Hidden Minefields on Hillary’s Path to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

By Peter Daou and Tom Watson

"We had two good weeks, yes. But it doesn't mean from here on out that everything will be easy. It is going to be really hard to get the Democratic nomination." - Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton Campaign Communications Director

It's important not to get complacent during good times, just as it's important not to panic during challenging ones. But it's also appropriate to celebrate a good stretch like this one, and thank those who made it happen. - Robby Mook, Clinton Campaign Manager

Political campaigns, particularly at the national level, are incredibly complex undertakings. One word, one expression, one headline, one tweet, one revelation, one endorsement, one gaffe, one interview, one misguided surrogate, one outlier poll can shift the race’s direction unalterably. Interactions among the media, political operatives, pollsters, candidates, campaigns, and voters create layers of uncertainty and unpredictability.

Momentum is notoriously fickle and can turn on a dime – note the upheaval among Republicans with Carson suddenly taking the lead in early Iowa polling. Or recall Mitt Romney’s 47% comment, which had a major impact on the 2012 race. Better yet, compare the coverage of Hillary Clinton in September and October – you’d think you were reading about two completely different campaigns.

With #HillaryMen, our posture from the outset has been to take nothing for granted, maintain a clear-eyed view of the political landscape, fight back against every unfair attack, call out every instance of gender bias, and avoid second-guessing the campaign. We’ve been taking this election one day, one hour, one minute at a time, keeping our focus on the ultimate goal of demolishing the final gender barrier in U.S. politics.

That approach has served us well in our advocacy for Hillary. And it compels us to write this cautionary analysis in the midst of a period of unusually positive coverage.

For Hillary, breaking the 44-0 presidential shutout involves navigating a multi-dimensional maze with hidden minefields at every turn. Some of those obstacles are obvious, others not as much.

Here are the big ones:

The media and commentariat – Anyone who believes that the media and pundits will abandon their long-standing antagonism toward Hillary because of a good debate and an uptick in the polls is deluded. Her detractors have already started testing new negative frames, including “flip-flopper.” It may take some time for one of these new storylines to stick, but mark our words, they’ll settle on something and hammer away until it does damage.

The right – When it comes to political attacks against Democrats, Republicans and conservatives play the long game, establishing the groundwork months or years before the full assault. The coordinated springtime attack on the Clinton Foundation, the endless Benghazi hearings, the incessant coverage of Hillary’s emails over the summer are all ripe for further exploitation. Hillary has been the nemesis of the conservative establishment for decades and they will do whatever it takes to stop her.

Bernie Sanders – We have liked and admired Bernie Sanders for many years and we respect the way he has conducted his campaign thus far. He was one of the few political figures to call the attacks on Hillary sexist and he famously dismissed the overhyped email story at the first Democratic debate. As things heat up between Bernie and Hillary, he is a force to reckon with and could surprise in Iowa and New Hampshire. He could also have a strong debate showing that moves the momentum in his favor.

Hillary’s campaign and surrogates – Every candidate makes mistakes, as do campaigns and surrogates, however well-meaning they are. Hillary is a phenomenally disciplined human being and her campaign is extremely well managed, but each new day brings with it the risk of a word misspoken, a position misstated, a remark misinterpreted. Self-inflicted wounds are among the most common in politics and no matter how well-run an operation, the possibility of an error cannot be discounted.

Institutional gender bias – There have been 46 female U.S. senators and 1,919 males. There have been 3 female Secretaries of State in U.S. history and 65 men. There have been 4 female Supreme Court justices and 108 male justices. There have been 44 Presidents of the United States. All men. The institutional forces that create and reinforce the gender barrier in American politics are powerful. Overcoming them will require an unprecedented effort. The stars will have to align in a way they never have before. It’s a tall order, but increasingly achievable.

Black swans – Black swans are “unpredictable or unforeseen events, typically with extreme consequences.” Although there isn't a SINGLE line in her thousands of released emails that is indicative of nefarious motives or behavior, the investigation into Hillary’s email server could still yield information that her opponents can use against her. Similarly, although we have absolutely no reason to assume it, there could conceivably be other unforeseen events that substantially alter the contours of the 2016 race.

Voters – No polls, no focus groups, and no predictions matter on Election Day, when Americans exercise their right to vote and express their preference at the ballot box. Until that day, nothing can be taken for granted and little comfort should be derived from opinion snapshots. A candidate’s task is to earn each vote and to do so by focusing on issues that matter. One of Hillary’s strengths is that during this entire campaign, she has done exactly that.

With these caveats in mind, read Mark Halperin’s take on Hillary’s formidable assets. And check out our recap of Hillary's dramatic resurgence.

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Peter Daou and Tom Watson founded #HillaryMen to provide actionable analysis of the 2016 campaign focusing on the gender barrier in U.S. politics. Peter is a former senior digital adviser to Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Global Initiative. He is a veteran of two presidential campaigns (Kerry '04 and Clinton '08). Tom is an author and Columbia University lecturer who advises companies and non-profits on social activism.