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Getting to Know Hillary — Sort Of

- December 19, 2007

Way back in the early days of social scientific research on voting behavior, Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee, in Voting (1954), reported widespread public misunderstanding of where the presidential candidates actually stood on key issues, accompanied by a willingness to project onto oneself the issue positions of the candidate one favored or to distance oneself from the positions of the candidate one opposed. The strategic implication is obvious: If a candidate concentrates on projecting a pleasant persona for himself or herself and/or unpleasant ones for his or her opponents rather than staking out long-winded, detailed, and — for most voters, boring — positions on a wide array of issues, then good things are likely to happen on election day.

All of which provides useful background for a nice column by Dana Milbank in the December 19 Washington Post. Milbank’s topic is the fledgling — and apparently already sputtering — “The Hillary I Know” initiative that the Clinton campaign has just rolled out. The strategic problem that the Clinton campaign is trying to deal with is, as Milbank puts it, that “Voters like her brains and her experience, but they don’t necessarily like, well, her.” So, in an attempt to “humanize” the candidate, her campaign has begun to push a new slogan and a new website offering numerous testimonials from various friends and constituents.

This is where things get interesting. What happens when the candidate insists on talking about the issues and balks at getting personal?

“The get-to-know me campaign has hit a snag: Hillary. ‘I know that people have been saying, “Well, we got to know more about her. We want to know more about her personally.” I totally get that,” Hillary acknowledged. … ‘It’s a little hard for me. It’s not easy for me to talk about myself’ — especially, Milbank notes, when there are all those wonkish policy issues to talk about, with which the candidate herself is so enthralled.

As Milbank tells it, try as she might, Senator Clinton simply cannot stop herself from talking about policy issues. A case in point from a stump speech in Ottumwa, Iowa:

bq. Early in her speech, she tried gamely to speak in the first person. ‘I was raised in a middle-class family,’ she said in a soft voice. ‘My father, who was a World War II Navy vet, came home from serving our country and wanted to start a family and start a small business and save enough money to buy a house.’

bq. But after a minute of this, Clinton retreated to what for her is safer ground: the impersonal world of policy.

bq. ‘I figure that we can provide 50,000 Iowa families with at least $300 in additional emergency heating assistance, and I can help 80,000 Iowa familis reduce their energy bills by up to 20 percent through immediate weatherization plans,’ she vowed. Silence in the room.

bq. ‘My plan would provide 930,000 Iowa households with new matching tax cuts to save.’ …’I would also provide 774,000 Iowa workeres who currently have no employer-sponsored retirement accounts an opportunity to save in your own retirement account.’ Crowd noise at pin-drop decibels.

There is more. For the full Milbank column plus videos of testimonials from friends and constitutuents, click here.