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The Clinton Campaign: Mystery machine

 OLD businesses find it hard to redefine their brands. The task is not much easier for politicians. On April 14th Hillary Clinton held her first campaign event since announcing that she is running for president. It was at a community college in Monticello, a town of 3,800 people in Iowa. The idea was to appear modest and low-key—to make out that she is just like any other politician trying to earn an honest vote. Yet as scores of journalists (and a few protesters and supporters) sprinted across the grass outside the college in the hope of capturing a glimpse of her, the difficulties of this rebranding were apparent.
 
Unlike the three Republicans who have declared so far (Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz), she declined to hold a rally to kick off her campaign. Instead, the former secretary of state tweeted and then uploaded a short video to a new website, in which she appeared with several Iowans who talked about their dreams for the future. Mrs Clinton’s team then announced that rather than taking a private jet, she would drive to Iowa from New York in a van called “Scooby” after the children’s cartoon “Scooby-Doo”. (Her husband presumably plays the role of Shaggy.) In this van she arrived in Monticello, along with two cars of Secret Service agents.
 
After years of jet-setting, courting wealthy donors and giving $300,000 speeches, Mrs Clinton worries that she may be perceived as elitist. Smaller events, like these in Iowa, from which the press are largely excluded and at which carefully vetted regular folks are allowed to speak, help her to soften that impression. In Monticello, Mrs Clinton spoke of becoming a grandmother, of her parents’ work ethic and of her days at university. Her time as First Lady, senator and secretary of state barely came up.
 
This strategy is crucial in Iowa, where Mrs Clinton has an unhappy history. In the state’s Democratic caucuses in 2008, she was humiliated, beaten not just by Barack Obama but also by John Edwards, a former senator later brought low by the revelation that he had cheated on his wife while she had cancer. Mrs Clinton’s campaign then was widely seen as too grand for Iowan Democrats, who are used to meeting presidential candidates face-to-face. Some still complain about how she arrived in a helicopter and immediately staged big rallies. “This time she has even hired an Iowan for her work in Iowa,” marvels Ryan Crane, an activist based in Des Moines who supported John Edwards in 2008.
 
This show is necessary partly because Mrs Clinton faces no serious competition for the Democratic nomination. Her two most likely challengers are Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland, and Jim Webb, a former Virginia senator. Mr O’Malley will run as an economic populist, despite his centrist record as governor. Mr Webb is a gruff war hero who rails against inequality and foreign wars. Both men are hampered by the fact that Iowans would struggle to recognise them in the street (see chart).
Mrs Clinton is thus working hard for votes that she seems assured of getting in almost any circumstances. She has the luxury of starting slowly because, being so far ahead of her challengers, she does not need to say much. Instead, she can make a show of acting as if she is not a political superstar and still be guaranteed attention. Before she arrived in Iowa, TV stations expended a vast amount of energy reporting on her choice of lunch at a roadside burrito restaurant in Ohio (where she put so little effort into bonding with ordinary Americans that the manager did not realise she had passed through until he was tipped off and checked the security camera).
 
Have yourself a Scooby snack
In Monticello Mrs Clinton revealed that one of her aims as president would be to get “unaccountable money” out of politics “once and for all, even if that takes a constitutional amendment”. Since constitutional amendments are nearly impossible, this is not much of a promise. She also spoke blandly but intelligently about inequality and education. Being the elder stateswoman of the Democratic Party means she can perhaps afford to be dull. As she drives around in Scooby, there is no sign yet of any meddling kids who can stop her.
 
 
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