To bounce back against Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton turned to her strengths—rallying African-Americans, Latinos, and especially women to her history-making candidacy.
They helped her dismantle Sanders on Super Tuesday. And they’ll help her with her general election challenge—especially if she's running against Donald Trump.
Trump, the billionaire businessman, and Sanders, a democratic socialist who has called for a revolution against the billionaire class, couldn’t be much farther apart on the ideological spectrum.
Yet, weeks ago, as Sanders was bringing the fight to Clinton in Iowa and schooling her in New Hampshire, he also was forcing the former secretary of state to work harder to consolidate and energize two groups she’d always assumed would be with her—women and minority voters.
Sanders’ strength also forced Clinton to face an unpleasant truth: that her candidacy was unappealing to younger Americans. It was an unnerving but important lesson for a woman hoping for redemption by winning a nomination she’d lost to Barack Obama in 2008.
Inadvertently, Sanders was giving Clinton a roadmap for a general election, especially if it’s a contest against Trump, whose campaign slights against women, Hispanics, and Muslims are ready-made for negative ads meant to drive Democratic turnout.
“That is the way to victory in November: young people, people of color, women,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, a group committed to electing pro-choice Democratic women. She said Clinton was able to “really consolidate the long support she's held among communities of color and keep expanding her growing strength with women.”
“Our ultimate goal here is to bring the entire party together in one force to stop what we believe is coming at us, and that is Donald Trump and a Republican Party that is full of hatred and anger,” Schriock said. If Clinton is the Democrats’ nominee and faces Trump in the general election, “we've got the strongest possible contrast between someone who wants to break down barriers and someone who wants to build walls.”
Those were the very sentiments Clinton hit in a victory speech Tuesday, saying that “what we need in America today is more love and kindness” and “instead of building walls we’re going to break down barriers.”
And these are some of the themes pro-Clinton outside Democratic groups are weighing in planning sessions and conference calls to create a strategy to do something the Republican Party has failed to do: stop Trump. Democrats increasingly believe that portraying Trump as a racially intolerant, anti-woman and too hotheaded to have his finger on the nuclear button is the way to beat him.
Strangely enough, Clinton will get help with those arguments from a new conservative super PAC that on Tuesday released a YouTube video compiling people from David Letterman to network commentators accusing Trump of racism.
Clinton’s dominant performances on a major night don’t end the Democratic nominating contest, and Sanders restated his intention to campaign through the last states in June. Still, Clinton’s outright victories in seven of 11 states, including large ones such as Texas and Virginia, are putting the contest for pledged delegates on a path where it looks increasingly unlikely Sanders can turn things around.
“Hillary was saved by the very thing that undid her last time,” said Democratic strategist Steve McMahon, comparing Clinton’s performances in the contests through Super Tuesday this year with those eight years ago.
The big margin of Clinton’s loss in New Hampshire scared her team, making them wonder if Sanders' appeal might actually be broader than they thought it was. All that changed in the week that followed, as everything seemed to click for Clinton and as Sanders struggled to keep his momentum going.
She racked up a string of endorsements from key African-American leaders, gave a well-received speech in Harlem, and settled on a message that drew on language that’s been in her lexicon for decades: breaking down barriers and building ladders of opportunity.
At the same time, Clinton’s aides saw that Sanders’ efforts to connect with minority voters weren’t breaking through, something that crystallized as they watched his applause lines and vague answers on immigration fall flat during a bilingual town hall in Las Vegas.
In addition to forcing Clinton to work harder to energize her natural base, Sanders also prodded her into taking a more antagonistic approach toward Wall Street, which may help her energize anti-establishment voters.
In most of the states she won on Tuesday, Clinton was duplicating strong across-the-board showings that drove her victory last week in South Carolina, and especially among African-American voters and women, according to exit polls reported by CNN.
In Texas, for example, Clinton took 65 percent of women, while also getting a smaller majority of men. She had 80 percent of African-Americans, two-thirds of Latinos, and 51 percent of the white vote. She had majorities of voters 30 and older, though Sanders still outpaced her nearly 2-to-1 with voters ages 18 to 29.
While appealing to those groups, she’s not tacked as far left as Sanders’ liberal prescriptions for raising taxes, punishing banks, socializing health coverage and subsiding college educations. Her restraint on those fronts may help reassure moderate Republicans who have decided they won’t vote for Trump in a general election.
“My grandma used to say if it doesn’t kill you it can make you stronger,” McMahon said. “Bernie Sanders hasn’t killed her and now he can make her stronger.”
David Gergen, a former adviser to presidents of both parties, said Clinton reacted to the results in Iowa and New Hampshire by campaigning better with those key parts of the base. “I think she’s been better, she talks more about we than I, and she’s started reaching out to the younger generation a little more directly.” Even so, he said, “it’s been incremental.”
“If she can virtually wrap up the nomination she can maintain a fairly measured pace and that’s a good thing to do. It gives her a chance to be smart about what she’s doing,” Gergen said.
After Tuesday night, Clinton will benefit from “an assumption on the parts of many Democrats that she’s going to win this thing” and Sanders’ path is now “a very steep one.”
“I think his strategy going forward may be less about winning the nomination and more about shaping the future of the Democratic Party starting with Hillary Clinton,” Gergen said. The more pledged delegates he can collect between now and the convention in July, the more bargaining power he’ll have with Clinton to shape her general-election candidacy. “He will be looking to have conversations with her side on a platform, about the priorities of a presidency.”
Indeed, in his victory speech after winning Vermont, Sanders said, "This campaign is not just about electing a president. It is about making a political revolution” and bringing “millions and millions of people into the political process” who don’t normally vote, in order to “stand up to the billionaire class and tell them that they can’t have it all.”
That's a message Clinton can take all the way to November.