PHILADELPHIA — Hillary Clinton’s allies did everything in their power to set up her big moment Thursday night.
Now it’s up to her to deliver.
As she takes center stage, Clinton faces a critical task: persuading Americans that she understands their frustration and economic anxiety at a time when many of them still do not trust her.
The pressure is intense because the race is much tighter than most expected at this juncture, particularly among white working class voters in rust belt states like Ohio and Pennsylvania.
With her sometimes-wooden demeanor and workman-like delivery, the former first lady has never shown the natural political talent that her husband had for reading and matching the mood of the electorate. And though President Barack Obama’s popularity has rebounded to 56% in a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, Clinton also faces the historically difficult challenge of running for a third Democratic term in a year when the electorate has demonstrated hunger for change.
In that sense, Clinton takes the stage tonight in a vulnerable position. Up to this point, she has not been able to generate the kind of passion among her supporters that Donald Trump has among his by so effectively channeling Americans’ anger about the direction of the country.
While Clinton and Obama have argued that ISIS is on the run, the economy is on the upswing, and Americans are safer than they have been in years, they are struggling to rebut the dark image that Trump has painted of a nation in decline, chaos and disorder.
Obama presented a powerful case for hope Wednesday night. But the positive rhetoric of the Democrats has so far been a less powerful tool than Trump’s ability to stoke voters’ fears about the string of terror attacks in Paris and Nice, as well as the rogue attacks on police in cities like Baton Rouge and Dallas.
That has been the main challenge for Clinton as she has worked on her speech in recent weeks, a careful search to find the right tone — at once uplifting and positive, but also empathetic and reflective of the dark mood of the electorate.
The former Secretary of State faces four formidable challenges tonight: unifying the Democratic Party at a time when many Sanders supporters insist they will not fall in line; assuaging concerns about her trustworthiness; convincing independent voters that that Trump is unfit to be commander-in-chief; and generating excitement about her own campaign during a year of intense negativity.
While many Democratic delegates here in Philadelphia initially believed that Clinton would have no problem dispatching Trump, given his erratic behavior and divisive rhetoric, they said in interviews this week that they were alarmed by how close the race looks, particularly in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Though the Republican convention was chaotic, Trump’s nomination speech was mocked by commentators as dark and foreboding, and the Republican candidate has spent virtually no money on advertising, he is enjoying a considerable bounce after last week’s convention.
In a CNN/ORC poll released this week, Trump was leading Clinton 44% to 39% in a four-way matchup that included Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (9%) and Green Party Candidate Jill Stein at 3%,
Trump’s improved standing is due in large part to a surge in support among independents, with 46% saying they would back Trump compared with 28% for Clinton in that four way matchup. Underscoring Clinton’s challenges this fall, 68% of those polled said Clinton was not honest and trustworthy.
While Trump’s biggest struggle ahead will be to win over college-educated white voters and minorities, Clinton is facing a huge deficit among white working class voters. They will be crucial to victory in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where she will campaign later this week.
With those challenges in mind, the Democratic convention this week has gone about as smoothly as Clinton could have hoped — bringing a cavalry of the party’s heavy hitters to offer personal testimonials about her strength, her empathy and her work as a tireless public servant advocating for change for the better part of her life.
While the convention opened with the embarrassing ouster of party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz as a result of the DNC email hacking scandal, the marquee speakers — Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Michelle Obama and Bill Clinton — have made an effective case against Trump, while humanizing Clinton and casting her as a far more steady hand as commander-in-chief.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg offered a blistering takedown of Trump’s business acumen, which has been the real estate magnate’s rationale for his candidacy. “I’m a New Yorker, and New Yorkers know a con when we see one,” Bloomberg said.
But it was President Obama who delivered the most withering case against Trump’s candidacy Wednesday night as he described his former rival as the most qualified person to ever seek the presidency and Trump as a demagogue who traffics in fear.
“I can say with confidence there has never been a man or a woman — not me, not Bill, nobody — more qualified than Hillary Clinton to serve as president of the United States of America,” Obama said.
Trump, the president said, “is betting that if he scares enough people, he might score just enough votes to win this election. That is another bet that Donald Trump will lose. Because he’s selling the American people short. We are not a fragile or frightful people. Our power doesn’t come from some self-declared savior promising that he alone can restore order. We don’t look to be ruled.”
Despite the emphasis this week on the historic nature of Clinton’s candidacy as the first female nominee of a major party, she also clearly faces obstacles in energizing Sander supporters.
Even with his gracious entreaties to his supporters to get behind her, not only did Sanders backers boo Monday night when he urged them to support Clinton, many of them are still defiantly saying they will not vote for her in November. The Wikileaks release of DNC emails showing that officials were not neutral in the primary process has cast a long shadow over efforts to unify this week.
Clinton detractors like Kimberly Lowe, a 40-year-old progressive from Rawlings, Virginia, continue to describe Clinton as “a war hawk” who would drag the U.S. deeper into military conflicts. Voters like Lowe, who says Sanders inspired her to run for Congress, openly dismiss the idea that this week is a historic milestone for women.
“I would want a woman president with integrity, not someone who kills innocent people around the world and is willing to carpet bomb,” said Lowe, referring to Clinton’s support of U.S. engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya. “She’s been the cause of so much war all around the world.”
“I want my first woman president to care about the people, not corporate interests,” said Lowe in an interview during one of the many pro-Sanders demonstrations in center city Philadelphia this week. “I’m going to vote for Jill Stein. She has integrity and real solutions.”
Still, there have been emotional highs among the delegates this week that may help Clinton generate more electricity around her candidacy. Some women openly wept on Tuesday night when she was formally nominated.
Delegates like 67-year-old LaVon Bracy of Orlando, an Obama delegate in 2008 and 2012, said that she promised herself that if Clinton ran again, she would work hard to elect her.
“I didn’t think I would live long enough to see an African American become president of the United States, and I certainly didn’t think I would live long enough to see a female become president of the United States,” said Bracy, who integrated the public school system in 1965 in Gainesville, Florida.
“I just didn’t think it would happen this quickly, and now I can tell my 3-year-old and 5-year-old granddaughters that they can become president of the United States,” she said. “I really have an example for them to see — that it can really happen.”
But Bracy, who was wearing an elaborate red, white and blue “Vote Hillary” hat on the convention floor, acknowledged that Clinton still has a great deal of work ahead to get voters energized about her candidacy, particularly the many young women who supported Sanders and cite trust issues as a hesitation about Clinton.
After working intensively for Obama in the past, Bracy said she is worried that there are not yet enough volunteers and ground troops in her home state to defeat Trump.
“It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be a very difficult race,” Bracy said. “Bernie is going to have to get a lot of those millennials on board, and we’re going to have to increase our foot soldiers.”
Right now, she said, “there are not enough” to match the task ahead in battleground states.
“The excitement is not there as it was with Obama,” she said, “and we’re just going to have to generate that excitement.”