This is What Inevitability Looks Like: How Hillary Clinton Won the Invisible Primary

Any doubts about whether Hillary Clinton intends to run for president in 2016 were dispelled in early April when Politico reported that some entity or individual — the details are still not clear — signed a lease to rent two floors in Brooklyn Heights, New York as the site of her campaign headquarters.

According to rules set by the Federal Election Commission (FEC), such clear campaign-related activities necessitate that Mrs. Clinton file the necessary paperwork with the FEC within 15 days, which would amount to an official declaration of her candidacy. An announcement is therefore likely imminent.

To political observers, this announcement will come as no surprise. While the first primary — the Iowa caucuses — is still 9 months away, Clinton appears to have decisively won the “invisible primary.”

The invisible primary is the term used for the pre-election stage where would-be candidates gauge the public’s receptivity to their candidacy, size up the intentions of the class of mega-donors, and, since the Citizens United Supreme Court decision in 2010, monitor the strength of their respective super PACs.

The obvious question is, how did Clinton win the invisible primary so handily?

One component is a large, powerful, and diverse network of power-players — some well-known, others less so — who have collaborated to enable a smooth transition between teams Obama and Clinton.

One such figure is David Brock.

Formerly a confessed “right-wing hit man” and opponent of the Clintons in the early 1990s, Brock underwent a political conversion toward the end of Bill Clinton’s presidency and quickly became a Democratic loyalist. In 2004, he founded Media Matters, a media watchdog group that claims to combat misinformation espoused by conservatives.

Brock also founded the super PAC, American Bridge, in 2010, and deployed “trackers” across the country during the 2012 elections to scavenge for embarrassing statements made by Republican candidates. One such tracker, for instance, spotted Senate candidate Todd Akin spout the now infamous remark about “legitimate rape” while watching a local TV broadcast in Missouri.

Brock has been a stalwart defender of Hillary Clinton, during and after her tenure as secretary of state. Media Matters published numerous rebuttals to innuendos and accusations about Secretary Clinton’s handling of the attack on Benghazi and the alleged cover-up, and a team of more than a dozen American Bridge workers runs a website, “Correct the Record,” devoted to countering slights against Mrs. Clinton.

In October 2014, for instance, the site published a detailed, point-by-point rebuttal to an article published in Harper’s that was critical of her record.

David Brock, until February 2015, also sat on the board of another influential super PAC, Priorities USA Action. Formerly a pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities geared up for the 2016 presidential race not long after President Obama’s re-election. Former White House staffer and 2012 campaign manager for Obama, Jim Messina, joined Priorities in January 2014.

The third major super PAC, in addition to Brock’s American Bridge and Priorities USA Action, is Ready for Hillary, co-founded in early 2013 by Adam Parkhomenko and Allida Black. Like Priorities, it too benefits from collaboration with veterans of President Obama’s campaigns by recruiting battleground-strategist Mitch Stewart and national field director Jeremy Bird. More recently, former Obama pollster Joel Benenson and media strategist Jim Margolis also made the switch.

Together, these three super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited funds so long as they disclose their donors and do not coordinate with a candidate, have already raised lots of money. According to FEC filings, American Bridge and Ready for Hillary raised a combined $29 million in 2013 and 2014.

However, coordinating their efforts – particularly in regards to fundraising – has proven difficult and has at times strained relationships.

For instance, one micro-scandal involves Democratic fundraiser Mary Pat Bonner, who takes a 12.5 percent commission off the donations made to the nearly 10 groups associated with David Brock. One billionaire donor, Vin Ryan, was unaware of this arrangement when he wrote a check to Media Matters. The Association of Fundraising Professionals considers the taking of commissions by fundraisers to be unethical.

Another flare-up occurred when David Brock left the board of Priorities in February 2015 over what he believed were efforts by that organization to orchestrate “political hit jobs” against his own pro-Hillary groups.

Since then, the two leading super PACs — Priorities and Ready for Hillary — agreed to differentiate their fundraising efforts. Ready for Hillary, in keeping with its grassroots image, would seek donations less than $25,000, while Priorities would target the bigger spenders.

Priorities has pledged to collect $1 million donations from 30 different donors in time for the official start of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign and is currently one-third of the way toward reaching this goal.

If a network of powerful and wealthy organizations is the first component of her success in the invisible primary, the second component is a deep bench of public relations gurus and policy experts who have shaped her public persona and counseled her regarding her messaging on public policy — especially on the economy.

Mrs. Clinton has turned to the corporate world for an image makeover. As reported by the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Anne Gearan, one trusted adviser in the development of the “Clinton brand” is Wendy Clark, a senior marketer and brand strategist for Coca-Cola, who launched the “Share a Coke” campaign featuring names on the side of soda cans and bottles.

Another leading public relations adviser is Roy Spence, who has done marketing for DoubleTree, Southwest Airlines, and Wal-Mart. Spence co-founded the Purpose Institute with Rushing (the organization’s “chief purposeologist”) and believes that Hillary can win over the public by having her reveal “Hillary’s heart,” as he advised during her 2008 presidential bid.

Some Clintonites attribute her failed campaign in 2008 to her decision to act on the advice of long-time Clinton pollster and strategist Mark Penn, who recommended that she pose as a strong and confident policy wonk.

In this regard, Spence agrees with the newest addition to Mrs. Clinton’s communications team, Kristina Schake. Most recently, Schake promoted the initiatives of First Lady Michelle Obama, including her “Let’s Move!” campaign, before joining L’Oréal USA as the company’s chief communications officer. Her task is to undo Mrs. Clinton’s image as shrewd and aloof and to market her a relatable, likeable, and trustworthy candidate.

On this front, Mrs. Clinton has also turned to strategists and data-experts from the public affairs firm, Dewey Square Group, and the pro-Democrat PAC, EMILY’s List, to find ways to maximize her appeal to women voters.

Currently, Mrs. Clinton’s Twitter bio identifies her first as a “[w]ife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate,” as well as a “dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, [and] glass ceiling cracker.”

An important aspect of this image-repair involves combatting the perception that she is a member of the corporation-backed, establishment wing of the Democratic Party.

While Mrs. Clinton has not severed her ties to big business (she has received up to $200,000 in speaking fees from entities such as Goldman Sachs and the Carlyle Group, and two of her top fundraisers – Jonathan Mantz at Priorities USA and Susan Brophy at Ready for Hillary – represent companies like Comcast, Chevron, Verizon and JPMorgan Chase) she has sought economic policy advice from a diverse set of leading economists.

Though Wall Street-connected economists such as Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers still have Mrs. Clinton’s ear, she also discusses economic policy with more progressive, labor-focused economists, including Dean Baker, Robert Reich, Teresa Ghilarducci, and globalization skeptic Joseph Stiglitz.

Throughout the invisible primary, Mrs. Clinton has been careful to express her awareness of the economic suffering related to income inequality, stubbornly high unemployment figures, stagnant wages, and austere cuts to non-military discretionary spending without adopting rhetoric that also stokes class warfare.

During the 2015 State of the Union, for instance, she expressed her economic outlook in a tweet that was as finely calibrated as it was uncontroversial, agreeing with the president’s plans for developing “an economy that works for all,” and adding, “Now we need to step up & deliver for the middle class. #FairShot #FairShare.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of her image-maintenance during the later stages of the invisible primary relates to her handling of several scandals. These incidents have tested her ability to withstand and manage intense scrutiny from the press without aggravating an already infamously uneasy relationship.

Mrs. Clinton has relied on advisers and trustees – again, some veterans, some relative newcomers – to handle these controversies.

For instance, when it was discovered that the Clinton Foundation received foreign donations that were not cleared by the State Department during her tenure there, she tapped former Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, who served under Bill Clinton, to head the foundation and clean up the operation. While president of the University of Miami, Shalala handled several controversies – and raised over $1 billion for the school – before announcing her decision to step down in late 2014.

Also, when the press learned that Mrs. Clinton had saved tens of thousands of state-related emails to a private server in her home in Chappaqua, New York, Mrs. Clinton deployed a time-tested strategy: she allowed the speculation, gossip, and commentary to exhaust itself, issued a televised statement denying wrong-doing, and then, through a conference call featuring at least 25 supporters and surrogates, had her press secretary, 31-year-old Nick Merrill, establish and disseminate a set of common talking points to consolidate and amplify her message.

Thus, because of Mrs. Clinton’s adept image and crisis management (and because the extent of her impropriety has not been legally or politically adjudicated), she has emerged from the invisible primary if not unscathed, at least uncritically wounded, and is the definitive leading Democratic contender.

However, this status is at least partially attributed to the absence of any clear challengers. Massachusetts U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (whose confrontational stance toward Wall Street led some bankers to threaten to withhold donations to the Democratic Party), has vowed not to run in order to continue exerting influence from her perches on powerful Senate committees.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley is a possible primary opponent, but his fundraising efforts, amounting to just a few million dollars raised, are dwarfed by the tens of millions in the coffers of pro-Clinton super PACs.

U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I – Vt.), who is also contemplating a 2016 run, raised just $200,000 in 2014 through his leadership PAC, Progressive Voters of America.

However, Clinton’s conduct in the invisible primary has left her campaign vulnerable to criticism.

Clinton’s fundraising activities have come under scrutiny. When it was discovered that her former personal political action committee rented out a list of supporters to Ready for Hillary, the FEC investigated whether this was a violation of the ban on cooperation between candidates and super PACs and ought to be considered illicit, premature campaign-related activity.

The FEC cleared all parties of wrongdoing, but the case does represent the need for clarification regarding what potential candidates can and cannot do while they oversee their preliminary fundraising and organizing activities before declaring their candidacy.

FEC Chair Ann Ravel has criticized Jeb Bush’s pre-candidacy activities along these lines, calling it “absurd” that he legally can personally solicit donations (of all amounts) and build his campaign infrastructure so long as he claims he is still exploring his options and has not declared his candidacy.

However, potential legal snafus are not the only consequence of Mrs. Clinton’s handling of the invisible primary.

Gary Hart, former contender for the Democratic nomination in 1984 and 1988, and friend and adviser to Martin O’Malley, laments that Mrs. Clinton has thus far retained her popularity without being adequately pressed for specifics about major domestic and foreign policy issues.

Without a defined agenda, as well as with such cozy relations with Wall Street and major corporations, says Hart, Mrs. Clinton is vulnerable to a challenge on her left flank.

He advises that any challenger should aggressively seek smaller donations to establish a contrast with politicians in bothparties, who, since the Citizens United decision, have increasingly become beholden to wealthy, out-of-state special interests. This is the case with the legally embroiled Sen. Bob Menendez (D – N.J.), as well as with Republican freshmen U.S. Senators Joni Ernst (R – Iowa), who attributes her political victory to Koch-back groups, and Dan Sullivan (R – Alaska), who told the U.S. Chambers of Commerce in February that it is “doubtful” he would be in office were it not for the group’s support.

Sen. Sanders, who has recently been zigzagging the country and seemingly been talking to anyone with 30 free minutes and an open mic, has heeded Mr. Hart’s advice. Sanders has called for a “political revolution” to confront the power of special interests in Washington and in federal elections and advocates regulating the role of money in politics. He claims the average donation amount for his senatorial campaigns is a just $45.

While Mrs. Clinton has clearly won the invisible primary, she is still more than a year away from securing the party’s nomination, though she has begun that process, too.

According to Politico, she has reportedly allocated loyalists from her political past, the party, and her super PACs to leadership positions in the soon-to-be campaign apparatus, and political operatives are already active in early and key primary states, including Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

At this point, her securing the Democratic Party’s nomination seems all but inevitable, but whether she can win over the rest of the country is, well, anything but.

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