Yesterday, Annie Lowrey considered Hillary Clinton’s recent (and continuing) stumbles over her wealth. She concluded that none of this “Mitt Romney problem” will matter because Democrats have a proven rhetorical flourish on the subject — Lowrey suggested, “Yes, we’re really lucky. And I know first-hand that we don’t need a tax break for our millions in earnings or our private jet.” It’s certainly, as she pointed out, language that Bill Clinton has used repeatedly since leaving the White House, and that Barack Obama also uses.
Whatever. The real reason wealth-related blunders won’t hurt Clinton is that she apparently isn’t going to be seriously challenged in the primaries and caucuses, where this sort of thing could matter. Personal characteristics, gaffes and clever rejoinders just aren’t all that important for the general election, when partisanship and partisan trends kick in and swamp almost everything else.
Those things can matter a lot in the nomination fight because voters and party actors alike are trying to differentiate among candidates who, in many cases, have virtually identical positions on policy.
But when it gets to November, most people vote based on party. Most of those who really don’t have party ties will usually be swayed by their assessments of the current president and of the nation’s well-being. Everything else isn’t completely irrelevant — for example, perceived ideological extremism can hurt a candidate — but it’s unlikely to make a significant difference.
Moreover, to the extent that gaffes could possibly matter at the margins, it’s almost impossible for summer 2014 flaps to have any effect in fall 2016. Unless Republicans decide to campaign on it (and the odds are that they will also have a wealthy candidate as well, so that’s not probable), whatever Clinton says this summer will be long forgotten by the election. Well, it will be forgotten by most political junkies. Ordinary voters are barely paying enough attention now to the faraway presidential election to know about this in the first place.
And even if Republicans do decide to run on it, the function of that kind of campaigning isn’t to win votes; it’s to activate the partisanship of those who are predisposed to vote for the party all along. To educate, that is, regular partisan voters about what it is they should be disliking about the other party’s candidate. And there’s never any shortage of reasons available to dislike the opposing party’s candidate — so if it’s not this, it will certainly be something else.
[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]