As the Clinton campaign turns its attention to Donald Trump (or tries to at least), it is encountering one of the many things that makes running against 'The Teflon Don' difficult: With everything he has said and done, how is it possible to focus on only a few key things to attack him on.
"Our problem is a target-rich environment" said one Clinton ally, noting that nearly every day there is a news cycle with damaging headlines about Trump.
Aside from a target rich environment, Trump has been so unpredictable that it's hard to use any one thing and turn it into a narrative strong enough to actually impact voter opinions.
"Right now, they're doing a little bit of everything to see what works. You can spend all day, every day, going after a hundred different things, and those things can add up to less than one hundred. They may not weave into a narrative, or you may not be able to drive any one of them home for long enough. You need discipline." said Dan Pfeiffer, a former senior adviser to President Obama.
As Clinton struggles to define Trump, her campaign has taken the approach of throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks. As Politico reports, first on the list of things to try is the talking point that a Trump presidency would be terrible for women.
“What’s really clear,” Neera Tanden, Clinton’s former top policy adviser, said on a conference call with reporters, “is Donald Trump has made it entirely clear throughout the entirety of his campaign that he would be a terrible choice for women voters.”
The next trial balloon would be to try and play up that Trump would be bad for Latinos and middle-class Americans.
That clarion message, however, was not amplified the next day. Instead, the follow-up was a call with Labor Secretary Tom Perez, who urged reporters to “think about what Trump’s plans mean for Latinos. Middle-class Americans and Latinos would pay the price for his reckless quest to continue enriching the billionaires.”
Finally, Clinton personally picked the fact that Trump will be the first candidate in the past 40 years not to release a tax return as her issue to run up the flag pole. Which is dripping with irony since Clinton herself won't reveal any Wall Street speech transcripts.
Clinton herself chose to highlight a third issue while stumping in New Jersey, where she surprised her aides by uncharacteristically engaging with an audience member who yelled out a question about Trump’s tax returns.
“You’ve got to ask yourself,” she responded from the stage, “why doesn’t he want to release them? Yeah, well, we’re going to find out.”
While Clinton struggles mightily, Trump himself has been masterful in branding his opponents, as he has proven time and time again. Trump has already selected his narrative when it comes to Hillary, and as his Republican challengers have found out, The Donald knows how to drive his narratives home.
For all his flaws as a candidate, Trump has proved to be incredibly disciplined in branding his rivals. His nickname “Little Marco” skillfully demeaned the presidential qualities of Sen. Marco Rubio. “Low-energy Jeb” planted the idea in Republican primary voters’ minds that Jeb Bush wasn’t up to the job. And his new focus on “Crooked Hillary” plays on one of the Democratic front-runner’s biggest vulnerabilities as a candidate: trust.
* * *
It's clear that the Clinton campaign will have its hands full with the likes of Donald Trump. Not only is The Donald skilled at strategically playing the media to help him build up his narrative and create favorable news cycles, he has the uncanny ability to turn nearly any negative newsflow into something that ultimately ends up helping him with his voting base. As was the case early on in the GOP race, Trump started out behind Hillary in early polls as well. That issue has since been corrected, and he recently has taken his first lead over Hillary. If Clinton continues to fumble the narrative early on, Trump may very well run away with the race, shocking "experts" everywhere.