Many people, including those on Hillary Clinton’s campaign, expected Clinton to have some legitimate competition for the nomination. But this soon? Just two months into the campaign launch of Clinton, and a month into Bernie Sanders’ and Martin O’Malley’s, Clinton is already facing worrying signs about levels of enthusiasm for other candidates.
A recent Suffolk University poll showed Sanders has pulled within 10 points of Clinton in New Hampshire, trailing her just 41% to 31%. Sanders’ may over-perform in his neighboring New England state, but don’t be surprised if the next round of polls in Iowa show the Vermont Senator with a similar surge.
More dramatic is the palpable difference in crowd excitement between a Clinton rally and a Sanders rally (you can compare the two events for yourself here: Clinton rally, Sanders rally). Sanders barely needs to raise his voice to emphasize a point to get the audience cheering and shouting. His recent event at Drake University had people on their feet whooping and chanting again and again.
However, it’s not like Clinton’s campaign is lacking. Behind the scenes, her organization is building an impressive army of volunteers and activists around the state. On Saturday they hosted 55 house parties in Iowa. Their campaign says they’ve had over 2,500 one-on-one meetings and have more than 4,500 commitments to volunteer.
And Clinton was still quite impressive at her rally. She’s markedly improved her ability to rally a crowd over her previous campaign, even if it’s not at Obama levels (though who could be). She got chants when defending women’s reproductive health choices and for her line that she’d be the youngest woman President of the United States. And around 200 supporters waited outside the event two hours beforehand to get the closest spot to their beloved candidate.
Sanders, because of who he is and because of who his message appeals to, will understandably elicit some strong, positive reactions from the liberal base of the party. But here’s why I think this is all notable: Sanders got a turnout of over 800 at Drake, while Clinton got around 700 at her first kick-off rally in Des Moines two days later.
Frankly, I was astonished Clinton didn’t get more for her first public rally in Iowa right after her “official” kick-off in New York. Here’s how I thought the narrative was going to go: Sanders impresses observers with his big crowds the past few weeks, but then Clinton puts the worried chatter to rest with a massive turnout of her own, demonstrating the polls are correct, and she really does own this race. Instead she turned out fewer than Sanders. Holding a rally at the Fairgrounds is usually an indication you’re going to blow the place out.
So is it really that big of a deal? Well, here’s the problem: I’ve seen this before.
For much of 2007, Clinton was the presumed front-runner, and Clinton voters felt comfort in that. The tides shifted in late October and November, though it wasn’t really until the caucus night until most of her supporters realized how badly in danger Clinton was of losing. A very important, often overlooked moment occurred in January 2008 when Clinton loaned her campaign $5 million of her own money. That was a wake-up call to many of her supporters, and her campaign saw a surge in small-dollar donations soon after, a category Barack Obama dominated in previously.
For my own part, recruiting volunteers for the 2008 Clinton campaign was like pulling teeth in Iowa (and I worked in a very strong Clinton county). By the time April rolled around, and I was working in a field office in Indiana, the volunteers rolled in without even having to ask. By then, of course, it was too little, too late. Clinton had support in 2008 around the country nearly on equal with Obama, but Obama’s voters were much more engaged and active.
While Clinton is unlikely in any major danger of losing the 2016 nomination (or at least nowhere near the risk of a 2008 Obama opponent), a motivated and enthusiastic base of volunteers will be essential to success in the general election. So why didn’t more people come out to her kick-off rally? The small event settings and house parties are nice, and the roundtable discussions really did arm Clinton with real-life stories from everyday Iowans. But you have to wonder what it says to their supporters when the vast majority of her events have still been invite-only affairs.
Yes, now she’s moved into the more “formal” part of her campaign, but no other candidate had a similar “ramp-up” stage. Sanders, O’Malley and Jim Webb packed any room they could get and answered attendee questions in all their pre- and early-campaign activity. Did the exclusive events telegraph to supporters the wrong message?
And are those Clinton votes falling back into the same lull they suffered from in 2008? Do they look at her commanding lead in the polls and think, “that’s nice, maybe I’ll get involved closer to the general election”?
The Clinton campaign is taking the primary race seriously, and are going all-in for Iowa and nationally. Are her rank-and-file supporters doing the same?
by Pat Rynard
Photo by Greg Hauenstein. See more of his work at www.greghauenstein.com