Hillary Clinton's once-in-a-campaign chance to reset the narrative

Reach out to undecided voters or focus on the base? Campaign veterans tell PRWeek what they expect from Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech.

Hillary Clinton's once-in-a-campaign chance to reset the narrative

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will take to the stage and claim her nomination at the Democratic National Convention tonight in Philadelphia after having been buoyed by an all-star lineup of speakers this week from President Barack Obama to actress Meryl Streep.

Politicos on both sides of the aisle say the Democratic convention has done an effective job of humanizing Clinton and putting into context what her presidency would mean for the women’s movement. To keep the momentum going, particularly after a rash of negative press for the Democratic Party, they say the former senator will have to walk a tightrope during her acceptance address.

Yet experts differ on whether Clinton should focus on her party’s base or reach out to undecided voters.

Mark Penn, Democratic pollster, one-time Burson-Marsteller CEO, and former chief strategist on Clinton’s 2008 campaign, asserts she will need to do more than unify the Democrats on Thursday night. The president and managing partner of investment advisory firm Stagwell Group, who says he isn’t at the convention for work but "to enjoy myself," says Clinton’s keynote is an opportunity for her to connect with swing voters. She could make pointed remarks about particular policies or a sincere recognition of the economic struggles faced by blue-collar voters, he says.

"In this electorate, the decisive voters are the 20% who right now don’t like either candidate," explains Penn. "She has to use this hour of primetime TV with an audience of 40 million to restore some of the trust and confidence they might have that she is the person to handle today’s turbulent world and bring about change."

To do that, Clinton will have to go beyond talking about gun control and diversity.

"She’ll have to present a really strong plan around issues such as trade and terrorism, because that will speak more to people who are considering voting for Trump," explains Penn. "And obviously, the economy is an important issue for a Democrat or Republican."

Clinton may also rely on another message to win over some of the dissatisfied members of the electorate.

"She can also frame this election about bringing us together, about bridging our differences, and reducing partisanship, because she is the logical choice for that. Her address can be about framing the election to them in a way that says, ‘This is her time,’" says Penn. "And I think a big part of that is the fact that she’d be the first female president; that’ll be an important part of the case she’ll make for herself."

Others believe Clinton should focus largely on the Democratic base in her speech tonight.

"The Democrats traditionally have an electorate voter advantage, because of the high turnout numbers from the Democratic base and the way the electorate is broken out," says Keith Strubhar, SVP at MSLGroup. But given the acrimonious primary race between Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, he says, "I think it is really important for her to solidify the base."

"You can see that’s what they’ve wanted to do in the way they’ve structured the convention; you can see they are really driving messages to the key groups that they know will help them get over the top," says Strubhar.

Howard Opinsky, corporate and risk practice leader at Hill+Knowlton Strategies and a former aide to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), notes that immediately after the convention, Clinton and running mate Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) will embark on a bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio. Clinton and Trump are running neck-and-neck in the two Northeastern swing states.

"I think the day after the convention is really when she’ll start trying to appeal to swing voters, in particular white, working-class men that Hillary Clinton needs to win this election," says Opinsky.

Instead, Clinton should try to reset the narrative about her on Thursday night following weeks of bad press. First, FBI Director James Comey called Clinton’s handling of classified information "extremely careless" during her time as secretary of state. Then Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned earlier this week after emails published by Wikileaks appeared to show favoritism to Clinton’s campaign over that of Sanders during the primaries.

Although Sanders has publicly endorsed Clinton, and even encouraged the delegates to approve her nomination by affirmation on Tuesday, some of his most vocal supporters have protested outside the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

"The Democrats couldn’t have asked for better timing to have the convention at the end of this run of bad news, because this is when they have the most control of the narrative that they’re ever going to have. Having already clinched the nomination and the election still a few months away, the convention is a natural pivot point to try and put this stuff behind her," says Opinsky. "And I think it is critical that she does change the narrative."

He adds that Clinton "needs to paint a picture of herself that is different from the one that has been painted for decades and punctuated by the latest instances where she appeared to be above the law."

To that end, Opinsky says Clinton’s performance will "have to appeal to the unity of her voter base without alienating those Republican swing voters or Republican (leaning) independents."

"She has to walk a real tightrope, because I think there is more danger in her speech than opportunity," he added. "She just needs to get through it without making any fouls. She doesn’t want to say things that could give Republicans a chance to double down on many of criticism that have been made about her."

Going on offense against Trump
Corey Ealons, partner at Vox Global and a former communications staffer in the Obama White House and the president’s 2008 campaign, says in addition to stitching together narratives from convention speakers and forging a sense of unity and confidence, Clinton needs to put her persona up against Trump in the best possible light.

"Elections are all about contrast," he says. "He or she who frames their opposition first is likely to have the control of the campaign narrative going forward. But it also comes down to which of the two narratives is more believable – the one being painted by the opposition or the one you’re painting about the opposition."

"And I think coming out of this week, the Democrats have the more believable narrative," he concludes.

Robby Schrum, MD at Keybridge Communications and a former staffer at DC-based polling firm Winston Group and for former Rep. Steve Buyer (R-IN), says Clinton has an opportunity to be optimistic after Trump’s dour acceptance speech at the Republican convention.

"I think Trump’s doom-and-gloom speech last week may have resonated with some of his supporters, but I don’t think it did much to get people in the middle into his camp," says Schrum. "Clinton will avoid any temptation to get too negative and will also want to remain above the fray when it comes to Trump."

He thinks Clinton should take a cue from first lady Michelle Obama, who never mentioned Trump by name during her convention address, but got digs in nonetheless, with lines like, "When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is, ‘When they go low, we go high.’"

"If Hillary Clinton can find a similar way to go after her opponent and take him down a few pegs without appearing to be nasty or mean-spirited, but rather clever and creative about it, I think that will go over well," says Schrum.

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