A year ago, Hillary Clinton was considered a walk-up start as the likely candidate for the Democrats. Today, as happened two terms ago when Barack Obama stormed to the lead, Clinton finds herself with a real fight on her hands just to get the nomination.
This time she is not pitted against a grand orator with a vision but a grumpy old man with a vision, Bernie Sanders.
As you can see, her competitors may be very different but they both have one thing in common, a vision. Both Obama and Sanders went into their campaigns with a clear goal for change. By contrast, Hillary Clinton appears to again be running on the idea that it is her turn.
Bernie Sanders surprisingly strong showing at this early stage is based on the fact that he knows exactly what he hopes to achieve — the creation of a new, fairer political system and a fair distribution of wealth for the American people. Everything about his campaign revolves on these ideals with clearly enunciated actions should he get to be president. His slogan: “A political revolution is coming”.
Even Donald Trump is calling for change with his “Make America great again” slogan.
Contrast this with Hillary Clinton. Her campaign has no endpoint. If she becomes president, what will change other than some limited policies? We know that she will have a different approach to some aspects of foreign policy, gun-control issues and continue to be aggressive on climate change but what is her vision for the US? What are the fundamental changes she hopes to enact to make America a better place?
Her campaign slogan, “Hillary for America”, says it all about what is missing.
When Bill Clinton first ran for the presidency he had three key points that he wanted to deliver as part of this communication strategy. His campaign strategist James Carville wrote them and stuck them on the wall, so he could see them each day. They were in priority order:
- Change versus more of the same.
- The economy, stupid.
- Don't forget health care.
What we're seeing today in Hillary’s campaign is a failure of vision or in communications-talk the failure of an end goal other than to gain the presidency. Her promised policies are essentially more of the same politics but in the Democrat style.
What Clinton has forgotten is that the presidency is not an endpoint it is a means to an end. The question she has not answered is what is that end?
In a way, it is understandable how she got here. Once again it appears that her media team’s starting point was that her nomination as the Democrat contender was assured. Fool me once, as they say.
With the Tea Party controlling a Republican party in the throes of self annihilation by putting forward policies that are far too extreme for middle America, her strategy never considered going beyond holding the middle ground and differentiating herself from the outrageous antics of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and others.
Early on I suspect she imagined that her Republican contender was likely to be Jeb Bush, the most moderate candidate in the Republican field. Her communications team would have been delighted to see him pushed out of the spotlight while the Republican party lurched to the almost unelectable right wing fringes.
Let’s be honest here about the Republicans, when the policies of a party’s leading candidates are being regularly compared in the mainstream media to the fascist policies of Hitler then clearly it is a party with a long-term problem that will need a fundamental restructure to become electable again.
In that light, it is easy to see why Clinton took a small target strategy.
Except, unlike her husband who made change the centre of his campaign and pointedly stated, "it's the economy stupid", she has completely missed that point. She also appears blind to the grand change that occurred since last she ran - the new mood of her country and the opportunities this has presented to make a real difference.
Last time Hillary ran for the nomination the global financial crisis hadn't occurred, the bankers and fund managers hadn't escaped from the disaster they caused and left average Americans to foot the bill, the actions of lobbyists and the wealthy to force through legislation that hurt the citizens of the US were not under the spotlight, the working poor were not a subject on the nightly news, the battle to change gun laws had yet to gain momentum, the Occupy movement was a glint in a demonstrator's eye, the rich 1% were mostly viewed as heroes and the US as a nation had yet to fall into its worst economic situation since the Recession. Hell, in the glory days of the Obama nomination the Lakers were winning championships.
Most importantly, the level of distrust and anger with politics had yet to come to a boil.
Eight years later, we are in a completely different world.
Hillary is of the old political class and being a Democrat with dynastic aspirations is not enough for a win. In fact with the barely concealed anger of Americans for politics as usual, it may be a disadvantage.
Most importantly, her campaign managers have not given her a vision for this new landscape. What is her goal?
This is where Clinton's team needs to do the most work over the coming weeks. Forget spending big on advertising, put away the one-liners and leave attack politics alone for the moment — even though it's tempting to use this to undermine the momentum of Sanders campaign (although any such approach will play to Sanders' strengths and narrative).
To get back on track again, Clinton's media team needs to find her vision. Her key opponents both have a vision. Sanders’ vision is for change to the political system and a sharing of the wealth. Trump’s frankly dystopian vision is to build American power behind American arms and to shut the door to outsiders.
And Hillary's vision is…?
Don't get me wrong, Hillary Clinton could win the nomination and become the next president of the United States. But for all her advantages, even though it should be communications 101, the lack of a clear vision behind her candidacy is her greatest handicap.
Her troubles all come back to the first question every communicator should ask even before they communicate — what do I hope to achieve?
At the moment, Clinton's answer to that question is to be president of the United States. That is the wrong answer. The right answer, as her husband’s strategist so rightly identified, is to change things.
As communicators our job is about change first and foremost. What do you or your clients hope to change? It's what we must ask all the time before we commence any planning.
So, keep watching the US presidential elections. Not for the politics but for the communication lessons.
To take liberties with a past president’s slogan: because communication is about change, stupid.