The Iowa Antidote

If Hillary Clinton wants to get past her email troubles, she should get herself to Iowa.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Get thee to the Hawkeye State! Above, Hillary Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women’s Empowerment Event at the United Nations on March 10, 2015.

Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images

DES MOINES, Iowa—Bill Clinton had a strategy when he faced the kind of difficult moment his wife is enduring now. He would throw himself into campaigning or his work. Let the press and his partisan pursuers bleat, he was going to return to important issues. By engaging in a flurry of activity, he showed voters that no matter what the odds, he would work for them. “I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance,” he famously said during the 1992 New Hampshire primary, when he came back from what seemed like an impossible deficit, “and I’ll be there for you until the last dog dies.”

That is what Hillary Clinton should do in Iowa, say some Democratic strategists. In order to turn the page on the questions swirling around her use of a private email account, she should throw her back into an Iowa campaign in April, when the last translucent veil is dropped from the pretense that she’s not running. (Were she not running, she wouldn’t have bothered with the U.N. press conference). 

Clinton’s allies and advisers believe one of the bedrock attributes that voters appreciate about the former secretary of state is her tenacity. Beaten, she is never defeated. That was the story of her New Hampshire primary victory over Sen. Barack Obama in 2008. He’d beaten her in Iowa, but she didn’t give up.

She can show that again by returning to Iowa now. She doesn’t face a real challenge there in the caucuses, but working hard would show that she wasn’t waiting for a coronation. Furthermore, amid the email flap, the image of her working the crowd would make a nice foil. Under siege, her response should be to charge ahead. That would be a direct contrast to her ambivalence about the state in 2008. “In every way, they want this time around to look and feel different,” said one Washington-based adviser. “There’s no better place to do that than in Iowa.”

Campaigning from Davenport to Council Bluffs to Cedar Falls would remind people of her work ethic. Clinton talks about all the air miles she logged as secretary of state—something likely Republican candidate Carly Fiorina scoffs at—but that mileage is an easily quantifiable way to convey to voters a sense of her determination. Racking up miles on Highways 35 and 80 would do her similar good.

It’s easy for voters to imagine that you’ll work on their wages, health care, jobs, and the high costs of college if they see you working hard right in front of them. 

Strategists also argue that Iowa is ready-made for one-on-one, close-quarters campaigning, which would allow Clinton to engage voters in real conversations. Instead of looking magisterial in front of a U.N. banner, she would be captured talking to real people about their real world. 

Iowa is also inexpensive; a campaign can go all out without having to spend a great deal of money. Sources in the state believe Clinton is moving this way. She has hired Matt Paul to run her operation there. He’s a longtime aide to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Clinton friend who cares about the state of the Democratic Party in Iowa. On the day the Washington Post broke the news about Paul, I was in Iowa interviewing Republican operatives. They all knew Paul’s reputation in the state and agreed the hire was proof Clinton is taking the state seriously. Democrats think so, too. Paul will be aided by several other top campaign picks, including Lily Adams from the Democratic National Committee’s communications operation and longtime Iowa Democratic strategist Brenda Kole.

Iowa is a swing state, which means it’s smart to do the work now. A strategist working with the Clinton campaign explained that since Iowa is the first contest and the caucus process requires a lot of organization, the campaign wants to work hard here as a way to use the state as a laboratory for organizing tactics they’ll use elsewhere during the general election. “What [President Obama] was great about was building a system that could be taken across the country and replicated across the country,” says one Democrat close to Clinton’s nascent campaign. 

Iowa also offers a chance for the Clinton campaign to go on the early offensive against the GOP candidates already rolling through the state. Heaven knows they’re already going on the offensive against her.