Hillary and Bill Clinton are unnerved by the possibility that Sen. Bernie Sanders will foment a large wave of first-time voters and liberals that will derail her in Iowa, not unlike Barack Obama’s success in 2008
Advisers to Hillary Clinton, including former President Clinton, believe her campaign made serious miscalculations by forgoing early attacks on Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and failing to undercut his archliberal message before it grew into a political movement that has put him within striking distance of beating Hillary Clinton in Iowa and New Hampshire.
According to Democrats close to the Clintons and involved with her campaign, Clinton and the former president are also unnerved by the possibility that Sanders will foment a large wave of first-time voters and liberals that will derail her in Iowa, not unlike Barack Obama’s success in 2008, which consigned Hillary Clinton to a third-place finish.
They have asked her advisers about the strength of the campaign’s data modeling and turnout assumptions in Iowa, given that her 2008 campaign’s predictions were so inaccurate.
The growing concern may affect Clinton’s performance in the final debate before voting begins in the Democratic contest. She is expected to be more aggressive in her attacks on Sanders during the two-hour debate that will also feature former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
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The Clintons are particularly concerned that her “rational message,” in the words of an aide, is not a fit with a restless Democratic primary electorate. Allies and advisers of the Clintons say Sanders is connecting with voters through his emotional, inspiring rallying cry that the U.S. economic and political systems are rigged for the rich and powerful.
By contrast, Hillary Clinton has been stressing her electability and questioning the costs of Sanders’ ideas.
Most Clinton advisers and allies speak on condition of anonymity to candidly assess her vulnerabilities and the Clintons’ outlook on the race. This article is based on interviews with 11 people — campaign advisers, outside allies, friends and donors — who have spoken to the Clintons about the race.
“Hillary is a pragmatic progressive; she’s not an advocate,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin of Vermont, who last week campaigned in Iowa for Clinton over his home-state senator Sanders. “She quietly pulls people together and gets things done. Even though that’s not in vogue right now, I think that’s what voters will want in the end.”
Clinton’s problems are broader than her message: Opinion polls show that some Democrats and other voters continue to question her trustworthiness and whether she cares about their problems. Recent polls show that her once-formidable lead over Sanders in Iowa has all but vanished, while he is holding on to a slight lead over her in New Hampshire.
Clinton and her team say they always anticipated the race would tighten, yet they were not prepared for Sanders to become so popular with young people and independents, especially women, whom Clinton views as a key part of her base.
Given her many political advantages, such as wealthy donors and widespread support from Democratic Party elites, she is also surprised that Sanders’ fundraising has rivaled hers and that her experience — along with her potential to make history as the first woman elected president — has not galvanized more voters.
“It was probably never going be a straight line; we hoped it would be but feared it wouldn’t be,” said James Carville, the Democratic strategist on Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and a friend of the Clintons. “She’s performed solidly enough, but it’s been a hard race.”
Several Clinton advisers are also regretting that they did not push for more debates, where Hillary Clinton excels, to more skillfully marginalize Sanders over his Senate votes in support of the gun industry and the enormous costs and likely tax increases tied to his big-government agenda.
Instead Clinton, who entered the race as the prohibitive favorite, played it safe, opting for as few debates as possible, scheduled at times when viewership was likely to be low, like a Sunday on a long holiday weekend.
Several Democratic leaders also agreed that the Clinton campaign underestimated Sanders. They argued that Clinton and her advisers should have competed against him more aggressively, in debates and on the campaign trail, rather than appear so sharply negative with their recent attacks, which have given the campaign a jumbled feeling heading into the first voting states.
Even Chelsea Clinton jabbed at Sanders, an unusual move given that relatives are traditionally used in campaigns to soften a politician’s image.
“I always say, ‘If I’ve got an opponent that’s breathing, I’m going to take that opponent very seriously,’ ” said Rep. James Clyburn, of South Carolina, who was expecting to host Hillary Clinton and Sanders on Saturday night at his famed fish fry.
Clyburn, who is not endorsing a candidate before his state’s primary, said Clinton aides in South Carolina had expressed misgivings to him about the state of her campaign.
“It has to do with what things ought to be done and when they ought to be done,” Clyburn said, declining to provide details. “The reality is, if Mrs. Clinton loses Iowa and New Hampshire, that could create new and real problems for her here.”
Some Democrats also believe Clinton may have benefited from a more competitive primary season with big-name rivals, such as Vice President Joe Biden, who might have brought out the fighter in her. Only this month has she started to engage Sanders.
“If the vice president had run, I still think Secretary Clinton would be on course for the nomination, but I also think he would have put her through paces that would have made her even stronger for the general election,” said Bill Burton, a former adviser to Obama. “It also would have given her the kind of fight in which she thrives.”
Clinton and her husband believe she can still win the Feb. 1 caucuses in Iowa and the Feb. 9 primary in New Hampshire even though Sanders is virtually tied with her in many polls.
But the Clintons also believe she can survive losses in both places because of the strength of her political organization and support in the Feb. 27 primary in South Carolina and in many March 1 Super Tuesday states.
Yet some Democratic Party officials who remain uncommitted said that after nine months of running, Clinton still had not found her voice when it came to inspiring people.
And while she is known for connecting well with people in small settings, she has not shown the same winning touch as consistently at rallies or in television interviews, they said.
“Hillary struggles to convey sincere passion with issues that matter to the general public, unlike Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren,” the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, said Lawrence Taylor, a superdelegate from Oregon.
An uncommitted superdelegate, David McDonald of Washington, said that compared with eight years ago, Clinton had a better political operation in his state. But just like in 2008, when she faced an opponent, Obama, who could mesmerize crowds, Clinton risks being overtaken.
“Her voter base does not seem as gung-ho energetic as Sanders’ base,” McDonald said. “It may be that they feel like they are waiting for the real race to begin. But an enthusiastic base can make a big difference in the early stages of a presidential nomination campaign, and if Hillary can’t pull away from Sanders fairly early in the season, I suspect he will gain strength rapidly.”