There's a formula in negative political advertising that could easily apply against Hillary Clinton. A narrator, buffeted by ominous music and grainy footage, questions her Benghazi decisions, picks apart conflicts of interest at the Clinton Global Initiative, and reminds voters that the former first lady suggested she was "dead broke" after leaving the White House in 2001.
To many GOP ad-makers, this traditional approach fits like a glove. But for a three-woman firm of Republican strategists, it's a formula that accomplishes nothing short of giving Hillary Clinton the presidency.
Campaign veterans Katie Packer Gage, Ashley O'Connor, and Christine Matthews formed Burning Glass Consulting in 2013 in the aftermath of an election in which Republican candidates up and down the ballot alienated women with an ill-conceived combination of rhetoric and policy. Their idea was that, in the male-dominated field of Republican strategy, they could teach GOP candidates the dos and don'ts of talking to women.
Now, they're trying to teach Republicans how to talk about a woman.
A likely matchup in the general election against the former secretary of State presents a dilemma for the GOP: how to attack the first female presidential nominee without angering the female voters the party needs to vote Republican. It's arguably the party's most daunting challenge: Early polling suggests that Clinton starts her candidacy bolstered by a strong appeal to women, especially the moderate, suburban white women who often swing battleground states such as Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Funded by America Rising, the GOP outside group that acts as the party's clearinghouse for opposition research on Democrats, they have begun an ongoing series of national polls and focus groups to determine how women feel about Clinton—and how they can be convinced to vote against her. The early returns have been eye-opening: Many of the traditional ways that Republicans (and, they would point out, Democrats, too) craft their ads—heavy on facts and harsh in tone—are counterproductive with female voters.
"Tactics matter," said Gage. "What works when you're communicating to men is very different than what works when you're communicating to women."
That may seem an obvious point. But it's one that often appeared to be lost on many GOP strategists, including those in charge of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. Gage and O'Connor both worked on Romney's team: Gage as a deputy campaign manager and O'Connor as a media strategist and ad-maker.
Both realized early, when Romney was still locked in a fight to win the GOP nomination, that the Obama campaign was making headway in its attacks against Romney's record on reproductive rights, aided by new technology that allowed them to make a targeted argument to young and single women. But the campaign was slow to respond, they said, because most of its senior leadership positions were filled by men less attuned to how women were reacting.
"We were very aware early on that the attacks on reproductive rights, that they were getting traction," Gage said. "Because we were hearing from our contemporaries, seeing it in our Facebook feeds, before they were."
Gage and O'Connor said they tried to push back, arguing that the campaign's messaging on TV needed to change to adopt a softer tone rooted in emotion. O'Connor created one ad that featured a woman explaining President Obama's record to her infant daughter, shot in a gauzy tone without a narrator repeating harsh criticisms.
It wasn't well-received.
"When Ashley first presented it, I loved it, [and Senior Romney adviser Beth Myers] loved it," Gage said. "The guys were all like, 'It's not message-driven enough.'"Š"
"We had to focus-group it no less than four times," O'Connor interjected. Eventually, the commercial did run in northern Virginia—but only after the campaign added graphics.
Gage and O'Connor said what they learned during the Romney campaign about reaching women has been reinforced by the research they've done for America Rising, conducted by Matthews, a pollster for former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Women, they said, are turned off by traditional negative ads that state in unequivocal terms the "facts" of Clinton's record.
The three women described one recent focus group in which female voters were shown a real negative TV ad against Clinton that questioned her trustworthiness. In this case, all of the women immediately recoiled at the tone.
"Once you go over the top with her, it's just like, 'Oh, it's the boy's club,'"Š" Matthews said. "It's the attack machine, it's the Republicans out to get her."
Gage added, "If you start with, 'Don't trust her,' then their immediate instinct is to not trust you."
Matthews tried a different approach with a later focus group. Instead of a negative ad, she slowly but methodically laid out a case explaining why Clinton wasn't trustworthy. It didn't so much instruct the women what to think as let them make their own conclusion—and, from the GOP's perspective, it worked much better.
Their idea was that, in the male-dominated field of Republican strategy, they could teach GOP candidates the dos and don'ts of talking to women.
"How do we dial back our message a little bit? That's the question" said O'Connor. "Not telling them what to think, but leading them there."
Matthews's research has led her to conclude what is also evident in much public polling: Clinton starts in a strong position with many women. White, college-educated women, she said, are already showing more support for Clinton than they did in Obama's reelection campaign.
"They identify with her, don't resent her," she said. "They see her and what she's accomplished as a good thing."
They aren't, however, very familiar with her record. Many focus groups have featured participants who couldn't remember the controversy surrounding her response to the Benghazi attacks, for instance, or much else about her record at State. Almost nobody remembered that she served in the Senate.
Matthews, Gage, and O'Connor declined to detail how, exactly, they would attack Clinton if given the opportunity to run a campaign against her, in part, suggesting that their ongoing research hadn't yet made that clear.
But they said a carefully crafted argument about her trustworthiness, one pushed by the Republican National Committee, is something the party should focus on. Voters don't see Clinton as the same old politician because of the historic nature of her presidency—as the thinking goes, she couldn't be the usual president because none of the other presidents have been women.
Making Clinton look like just another politician, then, is key. And allegations of a conflict of interest at CGI, her home-brew email server, and occasional tone-deaf remarks are critical to making that case.
And, as much as attacking Clinton might be tricky for Republicans, Matthews says they do have one advantage: Her research shows that unlike Bill Clinton, the former first lady isn't personally liked or seen as having a lot of empathy for the average person.
"That package—trust, lack of empathy, lack of personality, likability—is really a key package," Matthews said.
Republicans will have a hard time making that case, whether they listen to Burning Glass or not. The party has struggled to connect with women during presidential cycles, a task made doubly difficult when former Senate nominee Todd Akin suggested that rape can't lead to pregnancy.
That kind of rhetoric has created a brand problem for the GOP with women, one any of the party's candidates will have to struggle to overcome.
"I would say a pretty significant lifesaver for her right now is the Republican brand," Gage said. "It's part of what's keeping her afloat right now. They're not too anxious to ship her overboard because the Republican brand is pretty bad."
Gage said that although the eventual nominee will set the tone for the party's relationship with women, the candidates running for the nomination will have an impact. That includes Donald Trump, the front-runner in some national polls, whose impact in the general election has thus far been gauged by the problems he has created with Latino voters.
Just as damaging, she said, might be what he has done with women, who resent his bullying and intolerant tone. His efforts, combined with those of some of his opponents, have given the GOP a decidedly mixed grade on reaching out to women so far.
"Some candidates I'd give an A to. Some I'd give an F to," Gage said. "So is the average a C?"