Meet the New Hillary

Can the Democratic frontrunner turn around her struggling campaign—or is it time to panic?

Darren Hauck / Reuters

MILWAUKEE—I am here to see the New Hillary.

Hillary Clinton, the once-inevitable Democratic nominee, has lately hit some snags. She is plummeting in the polls; her campaign lacks direction. So Hillary—I’m going to call her Hillary, like it says on her signs—would like to start over. She’s rolling out a new persona: spontaneous, funny, relatable, personable. A regular person, just like the good people of Milwaukee, who have come to see her on a drizzly September weekday.

Here we are at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Home of the Panthers. Home of lots of regular people—Hillary likes to call them Everyday Americans. (Oh God, that sounds weird, doesn’t it? Someone told The New York Times it sounded like “Everyday low prices,” at Walmart. Hillary is so sorry. Hillary will stop saying that.)

Hillary is also sorry about the whole email thing, which has been frightening and confusing, hasn’t it? Hillary has now—after months of explaining it away, shrugging it off, and expressing regret—apologized for the email thing, so that everyone can move on. But we regular people, we don’t really care about the email thing, right? We are noble, practical folks, with more important things to worry about, am I right?

“I’m very worried by these scandals, like the emails,” says Katherine Kober, a 36-year-old with short blond hair and a 1-year-old son strapped to her chest in a baby carrier. “That hurts her credibility, you know? I think she should have explained herself earlier. I worry that it’s a pride thing—I think her Achilles heel could be her pride.”

We are waiting in a big room above the student union for Hillary to arrive. The event—a Women for Hillary Grassroots Organizing Meeting—was originally going to take place out in the plaza, but it looked like it might rain, so everyone has been redirected inside. The line to get through the metal detectors snakes up two flights of stairs. Outside, some protesters who didn’t get the memo are still shuffling around the empty quad—a cluster of religious kids with bloody-fetus-part placards, a College Republican handing out sneaky little flyers to attendees  “welcoming” her to campus. The flyers say: “As first lady, she was a monumental figure on advancing nationalized healthcare (pioneered by that wonderful Empire known as the Soviet Union).” Ha-ha!

No one seems to agree on how Hillary is doing right now. Is everything actually fine? Is the current drama just a passing blip? Or is this one of those moments when everything teeters on the edge—when a political campaign that seemed like a sure thing begins to collapse under its own weight? Loyal Democrats, across the country, aren’t worried necessarily, but they are starting to wonder how worried they should be. (“It is an arranged marriage,” one prominent Washington Democrat who is starting to worry told me. “Her support is broad, but not deep.”) Some of them are calling on Vice President Joe Biden to run—good old Uncle Joe! In fact, one of Hillary’s big donors met with him just the other day. But come on, how does everyone think this thing is going to end? Does anyone really think Bernie Sanders is going to be the Democratic nominee?

“I like her better than a lot of other candidates—besides Bernie,” Jessica Differt, a crimson-haired 19-year-old student, tells me. “She’s definitely my number two if Bernie doesn’t win.” Differt, an aspiring comedian, is not too fazed by the emails—“I send stupid stuff all day, every day,” she says—but she feels like Hillary is too close to the big banks. Still, she would definitely take Hillary over any of the Republicans.

“Hillary is like a cool aunt, you know?” Differt says. “Like, you don’t want to tell her you’re pregnant, but you would tell her your boyfriend troubles. She’s nice, but she’s not my mom, you know?”

The room is filling up with people. There’s a student in a Trump hat—MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN—which turns out not to be totally ironic: He’s a physics major who identifies as a “conservative-leaning independent” but is sincerely interested in what Hillary has to say. The mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, a tall, white-haired 61-year-old, is mingling in the crowd, oozing confidence. “There are seasons in a campaign,” he tells me, philosophically. “In the long run, I don’t think [the emails are] going to hurt her. It’s been a distraction, but she’ll get beyond it.”

While we are still waiting for Hillary to arrive—the crowd, standing, crammed behind metal barricades, the mute, expectant stage topped by a wood lectern, “Shake It Off” playing over the speakers—the backdrop suddenly comes crashing down. A support on the right side gives way and pulls the black curtain with it, plummeting onto the stage and taking down the Wisconsin and American flags. People laugh and raise their phones to take pictures.

Within an hour, America Rising, one of several PACs dedicated to destroying Hillary, has posted the 12-second video of the curtain crash on YouTube, titled “The Clinton Campaign Is Literally Collapsing.” A few days later, it has been viewed more than 100,000 times. That’s how badly people want to see Hillary fail. At the moment, she is giving them plenty to work with.

* * *

Hillary is here at last. She strides confidently onto the stage and hugs Martha Love, the Democratic National Committee member who gave the last of several introductions. Hillary is a fingertips hugger­, not a full-body hugger: polite, careful, affectionate without being forward. “Wow,” she says into the microphone, “I am thrilled to be here!”

Hillary’s speech is 27 minutes and 23 seconds long. She’s on today, hitting all her marks. She deftly name-drops locals pols—praising the local Democrats; criticizing the Republican governor, Scott Walker, who is running for president. (“Boooo,” the crowd groans when she mentions him.)

There is Empathy: “I’ve been fighting for the underdog my entire life. I’ve even been the underdog a time or two.”

There are Issues: affordable college, affordable child care, the minimum wage, reproductive rights, gun control, climate change.

There are Jokes: The Republicans “are all Trump without the pizzazz or the hair!”

There is Spontaneity Mixed With Humor, when the crowd boos trickle-down economics: “This is a very smart group of young people!”

There are a lot of card-playing metaphors, for some reason: On the economy, she says, “The deck is stacked for those at the top. We need to reshuffle that deck.” On women’s issues, she says, “Republicans often say, ‘There she goes again, playing the gender card.’ Well, deal me in. I am ready to play.”

There is Optimism Tempered by Realism: “We’re not yet running, economically, the way we need to and want to. But we’re making progress. But we have a long way to go.”

There is the Humble Acknowledgment That This Campaign Is No Cakewalk (not that she’s complaining!): “I know this is going to be a really hard-fought election. That’s as it should be. There’s so much at stake.”

There is Audience Participation: “How many of you have student debt?” (A lot of hands go up. Hillary nods sagely.)

There is an Emotional Moment: “As a mother and as a grandmother, my heart breaks for the family of Dontre Hamilton, whose mother is here today … The ability of black mothers to raise their children in safety is a women’s issue. It’s an American issue.”

At one point, Hillary looks out and sees something she hasn’t seen before, and her eyes widen a little bit. Look at that! New signs! “I love these signs,” she says. “Women for H!”

* * *

Not everybody believes Hillary should be panicking. After the event in Milwaukee, I call up a senior campaign official, who agrees, on condition of anonymity, to give me a sense of how things look from the inside.

“I mean, I think it’s fine,” the official says. “I know that’s not the popular view.”

The campaign is straining these days to seem, on the one hand, unfazed by the current setbacks, and simultaneously taking them seriously so as not to belittle the people who are authentically concerned. They’re not whistling past the graveyard in Hillaryland. They get it. But also, they’re not freaking out.

The official I am speaking to has just been through two days of meetings in Washington with members of Congress, strategists, and other prominent Beltway Democrats, seeking to reassure them that everything is just fine. “The things that we remind them of are that, in the summer of the off year, the candidates who are doing well are not normally the candidates that win,” the official says.

Team Hillary in 2008 was famously disastrous: helmed by a widely despised centrist pollster-guru who couldn’t count delegates (Mark Penn), and marked by unchecked feuding and too many cooks. It stood in stark contrast to the Obama campaign of the same year, where “no drama” was the ethos, and everyone got along thanks to their cultlike devotion to their inspirational leader and their faith in the long view.

This contrast was always an exaggeration, of course; every failed campaign looks like a disaster in retrospect, while every winner is revealed, after the fact, to have been confident and assured. But this time around, Clintonworld insiders report the scene is both familiar and not. There’s no single guru; there are a lot of fresh young faces, many imported from Team Obama in an aim to infuse that new-style campaign magic; but there are again too many people giving advice and vying for Hillary’s attention and throwing new tactics at the wall. It’s not a disaster yet, but it could be better.

Here is the case for not panicking, as relayed by the senior official: The campaign is just getting started in earnest. Nobody just gets handed the nomination; you have to work for it, and there are going to be ups and downs. Hillary’s going to win the primary, because Bernie Sanders, while beloved on the left, is not going to be accepted by the mainstream of the party, and Joe Biden, if he runs, does not have Hillary’s advantages. And then she is going to win the general election, because the country’s fundamental demographics favor the Democratic Party and the Republican Party is one big clown show, a rolling cloud of chaos and offensiveness.

Then again, here is the case for panicking: In the latest polls, she is losing Iowa and New Hampshire. Her support has particularly plummeted among women and Democrats in recent months. She is less well liked than she’s ever been. The trajectory since she got in the race has been down, down, down, and there doesn’t seem to be any plan (beyond “humor and spontaneity,” of course!) to turn it around. Remember what the Democrats did to Mitt Romney last time? They started demonizing him months before he won the nomination, hammering on the theme that he was uncaring and out of touch and rich, not like regular people. By the time Romney’s campaign got around to trying to build him back up, it was too late. He wasn’t a regular person anymore.

People who have been around Hillary Clinton for a long time know that, no matter how they package and sell her, no matter how many times she chokes up in interviews or does a silly dance on a chat show, Hillary is Hillary—always trying a little too hard, always the center point of a barely controlled storm. Sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t, and it’s not clear which way this one is going to go, to the great consternation of all the Democrats who were hoping for as close to a sure thing as you can get in politics.

People begged her to apologize for the emails for months, and she wouldn’t do it, because she didn’t think she had done anything wrong. Finally, they held focus groups, and the people in the focus groups—regular people, authentic everyday Americans!—said they were troubled and confused by it. So, fine, she has apologized. There is going to be more of this, this openness, this answering of questions, going forward, the campaign says. They think voters are going to like it.

Hillary is going to win the first four primary states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina—the campaign official tells me. And she is going to keep winning after that. “There are five months until people start voting, and in the coming months we’ll be making the case to voters, and we think they’ll react well to it,” the official says. “We feel fine. But we’re not in the bubble. We understand that people are seeing coverage that is not positive, and we want to be sure we’re communicating with folks.”

I ask the official, who has just spoken with Hillary, how the candidate is feeling. “She is very clear on why she’s doing this, who she’s fighting for, what she wants to do,” the official says. “I think she’s having a good time.”

Maybe she is, maybe she isn’t. Who can tell? But there’s no doubt she is determined to grind it out, and to some, that will always be her most relatable quality. I think back to another person I met in Milwaukee, Jill Vento, a 58-year-old attorney, mother of three, and self-described “old women’s libber.” Vento was drawn to Hillary’s strength and perseverance—it reminded her of when, early in her career, she worked with men who told her to go home and cook dinner for her husband.

“I am so tired of rich, old, white men running the country,” Vento told me. “Yes, Hillary was First Lady, so she had a little better situation than some of us. But she understands.”