Liberal critics have called Hillary Clinton a Wall Street shill. A warmonger. And an election-stealer.
As her campaign turns to the general election, she’s trying to shake off their criticism and unify her party.
It might be an easier task than you think.
The recent history of presidential primaries shows that the fallout from divisive inter-party affairs rarely lingers into a general election. Even the staunchest critics of the eventual nominee rally against the prospect of the opposing party winning the White House.
There may be no better example, in fact, than this year’s Republican presidential primary. Donald Trump’s rivals labeled him a charlatan who couldn’t be trusted to command the country’s nuclear arsenal. But the searing attacks left little residual damage among Republicans.
Seventy-one percent of GOP voters looked at the party’s presumptive GOP nominee favorably, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll , compared to 24 percent who viewed him unfavorably. On top of that, nearly all of the party’s leaders have rallied behind his candidacy.
“Even those Republicans with profound misgivings are rallying around their nominee,” said Larry Grisolano, a veteran Democratic strategist. “That’s what typically happens. And I think that’s what’s going to happen [for Clinton].”
The Associated Press said late Monday that Clinton had enough delegates to clinch the Democratic nomination. But already, her battle with rival Bernie Sanders has gone on longer, and been more divisive, than just about anyone expected when the primary began.
And for now, it has evidently left a mark. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from May found that only 66 percent of Sanders supporters backed Clinton in a head-to-head matchup with Trump — one reason why Clinton holds only a small lead against Trump despite the expectation that she would begin the race as a heavy favorite.
The former secretary of state herself acknowledged this week that winning over Sanders’ supporters is a top priority.
“I’m going to do everything I can to reach out to try to unify the Democratic Party, and I expect Senator Sanders to do the same,” Clinton said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union .” “And we will come together and be prepared to go to the convention in a unified way to make our case to leave the convention, to go into the general election to defeat Donald Trump.”
Clinton allies caution that earning the support of the party’s activist base isn’t guaranteed, especially if she and her campaign fumble the delicate reconciliation process to take place between now and next month’s convention in Philadelphia.
But they also say that the natural order of the two-party system will eventually push even the most ardent of Clinton’s liberal critics to back the Democratic nominee. Their belief stems in part from their experience in 2008, when Democratic voters came around to support the nominee despite a hard-fought battle between Clinton and then-Sen. Barack Obama — a fight many Democrats consider even more divisive than the 2016 contest.
That year, Clinton eventually endorsed Obama after he moved on to face GOP presidential nominee John McCain, a moment that began the healing process among Democrats.
Democrats expect a similar effort from Sanders, whose support of Clinton they believe will prove critical.
“Bernie Sanders can make a big different in terms of mobilizing the vote,” said Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster. “And I’m sure he’ll do that.”
The actions of party leaders send a strong signal to rank-and-file voters to unite. In this race, Clinton will have the added bonus of support from President Obama, who remains popular with many liberal Democrats, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who has been openly critical of Trump.
More importantly for Clinton, she’ll be able to contrast herself directly with Trump, a New York billionaire whose positions on everything from Muslims to immigration are anathema to many of Sanders’ core supporters.
“The biggest hammer we have in that tool chest is Donald Trump himself,” Lake said.
Some Democrats are even confident that her race against Sanders has helped her candidacy.
In 2008, Obama’s fight against Clinton sharpened the first-time national candidate’s skills in time for the general election, said Grisolano, who worked on both of Obama’s presidential campaigns.
Clinton, he added, has benefitted from a similar performance.
“No question in my mind, as you observe her performance, that she is making adjustments and picking up on what people are demanding,” Grisolano said. “And I think it’s made her a much improved candidate.”
Challenges remain for the Clinton campaign. Lake said the thought of Sanders’ supporters voting for Trump is close to an impossibility.
But she cautioned many of the senator’s most fervent backers are also young and vote irregularly — meaning they are at higher risk of not voting at all.
“The Millennials are the ones I worry about,” Lake said. “I worry about them showing up to vote.”
Sanders’ supporters say the way Clinton treats them after Tuesday could prove critical to their level of support in November. That’s especially true at the national convention, where party leaders have worried aloud that the party’s divisions could be reminiscent of its infamous 1968 gathering in Chicago.
Clinton and Democratic leaders have sought to placate the Sanders campaign by giving it five slots on the platform-writing committee, one fewer than the Clinton campaign.
“How the Sanders supporters are embraced and involved in the process will be a litmus test for tens of millions of people watching that convention,” said Paul Soglin, mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, a hotbed of Sanders support.
Still, Soglin says he will back Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination, believing that she has a chance to not just win back the White House but give the party a lasting electoral majority over the GOP.
“Let me put it this way,” he said. “Whoever is the Democratic candidate for president will get my whole-hearted support.”