If you judge Hillary Clinton's New Hampshire swing by the national headlines, it was a failure.
Two days out, the national press is writing about none of the Clinton campaign's favorite topics: not about her small-scale opening, not about her earnest efforts to listen to the concerns of "everyday Americans," and not much about her New Hampshire trip at all. Instead, the political world is dissecting a New York Times story about donors to the Clinton Foundation getting approval from the Clinton-run State department to sell their uranium rights to Russia—and the national media is awaiting the Clinton Cash book that will continue in that vein.
But the national headlines were never the point.
Clinton's New Hampshire visit, like her Iowa road trip before it, are part of her campaign's bet that the national conversation isn't the conservation that matters right now.
Instead, they're betting—and given the subject of the national conversation, almost certainly hoping—that what matters right now is happening much closer to the ground: the connections she makes with early-primary state voters, the persona she builds in key areas, and the buzz she generates with local activists.
And on that front, things look brighter. The front page of Wednesday's Concord Monitor was headlined: "In the Spotlight: Clinton attracts crowds, attention as she swings through city." And the week before, she'd fared even better: "Clinton vows she'll help people get ahead," read the front page of the April 15 Des Moines Register. The Quad City Times was gentle as well: "Clinton surprises LeClaire coffee shop."
Perhaps more importantly, local Democratic activists professed to have come away energized, excited to have had face-to-face time with their party's most-important candidate: "It's Hillary. It's a big deal for a Democratic activist to sit down at a coffee shop and meet her," Des Moines activist Peggy Huppert told BuzzFeed. "This is what the campaign wanted — this kind of buzz."
Of course, the campaign would love national outlets to be writing about her listening sessions and populist policy proposals. But if that were the point of this trip, they'd be giving interviews to national media outlets and television stations, instead of forcing them to literally chase Clinton around.
Instead, while the national media was largely shut out, the local audience was made to feel as brought in as possible. In Concord, Clinton nodded and took notes. She brought out statistics on student debt and small businesses. She asked what each person at the table thought and facilitated discussion back and forth, listening more than she talks. The oft-repeated refrain was: "What's on your mind?"
"In order to put together a set of policies for my campaign, I really want to make sure that they are in line with the real lives and real working experiences of people," she told her Keene roundtable.
"If I were just to read briefing books or I were just to engage in the political back and forth, would I have heard what a big problem mental health is in New Hampshire? Would I have heard people say they're really worried about the impact on young people because New Hampshire has the highest tuition and debt problems in the country?" Clinton asked a house party of Democratic activists later that night in Claremont. "I'm not sure I would have."
Elsewhere, Clinton surrogates are pushing back on the national headlines—and pre-emptively attacking Peter Schweizer, the author of Clinton Cash.
But Clinton is staying as far from it as possible, limiting her comments on the matter to a quote about "distractions and attacks." Instead, her campaign events have stayed on message, filled with questions from Clinton and to Clinton about economic policy or educational issues. There, she not only gets information from voters, she gets to showcase her own ability to speak comfortably about the issues they care about.
Clinton made it clear that she had done her research, rattling off relevant statistics about the topics at hand. She knew what the average student loan debt was in each state, as well as facts about small business creation. "New Hampshire has the highest student debt load of any state in America," Clinton said in Concord. "I didn't know that before I started to look into everything in the last few months, but it's pretty daunting."
How long Clinton can keep the national narrative from polluting her local conversations remains to be seen. Clinton's aides have noted that the participants are prepped only on the general format, not on what to say or which questions to ask. Sooner or later, a participant could bring the conversation to those "distractions" that Clinton has shown little appetite for discussing.
Certainly, what's on cable news channels or in national papers also reaches the same early-state voters that Team Clinton is working so hard to win over. And down the line, when a Clinton campaign in full bloom works to appeal to a national audience, it will have to deal with damage done by early scandals in the national conversation.
But the election that matters most is 18 months away. And by then, the Clinton camp is hoping that that today's headlines are less than a memory, while the work she's putting in now finally pays off.
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