Running to the left, Hillary Clinton is banking on the Obama coalition to win
WASHINGTON — Hillary Rodham Clinton is running as the most liberal Democratic presidential front-runner in decades, with positions on issues from gay marriage to immigration that would, in past elections, have put her at her party's precarious left edge.
The moves are part of a strategic conclusion by Clinton's emerging campaign: that it can harness the same kind of young and diverse coalition as Barack Obama did in 2008 and 2012, bolstered by even stronger appeal among women.
Her approach — outlined in interviews with aides and advisers — is a bet that social and demographic shifts mean that no left-leaning position Clinton takes now is likely to hurt her when she makes her case to moderate and independent voters in the general election next year.
The strategy relies on calculations about the 2016 landscape, including that up to 31 percent of the electorate will be Americans of color — a projection that may be overly optimistic for her campaign. It factors in that a majority of independent voters already support same-sex marriage and the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants that Clinton endorsed this month.
The game plan also hinges on a conclusion by Clinton strategists that the broad appeal of issues such as paid family leave, a higher minimum wage and more affordable college will help outweigh any concerns about costs.
The campaign's overall calculus relies on a mix of polling — including both internal and public surveys — internal focus groups and what advisers described as gut feelings about the national mood. It also reflects what Clinton backers say are her firmly held personal convictions and her pragmatism.
"Her approach to this really is not trying to take a ruler out and measure where she wants to be on some ideological scale," Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta said. "It's to dive deeply into the problems facing the American people and American families. She's a proud wonk, and she looks at policy from that perspective."
Clinton's full embrace of same-sex marriage in the first days of her campaign was followed by clear statements in favor of scrapping get-tough immigration and incarceration policies — many of which took root during her husband's administration. She has also weighed in with liberal takes on climate change, abortion rights and disparities in income and opportunity between rich and poor.
All are issues that have been divisive in the past for both Democrats and Republicans. But none are now judged to be radioactive for Democrats, which gives Clinton more elbow room.
By taking such positions, aides and advisers hope Clinton will not only inoculate herself against a serious challenge from the left in the primaries, but that she also will be able to push on through the general election. Her campaign believes American public opinion has moved left not only since Bill Clinton won election in 1992 on a centrist platform, but also since Barack Obama won on a more liberal one.
Republicans — as part of a broader critique of her trustworthiness — accuse Clinton of flip-flopping on some positions and hiding on others, such as free trade, to cater to the liberal base.
"Clinton's already moved her position leftward on numerous hot button issues to the base, including immigration, gay marriage, Wall Street and criminal justice reforms," conservative America Rising PAC director Colin Reed wrote in a position paper Friday.
"Clinton's moves reinforce all her worst attributes as a candidate and hurt her image among voters of all stripes," Reed said. "Progressive voters know that she's not truly one of them" while swing voters "see a desperate politician staking out far-left positions that are outside of the mainstream of most Americans."
Many political strategists also say Clinton will be hard-pressed to re-create Obama's winning coalition and that the 30 percent to 31 percent non-white turnout that some of her outside backers are projecting may be out of reach. Exit polls show non-white turnout was 28 percent in 2012 and 26 percent in 2008. Clinton will have to expand Hispanic support, increase turnout among independent women and still hold onto a large share of black voters drawn to the first African American major party nominee.
The bold stance on immigration is widely seen as one way to jump-start the expansion of Hispanic support Clinton will need, although advisers say she had already made up her mind about citizenship and there was no reason to put off an announcement. When outlining her position in Nevada, where 1 in 4 residents is Hispanic, she made a point of saying that no Republican would go as far — and alleged the GOP wanted immigrants to have "second-class status."
"People often talk about the electorate moving left," said Clinton senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan. "I think it's more that the electorate is just getting more practical. For Hillary Clinton, that matches her evidence-based approach. The arguments that persuade her are evidence-based and progressive."
He cited the growing consensus that mass incarceration is expensive and unworkable, and that the country is never going to deport all of the more than 11 million people who are here illegally.
Advisers do not dispute that Clinton has a finger to the wind of the national mood, but they insist the timing and substance of her positions are not driven by polling. The still-cautious candidate has declined to make clear her position on two key proposals that many liberals oppose: the Keystone XL Pipeline and Obama's free-trade deal.
Sullivan also noted that some of Clinton's early proposals "cut against the grain" of political liberalism, such as her emphasis on improving the playing field for American small businesses.
Clinton will debut policy proposals to ease lending bottlenecks for small businesses on campaign trips to Iowa and New Hampshire this week. The impetus came largely from conversations Clinton had in the run-up to the campaign and a six-month policy review led by Sullivan that looked at how Clinton might address a range of national concerns.
"The thing she is most interested in is not what position is most popular, it's what do people worry about," Sullivan said.
Clinton's 2008 campaign was so focused on polling data and the consequences of saying the wrong thing that it sometimes appeared paralyzed. Some of that campaign's infamous staff battles focused on the advice from senior adviser Mark Penn, a pollster, to avoid more liberal positions in the primary that year for fear they would hurt her in a general election contest.
This time is different, backers say. "The strategic advantage the Democrats have is that the distance between our base and the middle is shorter than for Republicans," said Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress and a longtime Clinton confidant.
In other words, Clinton's strategists say, she does not face the same whiplash as Republican candidates who seek to dial back hard-right positions on issues such as abortion or immigration adopted during a competitive primary.
Senior campaign officials acknowledged that trade is a divisive and fraught issue for Democrats and for her. Clinton's past support for the Asia free trade pact makes her current silence awkward at best, but her advisers are gambling that the issue won't leave an enduring rift within the party.
Clinton campaign leaders and outside loyalists also bridle at the perception that she is less of a progressive politician than, say, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. They point to Clinton's early career as a crusading lawyer in Arkansas and lifelong professional commitments to improving women's lives.
Warren has said she isn't running but has declined so far to endorse Clinton. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is running a strongly populist challenge to Clinton, and former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley — who has suggested Clinton is too hesitant and poll-driven — is expected to enter the race this month.
"If Clinton and other candidates are not seen as standing with Warren on the TPP trade deal and a number of other economic issues critical to working families, it could create an even greater sense of urgency" to get Warren into the race, said Gary Ritterstein, an adviser to the support group Ready for Warren.
The clearest shift in national attitudes, and Clinton's own, has come on same-sex marriage. She moved from saying she considered marriage to be between a man and a woman when she was first lady to backing civil unions as an alternative to marriage in 2008 to full support of gay and lesbian marriage now.
Public opinion polling suggests she is on safe ground, despite ongoing legal fights in several states. The firmest opposition to gay marriage is centered in red states and among Republican voters unlikely to consider voting for Clinton.
Pew Research polling shows that in August 2008 — when Clinton endorsed Obama as the Democratic nominee — 52 percent of Americans opposed legal same-sex marriage and 39 percent supported it. The same poll now shows 54 percent support for such marriages while 39 percent are opposed.
Shifts on criminal justice issues are less dramatic, but there are bipartisan efforts now to repeal some of the harshest and least flexible laws on the books for two decades. Outrage and revulsion over police killings of black men over the past year made the issue more urgent for many young, African American and socially liberal voters.
Last month, Clinton gave an address calling for dramatic changes in policing and prosecution to lessen the rate of incarceration. The remarks echo similar calls among both Democrats and some Republicans, such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.
"Two or three years ago," said Clinton policy adviser Ann O'Leary, "that speech might have been seen as a very left-leaning speech."