Hillary Clinton often talks about her adventures outside of patrician circles, recounting heart-to-hearts with everyday Americans and the life-lessons she has learned from her voters.
“I meet people every single day who make an impression on me,” Clinton said in a campaign-funded podcast recording released by her campaign last week. “If you have the chance to really talk to somebody, you learn about yourself as well as the other person.”
But for months, the Democratic nominee hasn’t been meeting with just anyone. Since clinching the nomination in June, Clinton pulled back from the traditional rules of engagement for a major-party nominee, preferring to avoid unpredictable exchanges with voters and restricting her meetings with journalists.
She has not held a town hall to take questions from voters in more than six weeks. The campaign has continued to carefully vet the voters she meets for roundtable discussions, and rarely does Clinton walk into a room without knowing who will be in it.
She has largely maintained her distance from journalists, too, prohibiting the media from entering her fundraisers and traveling the country in a separate press plane from her press corps, though there are plans to start a press plane soon. And she has mostly managed to avoid discussing FBI Director James Comey’s harsh assessment of her use of a private email server as secretary of state.
Instead of leaving her campaign to chance, Clinton has carefully controlled her public image through favorable interviews like her campaign’s podcast, “With Her,” curated social media posts and meticulously planned appearances with voters.
Clinton’s cautious strategy is not new. In many respects, it is simply an enhancement on what Barack Obama deployed in 2008 and 2012. But with a comfortable lead in enough swing states to vault her to the White House if the election were held today, Clinton has retreated further into a bubble to avoid the sort of self-inflicted errors that have plagued her bombastic GOP rival.
“You should never interfere with an opponent while he’s in process of destroying himself,” said Tommy Vietor, a former spokesman for President Obama. “While [Donald Trump] spends his day starting fights on Twitter, she and Kaine can focus on local media markets and deliver a clean message.”
In short, with a solid lead in the polls, the guiding mantra of Clinton’s campaign follows the Hippocratic oath: do no harm.
The Clinton campaign disputes the notion that she has avoided voters and the national press corps, pointing to her surprise visits to coffee shops and unscripted discussions with business owners.
“We don’t see it as caution, we see it as discipline,” said spokesman Nick Merrill, who also said she has held “nearly 400 interviews” with local and national media amounting to “several thousand questions from the press” so far this year. Aides highlight her commitment to preparation for even the most casual encounter as a sign of presidential temperament, in comparison to Donald Trump’s freewheeling style.
A typical campaign stop for Clinton is a predictable affair, involving a visit into friendly territory and limited interaction with the media.
On a visit last week to Des Moines, Iowa, for example Clinton stopped at a millennial-owned clothing company called Raygun whose owner store, Mike Draper, wore a t-shirt that said “AMERICA: HILL YES.” Clinton and Draper, in conversation, agreed that U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez was a “great guy.” Though she visited a coffee shop across the street unannounced and without knowing who the clientele would be, she said little to the press beyond the suggestion that reporters should try the coffee she was drinking.
Such visits with local business owners, voters and community leaders occur several times a week, but usually in controlled settings. The coffee shops and manufacturing facilities Clinton tours are carefully selected ahead of time by her campaign’s advance team, and she rarely takes shouted questions from the pack of press following her.
Clinton’s remove from her reporters has been in stark contrast to her media-friendly rival, who has held frequent press conferences and has made himself available to reporters and television interviewers. Trump also prefers large rallies or prepared speeches in front of mostly friendly crowds, and his campaign has been slower than Clinton’s to embrace its traveling press corps.
Both Clinton and Trump have declined to allow press to enter their private fundraisers, breaking with precedent set by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney during the 2012 election. She has held about a dozen impromptu question-and-answer sessions with reporters, or gaggles, since the beginning of the year.
Though Clinton appeared on Fox News on the Sunday after the convention, she has been far less likely than Trump to grant interviews with major national print publications, last holding a round of interviews shortly after she clinched the nomination on June 7. She has not held a formal press conference for more than 250 days.
In a way, Clinton’s approach is not much different from early during the Democratic primary. Then her campaign found businesses sympathetic to her, from a bowling alley manager in rural Iowa to a South Asian restaurant in Queens, New York. Her reminiscing about meeting average Americans harkens back to the earliest scripted days of her campaign, when she embarked on a listening tour before holding formal rallies. But the insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders forced Clinton to take more risks to secure the nomination. Now her campaign believes those risks are unnecessary.
Still, there are times when Clinton will often engage with voters who are of a different political view—after they have been screened by her campaign. Last week she visited a brewery in St. Petersburg, Florida owned by registered Republicans—who are undecided this fall. At a roundtable in West Virginia earlier this year, she had a dramatic exchange with a voter who confronted Clinton about her remarks that she would put “a lot of coal miners out of jobs.” In both cases, the campaign knew she was about to meet with Republicans, a Clinton aide said.
And Clinton does often linger at the rope line after her events, shaking hands and taking selfies and conversing with voters, though many of those exchanges are not captured on camera.
Unpredictable moments in the past have shattered the serenity of the campaign even when Clinton is riding high. At the rope line greeting voters in New York in early April, a Greenpeace activist asked Clinton when she was going to stop accepting money from fossil fuel interests. “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me,” she snapped on a video that went viral.
Clinton’s encounters with the press are often riskier. She was widely panned for saying during an interview with Fox News’ Chris Wallace last month that FBI Director James Comey had validated her public comments, when he had not. When she sought to clarify the remarks later at a meeting with black and Latino journalists, she said she “short-circuited” her answer, and meant to refer to her private interview with the FBI.
Even as she tends to avoids reporters, she has continued to pay homage to their task. “I am delighted to thank you for the important work you do every day, and now more than ever we need you to keep holding leaders and candidates accountable,” Clinton said earlier this month to a gathering of black and Latino journalists. “You help us see ourselves whole.”
She also continues to maintain that she loves the unpredictability of her days. In last week’s “With Her” podcast with her friendly interviewer—who is on the campaign’s payroll—a relaxed-sounding Clinton maintained that she takes something away from all the voters she meets.
“If you open yourself up to it, you can learn something new every day,” she said.
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