Super Tuesday's not even in the books, but Hillary Clinton, her top strategists, and Democrats outside the campaign are growing more convinced that Donald Trump will be their opponent in the fall and have turned to weighing strategies for how to beat him.
Clinton's campaign has begun debating Trump’s strengths, weaknesses and “unpredictable and unconventional” attributes—and how to shape a prospective general-election campaign with those variables in mind, said Clinton communications director Jennifer Palmieri.
“We're thinking about it,” said Palmieri, who insisted that Clinton is still “very focused on our own race” for the Democratic nomination against Bernie Sanders. She declined to say whether the campaign is conducting polling or modeling turnout possibilities for a Trump-Clinton contest, but twice in the past week, the Clinton campaign has pointed to Trump's likely nomination as in fundraising e-mails.
“You have the power to prevent that hothead from ever becoming our president,” a message sent Monday reads.
Clinton herself signaled a turn to the general election after her landslide win over Sanders in South Carolina, when she chided Trump over his “make America great again” slogan. “America has never stopped being great,” Clinton said in her victory speech on Saturday. “But we do need to make America whole again.”
Discussions about the possibility of facing Trump took on new intensity after his commanding 19-point win in New Hampshire on Feb. 9. But the Clinton campaign’s assessment is that it’s still too early to engage much more directly with the billionaire. One person inside the campaign, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Clinton has to avoid the appearance of overconfidence and finish strong in the primaries. Meanwhile, watching how Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz go after Trump, and how the Republican front-runner responds, gives them more information about what to expect in a general election.
For his part, Trump appears to be looking forward to a battle with Clinton too. “I haven't even started on Hillary yet,” he said on Tuesday on Fox News, promising to use Clinton's private e-mail server and her handling of the Benghazi attacks as cudgels. “I think it's gonna be pretty rough.”
David Brock, who runs the pro-Clinton super-PAC Correct the Record, said Trump presents some different challenges compared with a more conventional Republican candidate. That includes being more competitive in states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan that have gone to the Democrat in the last six elections.
“I’ve had lot of conversations with Democrats where I’ve cautioned to be careful what you wish for,” said Brock, who added that his group has been compiling research on Trump since October.
Yet the prospect of Clinton facing off against the Trump, who failed over the weekend to clearly repudiate the endorsement of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke, presents obvious opportunities. “A national campaign against bigotry is something that has to be part of the general election,” Brock said.
Trump's extensive use of social media, and how his supporters use that channel, also requires some retooling of the traditional campaign playbook, he said.
Among the lessons Clinton allies are taking from the Republican race are that the other candidates waited too long to take on Trump, that he must be taken seriously, and that the conventional playbook doesn’t apply.
“At the beginning of the race it seemed clear that Trump would be easier to defeat because of the offensive things he said about so many constituency groups,” said Ben LaBolt, a Democratic strategist and former Obama aide not affiliated with the Clinton campaign. “However, variables are not your friend in a presidential campaign and he makes which voters are turning out very unpredictable, so there’s a level of uneasiness about him,” compared with a more conventional alternative.
Democratic strategist James Carville and pollster Stan Greenberg on Monday released a memo describing findings in a survey they conducted of 800 likely Republican base voters, with an eye toward how to run against Trump in a general election.
The central factor contributing to Trump's surprising dominance was his support among Republican moderates, the memo said. “He understands that they too want to fight the Democrats and immigration, but they are also hostile to pro-life groups and sympathetic to Planned Parenthood.”
The memo concluded Democrats can take advantage of divisions within the Republican Party and lingering concerns about Trump among the party faithful. “The strongest attacks that we tested centered on his character and leadership qualities: that he is an ego-maniac at the expense of the country, that he is disrespectful towards women, and that he cannot be trusted to keep the country safe and handle our nuclear weapons,” Carville and Greenberg wrote.
The strongest message against Trump, they wrote, is one that Clinton and Sanders are already sending: “reforming corporate governance so growth works for middle class, not just the CEOs; and on getting beyond social issues to address America’s problems.”
Liz Jarvis-Shean, former director of research for President Barack Obama at the White House and in his 2012 re-election campaign, said she’d expect the Clinton campaign, pro-Clinton groups, and the Democratic Party to be “pretty deep into” researching Trump even if they’re only beginning to talk about it now.
“It’s actually a very interesting project from a research perspective,” she said, because of the challenge of finding approaches that work when conventional tactics such as charges of flip-flopping positions have not.
If Trump is the nominee, much of the work of defining him for the general electorate will be shouldered by outside groups such Priorities USA Action and American Bridge, Democrats say. They can more easily use attacks that dredge up his business dealings and personal history while Clinton runs with a positive message that will contrast with Trump.
Eddie Vale, vice president of American Bridge, an independent pro-Clinton group that can't coordinate with the campaign, said the group has been building a dossier on Trump. “We’ve been working on Trump stuff since June or July,” Vale said.
“Every lawsuit, every business, every golf course, every property,” Vale said. “Media footage. Atlantic City. New York. Everywhere he’s got major holdings, we’re sending people. FOIAs. Everything he’s had his fingers in.”
Vale said he’s been “shocked by how little” other Republicans have unleashed on Trump, though he acknowledged that topics that could cut against Trump in a general election might instead help in some Republican primaries. “We’ve mostly saved it,” he said of his group’s files on Trump. “We’re kind of waiting for their nomination to get settled.”
Clinton has kept up a string low-key jibes at Trump's positions, often without even mentioning him by name. Speaking Monday in Boston, Clinton called for a rejection of the “mean-spiritedness” and “bigotry that is being peddled on the Republican side.”
The former secretary of state notably has not pursued the insult-for-insult approach Trump’s remaining Republican rivals have adopted in recent days, such as Rubio’s slams at Trump’s hairstyle, his tan, and the size of his hands.
Clinton’s messaging on Trump is taking place at a more subtle level. While she has long spoken about breaking down economic, racial and gender “barriers,” that phrasing, or some variation, also could cue images of Trump vowing to force Mexico build and pay for its own wall to keep its people out of the U.S.—which is likely to hurt Trump with many Hispanics and to motivate Democrats to turn out against him.
“You need to build a turnout model that predicts who’s going to turn out not only for you but for your opponent,” LaBolt said. “Are there disenfranchised people who’ve been frustrated generally and are going to vote? Are there independents who are going to vote for him? He could result in the largest gender gap the Democratic Party has seen in a generation. But the unpredictability makes it a significant challenge.”
While Trump is probably strengthened once he's able to run a nationalized campaign rather than state-by-state, Clinton likely would benefit if she can keep targeting her message in battleground states. Trump is “quick on his feet, he knows how to drive news cycles, he can dominate cable for days,” LaBolt said. “But he’s still playing catch up on the long game.”