Hillary Clinton is inching closer to the Democratic nomination for president and her campaign strategy is bracing for the change.
Her staff is beginning to organize in battleground states. Her volunteers soon will start to reach out to supporters and donors of Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. Her aides will begin to consider possible running mates.
And Clinton, herself, will start talking less about the differences between her and Sanders and more about the differences between Democrats and Republicans, primarily front-runner Donald Trump.
Until the Democratic convention this summer, Clinton’s campaign must simultaneously lay the groundwork for a general election and pay close attention to the nomination contest. “It’s a difficult balancing act,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a New York-based consultant who once worked for Clinton.
Clinton’s aides have long expected her to expand her lead in delegates so much by next Tuesday that Sanders would not be able to catch up in the primary contest.
“The truth is, after April 26, there just simply is not enough real estate left for Sen. Sanders to close the commanding lead that we've built,” Clinton’s chief strategist Joel Benenson told reporters weeks ago. “We expect to come out of that day with a pledged and total delegate lead that will make clear who the nominee will be, and that it's going to be Hillary Clinton.”
Polls show she is leading in many of the five states along the East Coast that vote Tuesday – Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island. Four states do not allow independents – many who favor Sanders – to vote in their Democratic primaries.
It’s surprising because the national polling between the two has tightened so much, so one would expect the polls in the northeast to tighten, but they aren’t. But it’s unsurprising because those are very diverse primary states, which have favored Clinton.
Stephanie Martin, communication studies professor at Southern Methodist University
To secure the nomination, Sanders must win 73 percent of the remaining vote, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. Clinton, on the other hand, could amass enough delegates to clinch the nomination, even without winning any of the remaining state contests. She is likely to get the needed number of delegates sometime in May, weeks before the last contests in June.
Clinton leads in the delegate race, 1,428 to Sanders’ 1,151, according to the Associated Press. With superdelegates, Democratic party leaders who can vote any way they want, Clinton leads 1,930 to 1,189. A candidate needs 2,383 delegates to win the nomination.
“I don’t think she can ignore the Democratic campaign altogether,” Texas Democratic strategist Harold Cook said. “But I don’t know that she needs to cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i.’ I think we are beyond that.”
Clinton continues to be vulnerable with certain groups of voters whom she will need in the general election, including young voters who have flocked to Sanders, the self-proclaimed champion of the working class.
In her speech after her victory in New York last week, she began to reach out to Sanders’ supporters. “To all the people who supported Senator Sanders, I believe that there is much more that unites us than divides us,” she said.
Then she quickly turned her attention to the issues she planned to push through in the general election and to Trump, mocking his notion that America needed to be made great again.
“We are a great country, an unselfish country and a compassionate country,” she said. “And no matter what anyone tells you and what you might hear from others running for president, that is still true today. America is great and we can do great things if we do them together.”
Political observers say Clinton has to resist the urge to respond to every accusation Sanders makes about her. Instead, Sheinkopf said, she needs to “make Trump the example of what Republicans are about” and show how she is the exact opposite of him. “She needs to be the defender of Democratic ideals,” he said.
While Clinton begins to shift her language, many other changes will be made quietly behind the scenes.
“After winning big in New York, I have to imagine that Team Hillary is shifting more time and focus to building the infrastructure they need to win in November,” said Lynda Tran, who worked on numerous presidential races and served as national press secretary for Organizing for America, an arm of the Democratic National Committee.
Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist in Florida who worked for Obama in 2008, said Clinton’s campaign needs to begin hiring staff, opening offices and recruiting and training volunteers in battleground states. It also can start to set voter registration and turnout goals, coordinate early- and absentee-voting targets and register people to vote.
The targeted states include Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Iowa, Colorado, Nevada and New Hampshire. But others may be important this year as well, such as Arizona, which has been shifting toward Democrats, and where the Democratic Party as well as Clinton and Sanders just filed a lawsuit over voter access to the polls after thousands of residents waited as long as five hours to vote during the primary.
While Clinton may travel occasionally to a general election state to give a speech at Democratic Party dinners or attended fundraisers, she will have to leave much of the work to her staff and volunteers while she continues to campaign in the primary states.
This cycle in particular, optics also come into play. So I expect the donor outreach and any effort to engage Sanders supporters at every level will be on the back burner and it will be a top priority to identify and make arrangements to bring on state directors in key states in a below-the-radar fashion.
Democratic strategist Lynda Tran
Soon after launching her bid for the White House, Clinton dispatched more than 100 paid staffers to all 50 states and U.S. territories to recruit and organize volunteers in an effort to start to build a network for a general election campaign while helping state parties. But during a surprisingly competitive primary those staffers were eventually moved to other states. Clinton now has far fewer staffers across the nation than Barack Obama did during his re-election four years ago.
Another important task – compiling a list of possible vice presidential candidates – has likely already started, but will be the least talked about in part because the primary race continues. Some of the people political observers assume are being considered are Housing Secretary Julian Castro, Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Sens. Tim Kaine of Virginia and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
Clarification: This version removes a reference to the possibility that Clinton’s nomination could become a mathematical certainty as early as Tuesday. While Sanders could be mathematically locked out from winning the nomination, Clinton could not clinch it herself for several more weeks.