The Spot: We see Hillary Clinton addressing us, in close-up, interspersed with old black-and-white photos of her now-deceased mother, Dorothy. After recounting the details of her mother’s grim childhood—“abandoned by her parents at age 8, sent from Chicago to L.A. to live with grandparents who didn’t want her”—Clinton explains that she’s running for president so that she can help people like her mom. “I think about all the Dorothys all over America,” she says, as the scene switches to a shot of Clinton shaking the hand of a small, smiling girl. The closing image is a photo of Clinton and Dorothy, side by side, both in blazers, both sporting carefully coiffed bobs.
Early in the presidential election cycle, campaign ads are often gauzy. Lots of fawning biography swaddled in vague fluff. Voters are getting to know the candidates. Introductions are in order.
Unless you’re Hillary Clinton, in which case no introduction is needed. Clinton is so familiar a figure that at one moment during one of her first two ads—a pair debuting on Tuesday in Iowa and New Hampshire, her first broadcast sortie of the 2016 cycle—the voice-over announcer pauses amid his recap of Clinton’s résumé and nods to the viewer: “You probably know the rest.”
Indeed we do. We know a ton about Hillary Clinton. Especially those of us who live in Iowa and New Hampshire, two early primary states that were blanketed with Clinton ads back in 2008. And yet these new Clinton spots are light on policy and heavy on character-building backstory—as though Clinton were another fresh-faced newb in need of contextualization. Why is Clinton’s campaign spending $2 million to fill five weeks of summer airtime with get-to-know-me ads, when everybody out there knows her already?
Perhaps it’s because the Clinton people already know is not a Clinton they particularly like. In the Quinnipiac University national poll released last week, 51 percent of registered voters expressed an unfavorable opinion of Clinton, versus only 40 percent favorable. A mere 37 percent felt Clinton was “honest and trustworthy.” (Newly buzzworthy potential rival Joe Biden was deemed honest by 58 percent of respondents.) Most worrisome of all for the candidate who fancies herself a champion of ordinary Americans: 52 percent of pollees said Clinton doesn’t care about the needs and problems of people like them.
These ads were reportedly filmed before those dismal numbers came out. But they address the same, longstanding weaknesses of Clinton the candidate. She is widely respected but not widely adored. It seems she’s subverted the ancient gender stereotypes: Few doubt her take-charge toughness—58 percent of those polled agreed she has “strong leadership qualities.” But she’s always had trouble when it comes to forging an emotional connection with voters.
Thus this reboot, with imagery that’s all warm and fuzzy. We don’t encounter Clinton seated behind a desk—she’s in a living room, with flowers and throw pillows. She isn’t wearing her no-nonsense navy pantsuit—she’s clad in cheery jewel tones.
And what’s she talking about? Not foreign policy. Not immigration. Not even the economy (save in the most general sense). Nope, the Clinton we meet in these ads wants to chat with us about her mom.
“Her parents abandoned her when she was just 8 years old,” Clinton tells us while we see a black-and-white photo of her mother, Dorothy, as a child. “She was mistreated,” Clinton says. “But she never gave up.”
The legend of the self-made person—one who overcomes his bleak beginnings to find success—is a beloved trope in American society. It’s especially cherished by politicians, who tout humble origins as evidence of their empathy for working-class voters. Sometimes, when a candidate’s own story isn’t quite squalid enough, he’s forced to reach back a generation or two in order to find some laudable bootstrapping. Mitt Romney, for instance, would speak from the stump about his dad’s early struggles, because Romney himself grew up cosseted in wealth and privilege.
Clinton is pulling a similar stunt here, eliding her upbringing in an affluent Chicago suburb, and instead seizing on her mother’s hard-knock narrative. But Clinton’s message runs counter to the usual self-made mythology. Where Romney used his father’s story as proof that poor Americans can leap ahead through their own hard work, Clinton uses Dorothy’s story to illustrate the notion that it takes a village to pull on those bootstraps. It was with the help of people who “showed her kindness” and “gave her a chance” that Dorothy climbed out of poverty. “When she needed a champion,” Clinton tells us, “someone was there.” Self-reliance will get us only so far. We need someone—maybe someone in the White House—who’ll fight for us.
What kind of people does Clinton envision herself fighting for? Clinton says she’s “doing this,” and has “always done this,” for “all the Dorothys.” Who will get Clinton’s attention if she’s elected?
Just look at the faces in these ads. There aren’t any men in hard hats, or on factory floors, yearning to save their blue-collar manufacturing and construction jobs—the kind of guys who seem to overpopulate other candidates’ ads. In Clinton’s new spots the regular folks on display are almost exclusively women and small children. A mom fixing her daughter’s hair. A mom kissing her daughter goodnight. Clinton bending down to take the hand of a pretty little girl. The final image of the spot titled “Family Strong” shows Clinton cradling her infant granddaughter, as the voice-over notes the former senator’s “new title: grandma.”
These ads are, in their words and their imagery, very pointedly about intergenerational female bonds. Women looking out for each other. Looking out for their mothers and their daughters. It’s like a Barbara Kingsolver novel up in here. Clinton will surely target other groups in subsequent spots, but this first salvo suggests that her campaign is, at its core, focused on the female vote.
Consider: The oddest, most jarring moment in either of these ads arrives with their brief, lone reference to Barack Obama. Obama is never mentioned by name. He’s instead labeled, by way of praising Clinton’s magnanimous decision to join his Cabinet, as “the man who defeated her.”
The man who defeated her! In the primaries. Seven years ago. Let us marvel at the astonishing subtext of this phrase. He’s not the two-term president from Clinton’s own party who bested two Republican foes. He’s, above all, the man who defeated Hillary Clinton. Emphasis, I might argue, on man.
Accompanying this phrase is a remarkable visual choice. It’s a photo of Obama seated at a conference table. At the center, in the position of power. We can see only the back of his head and the back of his enormous leather chair. The angle of the photo places us behind him. Below him. Looking up at him. He is above us and does not see us. We’re completely shut out of the group. It’s almost as though we’ve been denied a seat at the table.