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Hillary Clinton's Secret Strengths

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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Is Hillary Clinton a strong candidate for president?

Jason Zengerle of New York magazine answers this question, focusing not only on how good Clinton is on the campaign trail, but also on how much her electioneering skills matter.

The article is worth reading in full. To summarize:

-- In presidential general elections, candidate skills aren’t very important. Anyone who wins a nomination will have “good enough” abilities.

-- Clinton has plenty of rough spots as a campaigner, but she easily clears the “good enough” bar.

As Zengerle shows, we have a tendency to remember only the strengths of winners and the weaknesses of losers. People remember Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe and think of it as typical of his awkwardness on the campaign trail, while Barack Obama’s awful performance in the first debate is either forgotten or thought of as atypical.

If Romney had won -- which he might have, had the economy been even worse -- we would have reversed those narratives, fitting them into stories about Romney's strengths and Obama's weaknesses.

Every general-election loser -- Walter Mondale, Michael Dukakis, Bob Dole, John Kerry, Mitt Romney, the Jimmy Carter of 1980 -- gets this treatment. By contrast, every winner, including the 1976 version of Carter, is seen as a good candidate. In fact, each of the losers had sufficient skills to win, but the fundamentals (such as how the economy was doing or whether the country was at war or peace) were against them. 

Campaign skills, the kind displayed by such "losers," are crucial in the politiking required to get a party's nomination in the first place. If general-election campaigns are all about the fundamentals, nomination contests are about the candidates.

The most visible skills, however, such as delivering speeches and interacting with the press and the voters, aren't necessarily the most important ones. What matters is winning the support of party actors -- everyone from politicians to interest-group leaders to grass-roots activists. The ability to work a room and to develop long-term relationships with these people can make a big difference.

Clinton’s skills are underrated, partly because they are of the less visible kind. She has managed to wrap up the Democratic nomination, practically speaking, and in the process, as Zengerle notes, she has signed up a large part of Obama’s field staff from 2008.

This is impressive, given the enmity the hard-core campaigners felt by the end of the bitter 2008 contest. More important, the people who were drawn to Obama in the first place weren't those inclined to jump on the bandwagon of just any party favorite. Why have they signed on with Clinton? She has either built a personal relationship with them, or she has made such connections with party leaders, whom the professionals look to for a seal of approval.

No presidential candidate is chosen by accident. The nominations are won, not inherited. And while it shouldn’t make much difference in the general election, Clinton’s accomplishments so far in the 2016 cycle are a product of her political skills.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net