Hillary Clinton is avoiding the media at her own peril.
I say this not as a self-interested political journalist, but as a hard-headed analyst befuddled by her campaign strategy. She's hoping to emulate President Obama's coolness to reach out to less-engaged voters, but by avoiding basic questions from the press, she comes across as an entitled celebrity, not a former secretary of State getting due scrutiny for a presidential campaign. Far from being the authentic politician that Obama worked to be, she's sidestepped crucial questions over where she stands on fast-track trade authority, details on her proposed immigration policy, and a possible nuclear deal with Iran. She's barely even talked about her central professional accomplishment -- over four years representing the country as secretary of State. How is this supposed to win voters over?
The reality is that Clinton's avoidance of the press is a product of weakness, not the result of a shrewd campaign bypassing the media because it can. She may be avoiding short-term pain by sticking to her script, but she's creating an imperial image of herself that's hard to reverse—and one the media has every incentive to reinforce. If she doesn't have a credible response to explain her use of a private unsecured email server, Republicans will eagerly fill the void with attack ads casting her in the most unfavorable light possible. Even if voters aren't following every detail about her conflicts of interest with the Clinton Foundation, the constant unfavorable news coverage is bound to trickle down to voters. For a candidate looking to find a "warm, purple space" to unify the country, these controversies hit where it hurts the most.
So far, it's hard to see how the ignore-the-press strategy is working. In fact, there are many obvious signs suggesting that Clinton's aloofness has hurt her image since kicking off her campaign. Her favorability numbers are now indistinguishable from several of the leading Republican presidential contenders. A late-April NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found an equal number of respondents viewing her favorably as unfavorably (42/42), with her unfavorables jumping six points in a month's time. Only one-quarter of voters regarded her as trustworthy and honest, a double-digit drop from last year's standing. Even though she's a well-known politician, her numbers have been surprisingly volatile this early in the campaign, with no guarantee of stabilizing.
One of the biggest warning signs come from a group that she's been assiduously courting: Democratic millennials. Follow Clinton's Twitter feed, and you'll see a steady stream of base-pleasing shout-outs for gay rights ("Well done, Ireland," she wrote Saturday on the country's gay-marriage referendum), celebrity references to underscore her hipness, even a promotion for a Clinton-branded pantsuit T-shirt. But a new Pew Research Center poll found that her support among younger Democratic voters has dipped significantly over the past year. Her favorability with that core voting group is down to 72 percent, the lowest among all the party's constituencies tested, and a 15-point drop since 2007. For all the talk that the media has become passe among younger voters, it's likely that the unfavorable coverage has impacted their perception of Clinton.
Underscoring how she's still a blank slate to many voters was the reaction from 10 likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers interviewed in a Bloomberg/Purple Strategies focus group this month. Most intended to back Clinton in the primary and support her in a general election. Many praised her experience and ability to get things done. But their lack of knowledge about the candidate was striking. Asked what her biggest accomplishment as secretary of State was, and there was awkward silence from the group. Without the extended media engagement over issues, Clinton will be relying on voters' partisanship and fuzzy feelings to win supporters over. That may be effective for the most reliable of Democrats, but it's a tough formula to persuade those who aren't paying close attention.
So far, Clinton's campaign is betting on style over substance. It assumes that voters are more attuned to her social-media pronouncements than her actual positions on issues. It plays up Clinton's celebrity -- and her support from other famous people -- to raise her cultural currency. It can unveil base-ginning positions on immigration and gay marriage without having to go through the indignity of explaining the details of any proposals. It believes the press not only is a nuisance, but can be bypassed entirely by new technology.
All that works when you have an authentic candidate with a compelling message to sell. But if the real reason Clinton's handlers don't want her to meet the press is out of fear -- fear that she'll sound politically tone-deaf or get caught fibbing -- that's as much a sign of her campaign's anxiety as it is a savvy strategy. The fear of making a mistake extends to her interactions with voters: Most of her appearances so far have been with supporters who have been vetted and prescreened by the campaign.
With well over a year before the election, this is the stage of the race when Clinton should be working to get more comfortable on the trail by taking uncomfortable questions. The fact that she's avoiding the press this early on is hardly a sign of confidence about her political readiness.
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