NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 10: Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks to a crowd during a book signing for her new book, "Hard Choices" at a Barnes & Noble on June 10, 2014 in New York City. Clinton has published the book in what many believe is the beginning of another bid for the presidency. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Hillary Trips and Shrugs

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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Repeat enough times to make it sink in: In presidential elections, candidates and their campaigns are all-important -- for the nomination. But they are only marginally important for the general election.

This is an important rule, for example, when assessing Hillary Clinton’s electioneering, now taking the form of a book tour. There have been plenty of reviews of her book rollout, including some criticisms of her performance in a National Public Radio interview yesterday. But unless you believe her grip on the Democratic nomination is far more tenuous than it appears, there’s pretty much nothing to talk about.

What people think of Clinton won’t matter very much when it comes to the 2016 general election. Or, rather, what people think of her in November 2016 will reflect how they feel about her party, not her personality. She’ll almost certainly wind up doing about as well as any other mainstream liberal Democrat would do. And to the extent that candidates and their campaigns can matter, it’ll be during the fall of 2016, not in early summer 2014.

For nomination politics, however, candidates and their campaigns are extremely important. In fact, they’re pretty much all there is. As a result, minor gaffes and other superficial, seemingly fleeting events can become important, as Rick Perry found out after a series of debate fiascos during the 2012 cycle. Still, deeper relationships with important party actors are the foundation of successful nomination campaigns, and few candidates have had more solid relationships with more party actors than Clinton/2016. And so gaffes and campaign events aren’t really going to matter much to her, either.

At least, that’s what appears to be going on. As I’ve said before, we still don’t have all that much information. It is possible that many of those who seem happy with Clinton have adopted that attitude because it seems safest for now, and many of them might be willing to jump if a viable alternative materialized. So the way Democrats react when the media declare a gaffe will be telling.

But mostly, there’s nothing to talk about. Unless there’s an active nomination battle, subtle shifts in Clinton’s long-established image won’t matter much.

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