The Problem with the Clinton Brand

With his sweep of the so-called Potomac Primaries last night (Virginia, DC, and Maryland), Barack Obama is now the undisputed frontrunner for the Democratic presidential nomination. He has won more states, has more pledged delegates, has won more demographic gropus, and has more momentum than Hillary Clinton. In addition to this, even if you include superdelegates in the candidates' delegate count, Obama still comes out ahead.

Obama's victories last night revealed some particularly troubling results for Hillary Clinton's campaign. Obama did better among Black voters than Clinton did among Hispanic voters. Obama won with White men and closed the gap considerably with White women. White women form the core of Clinton's base, but yesterday's results show that Obama was able to make inroads with this voting bloc. He is now officially playing on her turf.

As a result, Obama has swept all the primaries and caucuses that have taken place since Super Tuesday. This success obviously gets reported in the daily news cycle, which serves both to elevate Obama and cast a pall over Clinton. Thus, Clinton hasn't really had a single day of good press for most of February so far. She is now banking on Texas and Ohio, the two biggest electoral prizes remaining, to revitalize her candidacy. However, their primaries aren't until March 4. And before then, there are caucuses and primaries in Hawaii, Wisconsin, and Washington. Needless to say, if Obama wins those three states, it will be even more difficult for Clinton to hold Texas and Ohio because it is unlikely that voters there won't be affected by what's happening elsewhere, namely the Obama political wildfire. Politico has likened Clinton's Texas-Ohio strategy to a game of electoral roulette that is similar to Rudy Giuliani's ill-fated Florida strategy.

Dick Morris of The Hill wrote a good column showing why Clinton was going to lose. The main points of his column were that Clinton's message was more in sync with Republican primary voters than Democratic ones, her fundraising apparatus was inherently weak (I had written about this here), and having their (yes, "their") racialized campaigning backfire in their faces.

That's a pretty good summary of what ails the Clinton campaign. However, I believe there are a few other problems and a few other explanations that Morris did not mention. These problems are more related to simple marketing than actual gaffes.

To start, Clinton's calling card was "experience." Morris said that was a winning message for a Republican primary, which is true. However, there's another simpler problem with the "experience" message: Democratic voters in the early states roundly rejected candidates who had adopted that exact same message. Chris Dodd and Joe Biden were the first two casualties, and each of them has more gubernatorial experience than Obama and Clinton combined. The similarly experienced Bill Richardson quipped in the New Hampshire debate "is experience a leper?" before being forced out of the race after finishing a distant fourth. Clinton should have learned from her departed rivals that even though experience is commendable, it's simply not the strongest card to play in this year's Democratic primaries. And being famous or a former First Lady doesn't exempt you from having a losing message be rejected. As would be expected from a savvy businessman, Mitt Romney was especially adept at retooling his message whenever his previous ones failed. Clinton simply failed to do so.

A second problem is that the Clinton "brand" cannot easily be described. Obama is clearly the "change" candidate. Everyone knows his slogans: "Change we can believe in! Yes we can!" The fact that he's able to perform so well among so many different types of voters while maintaining a generally civil campaign only lends further credibility to message of "change."

John McCain successfully ran as the "strength" and "straight talk" candidate. These labels relate to his support for the mission in Iraq as well as his ability to stand up and go against members of his own party when he believes they are wrong. McCain might be the recipient of a lot of bellyaching from the conservative wing of the Republican party, but they must at least acknowledge the fact that his "straight talk" may be the only thing that keeps him competitive among independents and conservative Democrats come November.

Mike Huckabee won't be the Republican nominee, but he is clearly the "compassionate conservative" candidate. His populist rhetoric and socially conservative values have endeared him to Reagan Democrats and frequent churchgoers. Many people think of Huckabee as "the Christian candidate who doesn't talk like a Christian candidate." Even though it looks like he'll finish second or third in the delegate count, at least voters know what the Huckabee brand represents.

However, what about Hillary Clinton? Is she running as the senator from New York? The former First Lady? The hardworking, pragmatic senator who established good working relationships with her Republican colleagues in the Senate? The partisan warrior who knows how to beat the "right wing machine?" A feminist who wants to break the glass ceiling? Bill Clinton in a pantsuit? Part of the "two for the price of one" Clinton duo of old? A hawk? A dove? A centrist? A progressive? Clinton seems to have run as all of these candidates at one point or another, thus further muddying the Clinton brand. As a result, nobody can really pin her down with any certainty when it comes to who she really is and who her constituents are. Voters aren't comfortable with candidates who aren't comfortable with themselves.

And regarding slogans, in addition to adopting the ineffective "experience" mantle, her main slogan is "Ready to lead from day one." The problem is that this slogan seems a bit disingenuous. By saying she is "ready to lead," is she saying that no other candidate (read: Obama) is capable of doing so? Nobody (at least not Democratic primary voters) will buy that argument. Obama is obviously capable of being a leader. And McCain is too. And if she's "ready" while Obama is not, then shouldn't the onus be on her to make the case against him? The reason why is because Obama could easily counter with his position on Iraq and turn Clinton's slogan back on her, which he has done successfully. ("Being ready on day one means being right from day one.") So not only is her message ambiguous, it's also difficult to defend. How are voters supposed to rally behind that?

Another problem with her slogan is the apparent contradiction between "being ready to lead" and "being able to beat the Republicans." If she means she can "lead" the fight against Republicans, that means Americans are in for another four years of polarization. And are partisans really leaders? Obama talks about getting a few Republicans and independents to join his campaign and work for the common good. This sounds more like what a leader would say than reminding voters that Republicans are scared because she's beaten them before and she knows how to beat them again.

And in terms of political communication and linguistics, "Ready to lead" is an egocentric slogan. There's no sense of "we" or community there. It's all about Hillary Clinton (I AM "ready to lead." HILLARY CLINTON IS "ready to lead."). Unfortunately, this ties in with some of the negative impressions of her being selfish or driven by her own ambitions. Obama's "Change WE can believe in" slogan makes voters feel more like they are a part of the process. They feel a greater sense of ownership and have a greater stake in his campaign. Some of his campaign signs also say "stand for change." That message is written in the second person and directly addresses "you." When Obama gives a speech, you commonly hear the crowd chant "yes we can" or "stand for change." It's because they feel a sense of involvement and connection with Obama's campaign. You don't hear crowds chant "ready to lead" at Clinton's speeches.

To summarize, Hillary Clinton is running on a message that does not match what voters are looking for, chose a poorly worded campaign slogan that embodies the worst conceptions people have of her, and is unable to strongly make the case for her candidacy (e.g., support her brand image) without inviting blowback that would lessen the potency of her attacks. And this is all on top of the reasons Dick Morris mentioned in his column. While it is still possible that Obama could stumble and Clinton could emerge victorious, her once near-certain chances of snaring the nomination have gone up in smoke. And a lot of these problems are due to simple marketing problems, rather than Obama's strength.

6 comment(s):

Anonymous said...

Excellent analysis.

The fact that Clinton continues to conduct such an obviously poorly marketed campaign also calls into question whether she's ready to lead.

If she can't market herself effectively, how effectively can she represent America to the world?

She's a bit tone deaf, that's for sure. And arrogant/unreflective enough to not even see where she's missing the mark.

Obama, on the other hand, seems self-reflective and innerwardly directive. He seems to have a solid core--insight, empathy, values, personal experience--that engenders a sense of confidence in his leadership.

Hillary seems primarily motivated by political expediency. "There are worse things than infidelity," she said in the middle of Bill's White House infidelities.

There's no there there. There's only posturing and positioning. That's what scares people about her.

Political Realm said...

I agree--great analysis. Her campaign woes and weaknesses as a candidate have largely been overlooked thus far, but she is clearly not the candidate Bill was.

Thomas said...

I live in Seattle, Washington. We just had our presidential caucuses. Barack Obama won in what can only be described as a major league landslide, besting Hillary Clinton by more than a 2 to 1 margin. Hillary Clinton, to me, seems to be quickly fading from the presidential landscape, likely forever.

Alas, the Clintons will remain highly visible politicians. Hillary Clinton will remain the most famous senator in the United States. Bill Clinton will see his stumbles in South Carolina fade from memory when Obama assumes the presidency because no lasting harm was done. Bill will become what he was before, kind of a traveling ambassador for the United States. But the Clintons will be slightly diminished because there is no potential for growth there anymore. This was Hillary Clinton's chance to become president and it just didn't happen.

Rush Limbaugh's dream has finally come true. The Clintons are through with presidential politics. Rush won't have the Clintons to kick around anymore. The right wing of the Republican Party will have to create new objects of their "affection," I guess. But that is what they do and they are good at it. Still, I am betting that the right wingers are embarrassed. They tried and tried and tried to take down the Clintons for years and they couldn't. They were taken down by a first-term United States senator from Illinois.

I don't agree that Obama was that much of an underdog when he started his presidential campaign in February of 2007. He was probably the second most famous senator in the United States partially due to his unique (for politics) life story. (His dad was from Kenya and his mom was from Kansas.) He had given a now near-legendary speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. At a time when most people had turned against the Iraq War, Obama was against it from the beginning. And in a time of lethargy in our country, Obama was a beacon of hope and reconciliation.

All this aside, I haven't caught the Obama wave yet. I love being inspired. But I gather my inspiration from books or movies or music or good deeds done for one's neighbor or stories on NPR. I don't really expect to gather inspiration from our political leaders. I like to consider myself a student of history and I have spent a fair amount of time looking for inspirational political leaders. I haven't found many. Even my favorite presidents (Truman, Lincoln, FDR) showed wide streaks of cunning and duplicity and political expediency. And you know why? Because they had to. The world is so complex and confusing and difficult to navigate. Sure, presidents will give speeches that aim to "inspire." But that is a tool to further their agendas. A tool by itself does not tell me anything about a person. An agenda is something different. Barack Obama is inspirational to millions of people. But what is his message underneath the way he is pitching himself? I am not sure yet.

I know Barack Obama must be an immensely intelligent man. I am a fellow lawyer so I know what kind of people made law review. (I am not one.) And he was president of the law review of probably the most prestigious law school in the country. But I think he is overly relying on his inspirational pitch. I mean, it must be hard to not overly rely on this pitch because it is working so well. Millions of people are starting to believe that Barack Obama is some kind of miracle worker. I hope Obama is able to please them by doing a good job as president. He will need to do some work to be able to get to the level he will need to be at to satisfy the enormous expectations people have for him.

In a little postscript, I wanted to say a few things about Hillary Clinton. I have always liked her. I think she is an extremely smart woman and, even more importantly, a very hard worker. She seems to be fighting the right battles. I cannot imagine what it must be like to wake up every morning knowing that people just hate you. Hillary is doing what she was supposed to do - she worked hard in school, she got into good schools, she fought to make the lives of children better. And, to millions of people, she is evil. (Witness Mitt Romney's tasteless speech when he dropped his bid for the presidency. He said that if either Hillary or Barack won the White House, they would just "surrender to terror." Can I see a future where Mitt Romney's picture will be found in the dictionary next to the term "sore loser"? Yes I can.)

The origin of "Clinton hate" spewed by Republican right wingers sprouts from a rather mundane explanation. The Clintons were successful against the Republican machine. They angered the Rush Limbaughs and the Tom DeLays and the Mitt Romneys of the world because they pushed back against the Republican machine successfully at times. Would Rush and Tom and Mitt care about the Clintons if they were losers? No.

Showing some political expediency of his own, Barack Obama has used polarization of the Clintons against them. He says he is not as hated as the Clintons. That is true of Obama. But the very success he is experiencing now means that the Republicans are sharpening their knives and dreaming up their attack ads. These knives and ads won't be enough to stop Obama this election. The Obamamania now sweeping the land is just too great. But Republicans are anything if not patient. They will have Obama's whole presidency to tear him down. By the end of eight years, "Obama hate" will rival the "Clinton hate" all of us are familiar with now.

Nikki said...

Hey Anthony....Hillary has never been as popular as Bill and he is even getting his hand slapped this time around. Change is the theme that has stuck and I think it is funny because isn't every election about change?? Perhaps not when it's a re-election. with her staff dropping like flies it does appear there is unraveling going on. I have to say Obama seems to have more of a "fan" base than supporters. I have a topic for you for a future post if you ever wanted to tackle suggested topics on this excellently well written blog. I will send it to via email......:)Nikki

Schenck said...

Anthony, great post.

I think something that really ties together everything the Clinton campaign has done wrong is her ego. She focuses on herself and not the electorate. It seems she never really steps back and thinks, "Why am I losing support? Why is Obama gaining support? What can I do to win votes? What is Obama doing that is winning him votes?" Also, one cannot discredit the ingenious, virtually flawless campaign Obama has run. Every move he makes is spot-on, down to his very recent speech tweak highlighting policy. Instead of running as a brand, he is running as a composite of the minds of Americans. Hope, change, etc. all coming together to create this candidate, Barack Obama. It is not about him. It is all about us, and that's why he's winning. If Hillary empowered her supporters instead of embarrassing them, she would not be in the place she is right now. Unfortunately for Hillary, the traits which she displays are jealousy, narcissism, disingenuous-ness, self-pity, greed, deceit, etc. which cannot win against Obama's unity, peace, empowerment, honesty, forgiveness... it's a classic battle of good vs. evil. Like Star Wars.

Of course, both candidates are human and therefore both candidates have their strengths and their weaknesses, but Hillary decided long ago to wield the red light saber against Obama's green one, and we all know what happens to Darth Vader.

Anthony Palmer said...


Looks like you and I have struck the same wavelength because I also question her ability to successfully represent (market) America if she's not even able to successfully market her own campaign. Having said that, a lot of international observers, who don't know as much about our state of politics and our leaders as many of us do, would probably welcome an HRC presidency as a third Bill Clinton term. I think she would be a competent president who would run on her own merits, but she just doesn't galvanize people into wanting to rally behind her candidacy. And that's a major political problem that I don't think she can fix.



HRC once said that "she is the most famous woman that nobody knows." That statement is true on so many levels and opens up so many avenues for discussion. She has been in the limelight of politics for about 15 years now. Why does she feel nobody knows her? Why hasn't the "real" HRC shone through or revealed itself? And does this mean that the HRC we know now is artificial? A good candidate would never make such a loaded statement because it does their opponents' work for them!



I too have not caught the Obama wave. I wish I could take 2/3 of McCain's policies, Obama's people skills, and HRC's political toughness and synthesize them into one super candidate.

Do you think that HRC has gotten an unfair shake in the media? Like you said, it takes guts and toughness to be able to wake up each morning knowing that half of the country hates you and is waiting for you to stumble so they can eat you alive. I look at the way the media cover the candidates and see a bias towards Obama, especially on MSNBC. But HRC is less than 100 delegates behind and the demographics in Ohio in particular favor her, rather than Obama. So she's not lost just yet. I would vote for HRC too if she had a different last name and didn't get involved with that sliming of Obama during the South Carolina race.

By the way, you also hit on a subject for one of my future posts. I won't give it away just yet, so stay tuned.



I don't think every election is about change. The 2004 election certainly wasn't, and the 2002 midterm elections definitely weren't. 2006 was. I don't think Obama is talking about change in the conventional sense. He really seems to be talking about a change in the way Washington does business, not the business Washington does. HRC is polarizing. She'd bring about a change in government policies from conservative ones to liberal ones. Obama would probably do that too, but the difference is that he'd also try and build a coalition of independents and Republicans by sweetening the pot and getting some of them on board. I really think Americans have had enough and simply want the government to get something done. Whether a conservative or liberal does it seems secondary at this point.



Yes, you touched on Obama's appeal exactly. People criticize him for not having a lot of substance. However, Obama's candidacy is not about Obama. It's about us as voters. And voters view Obama as the candidate who represents people, rather than just political ideas or ideologies. So Obama's "change" and "yes we can" messages have become very powerful populist mantras. Criticize Obama and you are criticizing "us." I think this is why the complaints about him being nothing more than lofty rhetoric haven't stuck yet. I am still a bit frustrated with the 3 candidates remaining (Obama, Clinton, McCain), but I would certainly be content or even happy with an Obama presidency. President Obama would be an amazing case study in terms of international relations and addressing some of the infighting and prejudices we have.

Thank you all for the great comments. I've been busier than usual this month, so I haven't had the time to write as much. But thank you all for being such faithful readers and for leaving such great comments. It's much appreciated.

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