In an email from April of last year, the budding Hillary Clinton campaign admitted to the Democratic National Committee that six Republican presidential candidates had them quaking in their boots. The email, released by WikiLeaks as one of “The Podesta Emails” (a compilation of Internet records involving Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta), revealed the Democratic strategy of pushing Republicans to extreme positions, which they hoped would alienate the eventual GOP nominee from undecided voters.
Clinton’s team feared for the integrity of the Obama coalition: blacks, Latinos, women, and young people. “Most of the more-established candidates will want to focus on building a winning general election coalition,” the memo read. When it came to this effort, the Clinton campaign aimed “to undermine their credibility among our coalition (communities of color, millennials, women) and independent voters.”
In order to prevent Republicans from making inroads into the Democratic coalition, the Clinton campaign suggested two concrete strategies: using the large GOP field against itself and elevating lesser-known “extreme” candidates.
Hillary’s team aimed to “use the field as a whole to inflict damage on itself similar to what happened to Mitt Romney in 2012.” This was very likely to happen, with or without Democratic intervention. The entire point of a primary is to become the nominee of a major party, and in order to do so, one candidate had to beat all the others. This crowded field arguably did the most damage to Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who lost his home state on the Ides of March, after being stabbed in the back by four of his fellow Republicans.
As the memo noted, “the variety of candidates is a positive here, and many of the lesser known can serve as a cudgel to move the more established candidates further to the right.”
Then comes the major plan of the Clinton campaign — elevating an extreme, disliked Republican as the nominee. (Indeed, another email released by WikiLeaks warns that “Hillary is almost totally dependent on Republicans nominating Trump.”)
“We don’t want to marginalize the more extreme candidates, but make them more ‘Pied Piper’ candidates who actually represent the mainstream of the Republican Party,” the memo read. It listed three of these candidates: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and Ben Carson. “We need to be elevating the Pied Piper candidates so that they are leaders of the pack and tell the press to [take] them seriously.”
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) October 9, 2016
As suggested by the later email (from March of this year) declaring Clinton’s campaign “almost totally dependent” on facing Trump, the eventual GOP nominee turned out to be the perfect “Pied Piper” candidate for this strategy. Although the April 2015 memo listed Ted Cruz as one of these candidates, the March 2016 email suggested that Clinton’s strategy would only work against Trump, and not against Cruz.
Nevertheless, the fact that the primary race came down to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz might suggest the terrifying success of this strategy. There are many explanations for this (Trump’s constant media coverage, Jeb Bush’s expensive attack on Marco Rubio), but it is harrowing to learn that the Democrats aimed for this exact scenario.
Next Page: The six candidates Clinton feared, and why.
But the Clinton campaign didn’t just lay out which candidates they wanted Hillary to face up against — the memo also listed the six candidates who might threaten the Democratic coalition. In each case, the memo listed a candidate and “what to undermine” in his message.
1. Jeb Bush.
First, the memo listed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, the “establishment” candidate. “What to undermine: the notion he is a ‘moderate’ or concerned about regular Americans; perceived inroads with the Latino population.” Bush was seen as a threat because he might follow his brother’s “compassionate conservatism” and chip away at the Democrat lead among Latinos.
2. Marco Rubio.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio was also seen as a threat to the Democrat lock on this particular minority group. “What to undermine: the idea he has ‘fresh’ ideas; his perceived appeal to Latinos.” Rubio’s optimistic style and his Cuban heritage were seen as a threat to the eventual Democrat nominee — and rightly so.
3. Scott Walker.
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also made the list, due to “the idea he can rally working- and middle class Americans.” Walker’s folksy style and impressive economic record in the Badger State would have made him a key threat in November — had his campaign been better organized and had Donald Trump not been able to eviscerate him in the first few debates.
4. Rand Paul.
Kentucky Senator Rand Paul proved less than inspiring during the primary process, but Democrats had great reasons to fear him. The Clinton campaign explained that Democrats needed to undermine “the idea he is a ‘different’ kind of Republican; his stance on the military and his appeal to millennials and communities of color.”
He had the right outreach and the right policy mix to drive a tremendous wedge into the Democratic coalition. Unfortunately, he lacked the fire in the belly that enabled his father (Ron Paul) to so inspire young people in 2012. That same passion boosted Ted Cruz to overshadow the younger Paul among more libertarian-minded Republicans. Rand is the true surprise on this list — but his outreach to young people and black people could have been truly pivotal this year, and provide key lessons for 2020.
Next Page: Two less expected names the Democrats feared.
5. Bobby Jindal.
Former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal was already unpopular in his home state as the 2016 race began, but Republicans did indeed see him as a promising candidate. The Clinton memo only listed “his ‘new’ ideas” as a key asset to undermine, but a key undercurrent in mentioning his name is the fact that Jindal has Indian heritage, and would constitute living proof against the Democrats’ favorite argument — that Republicans are racist against all “people of color.”
Jindal can be an inspiring speaker, but he suffered greatly by being relegated to the “undercard” debates. In such a star-studded field, Jindal struggled to emerge, partly because of his less-than-stellar record on Louisiana’s economy.
6. Chris Christie.
It may be hard to imagine, after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s humiliating endorsement of Donald Trump, but this man was seen as a legitimate threat by the Hillary campaign. Christie’s one asset, “he tells it like it is,” has been widely considered a Trump selling point against political correctness. This is a key selling point, when contrasted with Clinton’s notorious lies and duplicity.
The Hillary campaign’s final goal — “Muddying the Waters” — was almost entirely enabled by Trump winning the GOP primary. The campaign admitted that “the right wing attack machine has been building its opposition research on Hillary Clinton for decades,” and so they planned to “show how [these attacks] boomerang onto the Republican presidential field.”
“The goal, then, is to have a dossier on the GOP candidates on the likely attacks HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] will face,” the memo explained. The issues included: “Transparency & disclosure, Donors & associates, Management & business dealings.”
“In this regard, any information on scandals or ethical lapses on the GOP candidates would serve well,” the campaign concluded. Oh did they get lucky in facing Trump.