Hillary Clinton 2016: How this presidential campaign will be different

For starters, Hillary Rodham Clinton will emphasize her gender and women's issues more than she did in her 2008 presidential campaign. And she's taking nothing for granted. 

Mike Segar/REUTERS
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a news conference at the UN March 10. Clinton is expected to announce her campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 this weekend, facing no substantial competition but needing to get her organization in place for the long battle to come.

No more speculation – Hillary Rodham Clinton is in. And this time, people close to her presidential campaign say, she’s taking nothing for granted.  

Hanging over Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 enterprise will be her shocking failure to win the Democratic nomination in 2008, when she got smoked by a flashy young upstart named Barack Obama. The former first lady’s inevitability proved to be a mirage, both because of then-Senator Obama’s superior skills as a candidate and mistakes by her campaign.

Here are some key ways in which Clinton’s 2016 campaign will be different:

• She will run as a woman. So ... she ran as a man last time? No, but she didn’t highlight women’s issues or the fact that she would be the first woman president – even as an integral part of President Obama’s narrative centered on race and the historic nature of his own candidacy. This time, Clinton aides make clear, she will be all over equality issues and women’s rights, both in the United States and globally.

As secretary of State, Clinton put women’s issues front and center. And she is putting her status as a mother and now a grandmother – to a baby girl -- to political use. In an updated epilogue to her latest memoir, “Hard Choices,” Clinton writes extensively of her own experiences as a new mother to Chelsea and then the wonders of grandparenthood, linking baby Charlotte to the wider world and its future.

“Becoming a grandmother has made me think deeply about the responsibility we all share as stewards of the world we inherit and will one day pass on,” Clinton writes.

“Rather than make me want to slow down, it has spurred me to speed up,” she adds, a suggestion that the title “grandma” doesn’t make her “old.”  

• She will have a different team (sort of) and a different strategy. Exhibit A is that Mark Penn, the divisive chief strategist and pollster of Clinton’s 2008 campaign, will be nowhere near her 2016 campaign. Robby Mook, a young star in Clinton’s 2008 campaign, will be her 2016 campaign manager, and Joel Benenson, Obama’s pollster, will be her top strategist. John Podesta, a former top adviser to both Presidents Clinton and Obama, will chair her campaign. In Mr. Podesta, Clinton will have someone who is “almost a peer” and can offer “unvarnished and critical counsel,” a role that went unfilled in 2008, writes Dan Balz of The Washington Post.

Just as important, her aides say, she will approach her campaign as if she faces a competitive nomination process – even though she does not, so far. She is getting organized in early primary and caucus states. There’s still plenty of time for a major Democratic challenger to get in (Elizabeth Warren, anyone?), and even if Senator Warren is highly unlikely to jump in, Clinton isn’t taking any chances. You can also bet that Clinton operatives will know all the obscure delegation-accumulation rules in early states, an area where she fell down last time.

Even if Clinton coasts to the nomination, she will face a tough general election fight next year. She’ll need to get in shape for that. That means wooing voters in important swing states from Day One.

• She has a record as secretary of State. Eight years ago, Clinton ran on her experience, both as a two-term senator from New York and her eight years as first lady and an active participant in her husband’s White House. By serving as President Obama’s top diplomat for his first term, Clinton has added to her portfolio as an executive and strengthened her foreign policy chops. If 2016 ends up being a “foreign policy” election, that could work to her benefit.

But she will have to defend her record. She traveled extensively, and made wide use of “soft diplomacy” – reaching out to young people and women throughout the world. She engineered the “Asia pivot” and strengthened US relationships with friends and allies. But critics ask what she really accomplished. And she can expect the Benghazi controversy – the killing of four Americans during an attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, which took place on her watch – to follow her every day of the campaign.

• She is trying to replace a fellow Democrat. In 2008, the prevailing view was that whoever won the Democratic nomination would be favored to win the general election. Two-term President George W. Bush, a Republican, was deeply unpopular, and the country was ready for a change. Typically, after two terms under one party, the nation goes for the other party. Obama won by a comfortable margin. So in 2016, in theory, it’s the GOP’s “turn.”

Obama’s job approvals have been inching upward, but chances are he will not be popular enough by Election Day for Clinton to effectively win “Obama’s third term.” Rather, Republicans will try to weigh her down with Obama. And for her, the challenge will be to distance herself from Obama enough to represent “change,” but without overtly dissing the president – and without alienating liberal voters.

On the eve of her campaign launch, it’s unclear what Clinton’s core message will be. As the headline in The Guardian asked on Friday, “What does Hillary Clinton stand for? Policy agenda remains mystery in lead-up to campaign launch.”

• She needs to work harder than ever to be “relatable.” Clinton has been in the national spotlight since 1991, when her husband first ran for president, and since his election, has lived a life of privilege. Last year, when she said that she and Bill were “dead broke” when they left the White House, the public blowback was fierce. The next day she clarified.

"We have a life experience that is clearly different in very dramatic ways from many Americans," Clinton said. "But we also have gone through some of the same challenges many people have."

Now, in her new campaign, she has a chance to reintroduce herself to the country.

“That 360-degree history is really important for Hillary to reveal," says Democratic strategist Celinda Lake.

Clinton is such an "iconic leader" that people have forgotten that she had a middle-class upbringing, that she is a woman of faith, and that her mom had a rough life – all of which can really resonate with voters, Ms. Lake says.

But the flap over Clinton’s emails could hold back this effort to be more relatable. Her use of a private email account and private server while secretary of State – then her destruction of emails she deemed private – has brought back the narrative that the Clintons are secretive, and see themselves as above the rules. 

Staff writer Francine Kiefer contributed to this report.

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