Hillary Clinton Sets Up Another Misguided Defensive Crouch: Southern State Edition

I wrote earlier today that Hillary Clinton’s defensive approach to politics is part of the reason she is shedding support.

This story from the New York Times on her Southern firewall strategy is just another example of the once-inevitable campaign’s mindbogglingly defensive approach to politics:

Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign is methodically building a political firewall across the South in hopes of effectively locking up the Democratic nomination in March regardless of any early setbacks in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Mrs. Clinton’s advisers, struck by the strength of Senator Bernie Sanders in those two states, have been assuring worried supporters that victories and superdelegate support in Southern states will help make her the inevitable nominee faster than many Democrats expect. They point to her popularity with black and Hispanic voters, as well as her policy stances and the relationships that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, have cultivated. Mrs. Clinton was similarly confident at this point eight years ago, before Barack Obama and his superior organizers began piling up delegates, including in many Southern states.

This strategy may or may not be successful in the long run, but it’s terrible politics. Losing support among young progressive activists, white liberals and first-timers to politics, Clinton’s strategy isn’t to aggressively fight to win back the hearts and souls of those voters, but rather to build a firewall around her support among minority voters in the South.

First, there’s no guarantee that strategy will work. Contrary to the claims of some observers, Sanders’ low level of support among minority voters has far more to do with name recognition than with actual policy concerns or inside-the-tent scuffles with Black Lives Matter protesters. Nor is it possible to fully predict what might happen if Joe Biden were to enter the race. If Sanders or Biden do, shockingly, win in Iowa and New Hampshire, that event combined with a series of debates would almost certainly make an impact on minority Southern voters as well.

Second, it would have a crushing effect on Democratic activist enthusiasm. Barack Obama’s support among minority base voters was obviously a net benefit for the Party, but the Obama moment was driven equally much by the passionate activism of young people, liberal activists and political neophytes. If Clinton holds onto a win in spite of opposition from these groups, it will leave her in a weakened state and have depressive effects on Democratic turnout for every race down the ballot.

The Clinton campaign needs to change its instincts. Its prevent defense approach to politics is terrible optics. It is bad for both the campaign and for the fortunes of the Democratic Party. There is no reason Hillary Clinton shouldn’t be able to win the votes of younger and more liberal activists–and there’s certainly no reason she should be ceding white voters generally to Sanders or Biden. But she would have to fight for those votes, and she seems to have no inclination to do so.

That is very troubling.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.