Hillary's Rollout: What Might the Minor Flaws Indicate?
When I was a young law firm associate, one of the most difficult lessons I had to learn was the importance of overwhelmingly careful attention to detail. If, as a law student, you have a typo in a paper, or even an error of fact, your grade is unlikely to change dramatically. In the real world, it is a different story. A typo in a brief can ruin your credibility with partners, and erode it with the court. It isn’t that the errors are damning in themselves. It is the concern they raise about a possible lack of care in other, more relevant ways that aren’t as obvious. Did the lawyer run down all of the precedents? Did he miss a nuance in the precedents? Were quotes copied carefully?
Now, before I return to election analysis, I wish to reiterate that though campaigns are fun to talk about, they rarely matter much, especially in the general election, as Nate Silver recently pointed out. Candidates do not typically win presidential nominations without having a competent campaign in place to begin with, and so both parties run very good campaigns. Both sides make mistakes, but they are rare, and the effects typically cancel out.
But not always. On one extreme, one thinks of Al Gore’s multiple campaign makeovers, or Bob Dole’s “bridge to the past” speech (these weren’t his exact words, but they readily lent themselves to parody). On the other hand, one thinks of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and to a lesser extent his 2012 one. In retrospect, what made Obama’s campaign so effective was how well it did the little things. Take the campaign logo. It’s an “O,” which obviously denotes Obama himself. But when you look more closely, the bottom half of the logo is evocative both of a waving American flag and of the American countryside. The top half evokes both a rainbow and a rising sun. As a whole, one looks at the logo and thinks “hope.” It really was the perfect symbol for his campaign, and the mood of the country at the time.
This is how the entire campaign was run. While Obama had his gaffes (as all candidates do), I’m hard-pressed to come up with an actual campaign mishap. There were certainly opportunities for this: He really might have failed to fill up the Denver stadium for his 2008 convention speech, for example. But he did, and the imagery was impressive.
Do I think this is the reason Obama won in 2008? Absolutely not, but it might have turned a six-point win into a seven-point win. If he’d run a flawed campaign in 2012 and Mitt Romney had run a perfect one, Romney might have won, although I doubt it. But in a race like Gore-Bush in 2000, or the 2008 Democratic primaries, campaign effects might have been the difference-maker.
This brings me to the Hillary Clinton campaign rollout yesterday. The video was delayed, and ended up being pre-empted by an e-mail from her campaign manager. The press release had a typo, claiming that she had “fought children and families” her whole career. Her TweetDeck photo was positioned such that the checkmark covered her eye. Whatever you might think about the logo, it wasn’t as powerful as Obama’s. It may well be that the lines on an “H” are never going to produce an image as visually pleasing as an “O,” but even taking that into account, the little things were off (the arrow pointing rightward, for example).
If Hillary loses, it won’t be because of a typo in her campaign announcement. There were also good things about the rollout: The actual video was solid. But like her famous email press conference, the risk is that the mistakes are indicative of a deeper problem. These little things are minor, until it emerges that a higher-up in the campaign doesn’t know that the delegates in the nomination battle are awarded proportionally. Then, suddenly, there is a problem. If the race is close, the little things really can make a difference.