Early State Dems Don't Mind Waiting for Clinton Kickoff

Absence makes the heart grow fonder for the former secretary of State.

Hillary Clinton is keeping her closest supporters waiting for any sign of a presidential campaign announcement. But they don't mind it at all.

Clinton's decision to accept paid speeches as late as March of next year is sending the message to leading Democratic operatives that a possible campaign announcement may not come until next spring. And as Clinton delays the seemingly inevitable decision, she's receiving surprisingly little blowback from Democratic activists who usually are spoiling for intra-party competition.

Democratic operatives in both Iowa and New Hampshire say that Clinton's high national name ID, residual support, and organization from 2008 along with the efforts of the pro-Clinton group Ready for Hillary mean there's really no downside to the former secretary of State taking as much time as she needs before entering the 2016 race.

"Hillary Clinton is going to do what Hillary Clinton is going to do, and everyone is just going to react to it when that happens," said Norm Sterzenbach, an Iowa Democratic strategist. "She could get in at almost any time over the next six to seven months and would still be the front-runner."¦ I don't think it really changes much for her."

Earlier this week, Clinton accepted an invitation to speak to the New York and New Jersey chapter of the American Camp Association on March 19, which has led to speculation that any campaign announcement won't come until late March. She also has scheduled paid speeches for Jan. 21 in Canada and Feb. 24 in the San Francisco Bay Area.

For Clinton's eventual campaign, the benefits of a later announcement are obvious: If she isn't a candidate, it's harder for people to treat her like one—and easier for her to not answer specific policy questions she'd rather avoid. Earlier this month, she gave the keynote address at the League of Conservation Voters dinner in New York without discussing whether she supports the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

The earlier she gets in, of course, the earlier her supporters can begin organizing in an official way—and nowhere is that more important than in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary. These states are used to starting early, and many supporters are itching to start mobilizing for a Clinton campaign.

But in the meantime, the Ready for Hillary super PAC fills that void—and has been giving Clinton backers a place to go since 2013. Supporters of Clinton say the group has helped keep potential Clinton backers engaged and involved—and kept them from looking elsewhere in the time before Clinton's decision is announced.

"Ready for Hillary has helped give Secretary Clinton the luxury of time," said Jerry Crawford, a longtime Clinton supporter who advises Ready for Hillary. "It has kept some of the pressure off in terms of moving quickly into campaign mode."

The group sent more than two dozen staffers to key midterm states, including Iowa and New Hampshire, earlier this fall. It has had advisers and volunteers in key presidential states for more than a year, who have been holding house parties and organizational events to bring more people on board. As a result, the group has signed up "tens of thousands" of supporters in Iowa alone.

"I think people would be getting antsy now if there were no Ready for Hillary," said Terry Shumaker, another longtime Clinton backer who advises the group in New Hampshire. "[Even in 2013] there was this pent-up desire, in New Hampshire particularly, where the Clintons have many supporters, to do something to encourage her to run. Ready for Hillary has been able to channel that energy in a very positive way."

Should Clinton choose a later announcement, she'd be helped by the fact that presidential campaign activity in both parties seems to be holding off until at least early next year. With the exception of Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia, who formed an exploratory committee last month, no 2016 hopeful has made formal moves to enter the race yet—and some even say it will be late spring or summer before they do anything official.

That said, the idea of a spring announcement from Clinton does scramble the typical calculus for candidates in these states, some operatives said. In Iowa, for example, prospective candidates usually start forming exploratory committees on the January before the caucuses, staffing up in the state and making trips out.

At this point, several Democrats have made pilgrimages to Iowa and New Hampshire; however, the only Democrat who has logged regular trips to the early states and begun doing the legwork for a bid is Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. Still, the absence of additional intra-party competition—which Clinton faced in 2008 with the early entrance of Barack Obama into the race—gives Clinton more room to take her time.

Crawford said that exhaustion from a particularly tough midterm year in Iowa has many of its Democratic operatives and activists thankful this cycle's presidential prospects are taking things slow. Iowa, he said, has "just endured a grueling and depressing U.S. Senate race"—a reference to Democrat Bruce Braley's 9-point loss to GOP state Sen. Joni Ernst—and its political class is grateful for the time off before presidential season begins in earnest.

Activists and observers give varying timelines for when people will start to wonder whether Clinton not running after all—some say once April begins, while others named May 1. But most expect that the answer will come before then, especially if it's a "no."

"If somebody is waiting for an announcement from Mrs. Clinton, then that person is probably prepared to wait not only through December and January but also through February and March," said Kurt Meyer, who chairs Iowa's Mitchell County Democratic Party. "She need not declare for our sakes."

Jim Davis, a 2008 supporter of Clinton and longtime Democratic activist who's backing her again, said he's willing to wait.

"From my standpoint, until she makes it clear one way or another, I'm not going anywhere," he said.