Why Clinton's Emails Matter

Why Clinton's Emails Matter
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Most political scientists will tell you that scandals and campaign efforts, in general, have little impact on a candidate’s ultimate success at the polls.

But that’s not really what they mean. What they really mean is that because both sides have scandals and run competent campaigns, they tend to cancel out. Like a messy algebra equation that eventually simplifies to y = ax +b, campaigns tend to revert to a few key factors.

But what if they don’t? We do have examples of this, such as the 2000 presidential race. Given the economy and Bill Clinton’s popularity, Al Gore should have won that race handily, even taking Ralph Nader into account. But George W. Bush ran a pretty good campaign, while Gore was characterized as wooden, lacking focus, and uninspiring. That probably made the difference.

That’s what’s lurking in the back of my mind with respect to the Hillary Clinton email scandal, as well as the dust-up over donations to the Clinton foundation. To be clear, I don’t think the scandals matter much, in and of themselves. In this respect, I agree with George Washington University political scientist John Sides, who sees almost zero chance that anyone’s mind will be changed by this directly.

To see how I think it might matter, it’s worth thinking back to 2008, and why Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic nomination to a relatively inexperienced challenger. Barack Obama running a pitch-perfect campaign mattered a lot, as did Hillary Clinton’s vote for the Iraq War.

Her problems, however, went deeper. To start, she’s not a natural politician. Remember, the wheels started to come off the campaign bus for her in 2008 after her answer to this question on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants. It’s still hard to watch the exchange without cringing. Her speeches tended to be wooden and forced. She didn’t exude warmth.

Even more importantly -- if you read any of the three synoptic gospels of the 2008 election – “Renegade,” “Game Change,” or “The Battle for America” – they all agree that her campaign was beset by infighting, poor judgment, and hubris. Clinton campaign strategists supposedly didn’t realize that the delegates were proportionally allocated. No one took Obama seriously (except for Bill). Her campaign overspent and then struggled for cash once the race became competitive. She had a bad relationship with the press. Crucially, the campaign failed to organize the caucus states, where Obama swept delegates in races where only a few hundred votes were cast. Yet in the fall of 2007, she was drawing up lists of vice presidential candidates.

Surely, many thought to themselves, this time will be different. There were signals that she was putting together the sort of larger-than-life, untouchable campaign that Obama put together in 2008 (and, to a lesser extent, 2012). Her Twitter account was set up deftly, she played coy with the press and her base regarding her campaign, and some tweets, such as the “grandmother knows best” one tweaking Republicans on vaccinations, seemed to suggest a very competent, sharp campaign. I had begun to muse privately whether she might not be able to re-create the Clinton coalition, which would lead to a truly astonishing win.

It is still extremely early, and Clinton isn’t even an announced candidate yet. For now, I actually view that as the overall “rule,” if you will, of how to evaluate the campaign. The problem is that these scandals introduce a caveat to that rule that wasn’t present before: That this scandal occurred, that it was handled the way it has been, and that the press is reacting how it has been reacting should concern Democrats.

The flipside of being a non-candidate is this: She has had two reasonably substantial unforced errors before even declaring her candidacy (three if you count her largely overlooked comments on illegal immigrant waiters). What happens once she actually throws her hat in the ring? Maybe nothing. Maybe having a structured campaign surrounding her is just what the proverbial doctor ordered.

Or maybe this is a signal that not much has changed from 2008, and that she’ll be testing out a creaky campaign apparatus in a general election, rather than a well-oiled machine. Also, while I don’t think Democrats are looking for other candidates to challenge her in the primary, if she has a couple more of these mistakes, that will change.

There are other problems. Her speaking style hasn’t improved. She’s stiff, even in very favorable venues. If anything, she’s lost a step from 2008.

But one only need watch the press conference from Tuesday to see the real cause for concern. It isn’t just that Clinton looked tired, was flat-footed in her responses, and made some cringe-worthy comments about not wanting to have two email accounts to follow. To be sure, it was  difficult to watch—almost as bad as that 2007 debate.

The seasoned politician and former Cabinet member had several days to formulate a response to “email-gate.” But her answer was that she had combined her personal and official emails onto a private server for “convenience.” And, she added, she would not turn over that server for inspection.

The press just wasn’t buying it. To run the sort of larger-than-life campaign that Clinton seems to want to run, she has to fit the larger-than-life bill. The reason Barack Obama was treated like LeBron is that he sort of was LeBron. His campaign racked up only a handful of mistakes. He always seemed to pull things out when he needed to. He hit the three-pointers when it mattered. This created a virtuous cycle: He did amazing things, and the press treated him as such. If Obama had had as many problems as Clinton has, and had responded in the same way, his campaign would have gone nowhere.

If you followed Twitter on Tuesday, it is safe to say that Clinton will not be getting the sort of treatment she needs to run a celebrity campaign just by virtue of being Clinton. TMZ and Gawker, which are generally thought of as having a liberal tilt, helped break the story. "SNL" lit into her in a way that it arguably still hasn’t for Obama. Again, I don’t think this is because these outlets are inherently pro-Obama. He just played a role almost flawlessly, and reaps the benefits from time to time.

She will have to earn favorable coverage, and she isn’t doing it so far. If it keeps up, not only will she not have an advantage in how the “intangibles” stack up, she might have a disadvantage that pushes her below what the fundamentals suggest.

A few months ago, I wouldn’t have doubted that she was up to the task. I’m still not convinced that she isn’t. But for the first time in a while, I’m not sure.

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at strende@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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