collaborative message was exactly what it needed to be. Even with her presentation a little stale (a complaint I’ve had of her whenever delivering a scripted message), she managed to come off as somewhat earnest. For Clinton, that’s an accomplishment.
While the content was on point, the move was also deft from a tactical perspective. Everyone knew she was going to run, which meant the roll-out needed to be distinct to make waves. The content helped, but so did the execution. Unlike Rubio, whose social presence has been arguably solid, she only teased the announcement by a few days; he’s been pumping his for weeks now. It was just the right amount of time to drum up excitement without belaboring a foregone conclusion.
The use of video was a fantastic choice. Yes, she avoided the gimmicks, but she also amped up her visibility on the announcement far beyond what candidates opting for a traditional rally proclamation could hope for. No grandiose spectacles or long-winded speeches; just a short, easily shared, two-minute video. It was the perfect way to maximize visibility. She was always going to make a splash on Twitter, but the video’s traction on Facebook is key. Not only is video the most shared type of content on the platform, but Facebook posts also have greater durability than Twitter offers. The feed refreshes at a slower rate, people are generally following fewer people (increasing the likelihood that they see a share), and the connections tend to be more relational, fostering a greater trust and engagement with content shared. Paired with a pretty gorgeous Facebook page construction, this video was designed to be social media gold.
Before that video ever hit the web, the Clinton camp set it up to take off by emailing donors with a confirmation of her intent to run and a heads up on the announcement. It wasn’t long before the video got out, but it was the shot of adrenaline they needed to make sure the pick up was as high as possible. It got her supporters excited and ready to pounce, and caught the attention of those already perusing social media when the headline about the email hit. Really a genius move.
The role of optics here is also significant. People are already lamenting the likely price tag the election will come with when dollars spent are tabulated. Instead of staging some big event, Clinton used the web to make her announcement. She did the same in the ’08 cycle (though the content was much more candidate-centric), but campaign dollars and political disillusionment were at different levels at the time. Right now, the contrast she’s established is notable. Cruz and Paul (and likely Rubio) did their own video announcements… but paired them with big events. Next to Hillary’s roll-out (executed without stuff like, ya know, compulsory attendance at a campaign event to inflate the audience size or a copyright dispute that took the video down), they look more like traditional politicians than they’d probably like, and certainly less digitally savvy. Though I’ve no doubt the high quality video production was costly, it just doesn’t look as pretentious or expensive by comparison.
And let’s be real. This video was the perfect way to control the message presentation. Everything was scripted, edited, and polished to be on point. That’s harder to do with a live announcement. This is particularly true for Clinton, who, while good in small settings, doesn’t have the same crowd appeal as Obama or even Bill. That’s something she’ll need to work on as the election cycle progresses, but it was shrewd to dodge that weakness out of the gates. With a history of campaigns that stumbled because of infighting and fractured messaging, this was important for Clinton.
And holy hell did that video stand out next to the responses. Jeb Bush, who has yet to declare, sent out a nasty email about stopping her to solicit donations. Ted Cruz issued a comparatively amateur video with crap audio, terrible staging, and awful lighting that left him with sickly looking yellow circles around his eyes (to say nothing of the sort of creepy vibe). Santorum promoted an even more intense Clinton attack video (note the John Carpenter-like music in the background) in his PR response. Rand Paul has launched an ad blitz against her already. In the hours before the announcement, the GOP ramped up its “Stop Hillary” efforts in a move that echoes its persistent efforts to stop Obama.
To be fair, the roll out wasn’t entirely perfect; she did have a rather unfortunate typo in her press release. But by and large, Clinton came out of this looking like a winner. The right content, tone, and execution against a backdrop of lunacy from the right made this announcement as good as it could have possibly been. She’s certainly got a battle ahead if she wants to win people over (including me), but if she keeps up the momentum, quality, and precision, she’s certainly in good shape.