ALEXANDRIA, Va. – The 2016 presidential election may be 1,165 days away, but several hundred thousand people – including more than 600 from metro Buffalo – are already “Ready for Hillary.”
That’s how many have signed up at www.readyforhillary.com, say the organizers of the political action committee that aims to persuade former Secretary of State and New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton to take another shot at the presidency in 2016.
Based for now in a donated storefront space in a Virginia strip mall 10 miles south of the White House, “Ready for Hillary” is already buzzing like any beginning campaign office, with five workers working the phones and volunteers stuffing envelopes.
The Ready for Hillary “Super PAC” is already putting together something Clinton lacked in her 2008 bid for the Democratic nomination: a grass-roots army – assembled in part by some of the tech-savvy people who helped Barack Obama beat her five years ago and win re-election last year.
“What we’re doing is not inside baseball,” said Adam Parkhomenko, 27, a former Clinton political aide who serves as the PAC’s executive director. “We’re building a structure that can support her if she does decide to run.”
What’s more, the group has the backing and the advice of two veterans from Bill Clinton’s presidency, Harold M. Ickes and James Carville.
“We owe it to Hillary to start putting the building blocks of her campaign together now. The modern political campaign demands it,” Carville said in an email to the Ready for Hillary mailing list.
Of course, neither Ready for Hillary nor its namesake can expect an easy glide path to the White House in 2016. Republican groups are already aiming to knock Clinton out before she enters the ring. And there are questions about how a start-up Super PAC can evolve into a multimillion-dollar campaign, and whether its early focus on a Clinton candidacy may hurt more than help.
But none of that has stopped Ready for Hillary from becoming what looks like a campaign-in-waiting, rolling out high-profile endorsements, raising $1.25 million as of the end of June and signing up respected veterans of “Hillaryland” – as well as the architects of Obama’s much-lauded 2012 grass-roots campaign.
For her part, Clinton is steering clear of all questions about whether she’ll seek the Democratic nomination, instead focusing on work at the recently renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation and on paid speeches, including one at the University at Buffalo on Oct. 23.
Clinton is not expected to announce her intentions until January 2015 at the earliest, but her supporters say there’s a good reason for a group like Ready for Hillary to start laying the groundwork now.
Tapping Obama strategy
Whereas old-time presidential campaigns tended to be two-year affairs built largely on the belief that money and the television ads it buys were paramount, Obama’s 2008 campaign relied primarily on an army of well-organized supporters that never was allowed to disband. Sticking together in part through social media, Obama 2008 morphed into a pro-Obama group called Organizing for America, which in turn morphed into Obama 2012.
Given Obama’s success at keeping his core supporters together and enlisting new supporters, the people behind Ready for Hillary say it only makes sense for them to start assembling an army of their own more than three years before Election Day 2016.
“We’re building what we believe is needed right now,” Parkhomenko said. “We’re building upon what worked so well the last two cycles.”
That work started in January, when Parkhomenko teamed with Allida Black, a historian at George Washington University and longtime Clinton backer, to launch the PAC.
Both were experienced political hands: Parkhomenko worked for Clinton’s political operation from 2003 to 2008, and Black formed a pro-Hillary PAC called WomenCount in 2008.
It didn’t take long for that experience to pay off. In April, Carville announced his support for Ready for Hillary.
Then in June, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who backed Obama in 2008, said she was “Ready for Hillary” – and that the PAC bearing that name could revive a Clinton political operation that had been dormant for five years.
“Hillary Clinton had to give up her political operation while she was making us proud, representing us around the world as an incredible secretary of state, and that’s why Ready for Hillary is so critical,” McCaskill said.
Raising $1.25 million
By July, the group announced it had raised $1.25 million in the first half of the year and that it was signing up a new supporter every nine seconds. Ready for Hillary won’t specify how many email contacts it has collected, except to say that it’s in the hundreds of thousands, but the group now has more than 730,000 “likes” on Facebook and nearly 75,000 Twitter followers.
The support the group has garnered so far goes beyond the grass roots, too. Longtime Clinton fundraiser Susie Tompkins Buell has given Ready for Hillary $25,000, the most the group will accept. Others on the contributor list include former aide Susan Thomases and Thomas F. “Mack” McClarty III, President Bill Clinton’s first chief of staff.
Perhaps most significantly, though, in July the group hired 270 Strategies to build its field operation – which is just what the consulting group’s founders, Mitch Stewart and Jeremy Bird, did for Obama in 2012, setting up a sophisticated, tech-heavy get-out-the-vote operation that surpassed expectations on Election Day.
Stewart worked for Obama’s first presidential campaign as far back as 2007, but he said his decision to back Clinton this time “has a lot to do with her record of service to the country.”
“We want to make sure that if she were to decide to announce, that she have the most cutting-edge tactics and strategies available,” Stewart said.
Lessons of ’08
That clearly wasn’t the case for Clinton in 2008, when her campaign barely had a campaign organization in several low-profile caucus states where the uber-organized Obama swept to victory.
“There’s no question that lessons were learned from 2008,” said Ickes, the Washington lawyer and longtime Clinton backer.
Ickes said he and other Clinton backers “wanted there to be some committee to try to help encourage her to run, to show that she has broad and deep support.”
The group is likely a benefit to Clinton in another way too, said New York political consultant Phil Singer.
“The nice thing is that it allows a lot of the infrastructure-building to take place without forcing the candidate to be out there and taking all the hits,” said Singer, who worked for Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Then again, Ready for Hillary’s early start cuts both ways.
“The downside is that it could magnify the attention on her too early,” Singer said.
That seems to be just what Republicans want.
A host of GOP efforts are already under way to try to undermine Clinton’s possible candidacy.
Leading the way is StopHillary2016.org, which is run by America Rising, a PAC founded by Matt Rhoades, who served as campaign manager for Mitt Romney, last year’s GOP presidential nominee.
Arguing that Republicans waited too long to attack Obama in 2012, Tim Miller, the America Rising PAC’s executive director, said his outfit aims to research Clinton’s record and lay it bare for all to see long before 2016.
Meantime, Miller dismissed Ready for Hillary as “an attempt by folks to get to raise their visibility in Clinton world, given the potential for 2016.”
Amid such attacks, Ready for Hillary vows to stay focused on organizing and to leave the business of defending Clinton to other Democratic PACs. In fact, the Washington Post reported last week that Priorities USA Action, the pro-Obama group that led the Democratic attacks on Romney last year, is gearing up to support Clinton.
That frees up Ready for Hillary to work at the grass-roots level. The group’s leaders are talking about holding events in cities around the country – Buffalo included – to build local support for a Clinton candidacy, as well as starting chapters on college campuses to enlist the sort of young voters that backed Obama in big numbers.
To ultimately succeed, though, Ready for Hillary’s leaders will have to find a way to transfer the organization to the candidate once she declares.
“It’s hard to see how they change the shingle on the door and call it the Clinton campaign,” said Bob Biersack, senior fellow at the Center for Responsive Politics, which bills itself as the nation’s leading nonpartisan, nonprofit research group tracking the influence of money in politics.
Still, Ready for Hillary can sell or rent its mailing list to a nascent Clinton campaign, Biersack said. And there’s no legal reason why Stewart and Bird can’t simply move over to work for the Clinton campaign, or continue to work for both organizations.
The larger issue, then, would appear to be organizational.
Despite its fast start, Ready for Hillary is still small. And it’s is likely to remain so compared with any successful modern presidential campaign, which is essentially a multimillion-dollar startup with important subsidiaries devoted not just to fundraising, technology and the grass-roots, but also to advertising, policy, event management and legal compliance.
Clinton’s 2008 startup foundered amid staff dissension and shifting messages that started with the faulty argument that her nomination was “inevitable,” but the people behind Ready for Hillary insist things are different this time.
“If we were basing a campaign on her inevitability, we’d be sitting back and waiting instead of doing something,” said Seth Bringman, Ready for Hillary’s spokesman.