Why Republicans Hold an Early Edge for 2016

Amid Hillary Clinton's stumbles, the GOP field is keeping its poise.

With all the attention focused on the details of Hillary Clinton's personal email over the past week, it's easy to overlook the political big picture for the 2016 presidential campaign. If anything, Team Clinton's cautious, tone-deaf response to the potential scandal is a reminder of all the challenges that her candidacy will entail. Far from being the juggernaut that her campaign has been portrayed as, it's becoming clear that she will be facing strong headwinds in vying to succeed a divisive president, overcoming her past personal baggage, and convincing voters desperate for change that she's the candidate of the future.

The whole episode has raised glaring red flags about the emerging Clinton operation. It's only March, and the nascent campaign is still grasping for a message while being surprisingly unprepared to respond to criticisms about her email practices, which were known to her inner circle. A week that was designed to underscore her work for women across the globe descended into damage control over why she concealed emails as secretary of State on a private server. Her campaign operation resembles a clunky bureaucracy, filled with both allies from the last Clinton administration (Lanny Davis, David Brock) and younger strategists from President Obama's campaigns tasked to shake things up. She's got a well-defined brand, but one that's losing its luster amid controversy and organizational dysfunction. Sound familiar?

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Ambitious younger Democrats may be kicking themselves for passing up a primary opportunity against Clinton, but Republicans have shown no such hesitation in challenging her. And there are early signs that the political environment, which has been difficult for them over the last two presidential elections, is looking more favorable at this early stage. Here's why:

1. The public is expressing a strong desire for change. Clinton's controversies underscore her past, and she's in a no-win situation distancing herself from the president.

The most important finding from this week's NBC/Wall Street Journal poll was just how intense the American public's desire is for a change in the country's direction. A sizable 59 percent of voters said they'd prefer a candidate who "will bring greater changes to the current policies" over a more experienced and tested person. That's several points higher than the survey found in the summer of 2008, when George W. Bush was languishing with historically-low approval ratings. As important, a 51 percent majority viewed Clinton as "too much a return to the policies of the past" versus 44 percent who thought she would "provide new ideas and vision." Part of the sentiment for change is ideological—the level of GOP dissatisfaction towards President Obama is intense—and part of it is practical, a response to a period of economic stagnation and a natural desire to switch things up after nearly seven years of one president.

But Clinton is struggling to make the case for change in her public appearances, and is avoiding distancing herself from the policies of the administration. For now, her advisers seem content to create distance from Obama by emphasizing her desire for bipartisanship. Her awkward formulation last month that she wants "warm purple spaces" for Democrats and Republicans to work together is a sign of how hard that messaging will be to sustain. Meanwhile, her brief press conference Tuesday was a flashback to the worst Clintonian tendencies of the past.

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Clinton is in need of a campaign reboot before she's even launched. She needs to decide which part of her biography to emphasize—her foreign policy record at State, legislative accomplishments in the Senate, achievements as first lady—and translate that into a sustainable campaign theme. Her early emphasis on her groundbreaking role as the nation's top diplomat is looking less sustainable, given worsening crises abroad and ethical questions about her own behavior in the job at home.

Clinton will need to underscore her independence from a president whose approval ratings have been consistently underwater, and who has focused on more burnishing his legacy than aiding his potential successor. But that political necessity is tempered by the fact that she also needs energy from the base, among the same groups who enthusiastically backed Obama twice.

2. Her team's early reaction to the controversy suggests they're not prepared for presidential-level scrutiny.

In the seven years since dropping out of the 2008 presidential race, Clinton has enjoyed something of a halo effect. Her withdrawal from the political arena earned her plenty of positive press, and favorability ratings that any Democrat would envy. But her advisers overestimated the depth of that support; their media strategy assumed that she would be untouchable until she officially announced her campaign. That has turned out to be a major miscalculation.

Days after the story of her email practices broke, Clinton sent out an evasive tweet declaring she wanted the public to see her emails—a sign her team expected the controversy to boil over. She dispatched ally David Brock to defend her by smearing The New York Times' reporting, which only made the press more skeptical about her claims. All-too-familiar faces defending the Clintons from scandals past, from Lanny Davis to James Carville, reemerged to spar. And she finally held brief a press conference at the United Nations—a venue that made it tough for the press to cover her speech—where she only raised more suspicion by declining to allow access to her personal email server.

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These are the tactics of a team that doesn't appear to realize how threatening these controversies are to her image. They underscore her instincts for partisanship, even as she's been desperately trying to portray herself as a bipartisan figure. Her least attractive political attributes—an imperial attitude, an inability to avoid scandal, and a penchant for secrecy—are now all taking center stage. This, before she even announces her campaign.

3. Clinton has never been a strong politician, and is a consistent underachiever.

The notion of a Hillary Clinton juggernaut isn't supported by her own political record. In her first Senate campaign, she comfortably defeated then-Rep. Rick Lazio, but lagged behind Al Gore's vote share in New York by five points. Her status as the undisputed Democratic presidential front-runner in 2008 evaporated as she struggled to connect with voters and was tactically outmaneuvered by the Obama campaign.

Her press conference on Tuesday reflected some of her most unfavorable political traits. She forced an inauthentic smile while answering reporters' questions, and parsed her words very carefully. There was little contrition in her comments; she feigned outrage that reporters would rummage through her personal emails. Clinton asked the public to trust her, even as her long history of controversy makes that a difficult sell. "I fully complied with every rule I was governed by," was her very Clintonian legalistic defense. The story is only growing in significance.

One of Clinton's last forays with the press also led to a memorable blunder. During her book tour, she told ABC News that she was "dead broke" when leaving the White House in 2001. That comment, and the resistance to acknowledging a rhetorical mistake, cast her as seemingly out of touch well before she was even preparing for a presidential campaign.

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Meanwhile, the political environment of 2016 will give her ample opportunity to underachieve again, even if she runs a solid campaign. It is rare for voters to elect a president of the same party for three straight terms, especially when the outgoing president leaves with underwater job-approval numbers. Obama was able to energize the Democrats' economically-struggling base in a way that Clinton will find challenging.

In 2008, winning the Democratic nomination was tantamount to winning the presidency. In 2016, she won't have to worry about being her party's nominee. But in what's shaping up to be a "change election," her odds will be much tougher against the eventual GOP nominee.

4. Republicans boast a deep crop of presidential prospects, and have shown surprising message discipline.

One of the unheralded stories of the 2014 midterms is how Senate Republicans avoided many of the internal conflicts that dogged their party in previous elections. That success is extending into the 2016 presidential primaries, where an unusually deep roster of presidential prospects has emerged, and (for now) has avoided the pitfalls of the past. Just last weekend at an Iowa agricultural forum, Jeb Bush reiterated his support for immigration reform, and even Ted Cruz denounced ethanol subsidies. That resistance to pandering would have been unimaginable for Mitt Romney several years earlier.

As significantly, most candidates have resisted attacking Clinton, content to let her face the harsh scrutiny of the media on her own. (Only Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee issued any formal response to her press conference.) Indeed, it was notable that Clinton preemptively attacked GOP senators for their letter warning Iran about a nuclear deal with the U.S. in an attempt to deflect attention from her own controversy.

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Eventually the story will die down, and the GOP candidates will have to decide how to incorporate Clinton's controversy as part of their own messaging. And inevitably, some will overreach. But it's a telling early indicator of the caliber of the Republican campaigns that most haven't jumped on the shiny bright object of the moment, and are playing a longer game. It's in distinct contrast to the GOP field of 2012, which constantly got sidetracked on issues ranging from Obama's birth certificate to contraception. They're taking veteran Republican strategist Rick Wilson's advice: "Better to go dark than play this game by the Clinton rules."