Re-briefing Hillary

This is armchair quarterbacking I know, but it would work.

We have a thing in my chosen field of Advertising called a re-briefing.

It’s what you do when it’s become painfully obvious that the finely tuned engine of your campaign is misfiring.

The beauty of the re-briefing process is that it’s short, simple and brutally honest. It has to be. You’ve already shot through stacks of money and you’re dangerously out of time.

Career-minded types don’t like re-briefing because it’s so disruptive. I find it exhilarating, and not just because there’s satisfaction in keeping a cool head while others panic. On rare occasion there is absolute clarity that the strategy everyone once embraced because it was safe or incremental or supported by testing is failing miserably. You get the chance to try something consequential.

The presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton needs a re-briefing.

Yes, she picked up some breathing room with her clean win in Nevada, and the relatively friendly territory of South Carolina should add to that. But there is too much at stake to see that as any reason for confidence.

The fundamental problem is still a fundamental problem. Among young voters she’s been losing to Bernie Sanders by something like eight to one. In other words, Hillary Clinton is losing the future.

No one seems to know quite what to make of the 2016 presidential campaign as it swings from one idiot extreme to the next. Pundits see a terrifying descent into chaos. I see a deeper, weirder sort of democratic wisdom at work. We’re watching a referendum on the country’s future. Voters are trying on the different visions of that future articulated by the candidates. Seeing how each one fits.

Voters are cranky because none of it even comes close to feeling right.

Those with the most skin in the game this election cycle are the millennials. In their twenties and early thirties, they’re just coming into their own as a generation. Many are gravitating to stridently anti-establishment candidates because that’s what voters do when the future is loaded with uncertainty and the political system is out of ideas. But the volatility of it all suggests that they’re not really embracing any single anti-establishment vision for the future. Yet.

So Hillary still has a shot. All she needs to do is solve for the millennials.

I’ve seen how this can work.

A few years ago Minnesota had a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage on the ball0t. At the time such initiatives had a perfect track record around the country. No amendment banning gay marriage had ever failed.

I attended a meeting of advertising types interested in working on a campaign to defeat the amendment. We all knew younger people would overwhelmingly oppose a ban on gay marriage. They’re socially liberal. Their sense of injustice is exquisitely calibrated. I arrived full of ideas to energize them.

The political operatives organizing the campaign listened politely. Then said that could never work. “Millennials won’t show up to vote,” we were told.

A social media design from 2012

The political calculus, as it so often is, was wrong. Come November, the big news was that younger voters had defied every pessimistic expectation. They turned out in huge numbers to defeat the amendment.

That’s the energy Bernie Sanders has been tapping into with his laser focus on economic injustice. It’s the energy Hillary’s campaign sorely needs.

Reversing her numbers with younger voters would be a powerful sort of symbolism with voters of every age.

And big, emotional symbols are the mother’s milk of a presidential campaign. Especially one like we’re having this year. Donald Trump knows this better than anyone, with his Wall and his Hat.

Bernie Sanders is his own symbol. The cranky, disheveled professor you had in college who preached revolution and everyone suspected of secretly smoking pot. What’s not to love?

Hillary Clinton wants to connect on a more nuanced, rational level. One that lets her play to her strengths of policy and experience. That’s what’s failing. It’s made her the symbol of the careful, big-money establishment politics that millennials so distrust.

That’s what needs fixing.

Beating up on Bernie won’t accomplish anything beyond further disillusioning his army of youthful supporters and sending brand Hillary even deeper into establishment territory.

Fortunately, that isn’t even necessary. The Republicans have served up a fat pitch, just waiting for someone to take a swing at. In their single-minded obsession with stoking the anger of voters who want the 1950s back, they’re running loud and hard against exactly the sort of future that would appeal to a younger generation of voters.

Hillary needs to stand for that future. Invite this new generation of voters to stand with her against all that backwards-looking negativity. Inspire them to be their own wall against injustice. Stand against the corporate greed wrecking the climate and the economy. Stand against those who would dim the light of the city on the hill that has always drawn those who are tired and poor and yearning to breathe free to our shores.

OK, that last line brutally mixes the metaphors that generations of Republican politicians have used to talk about American exceptionalism. But that demonstrates just how wide a lane has been left open by the current chaos in the Republican party. All Hillary needs to do give young voters a more concrete reason to believe than the current line she’s using, “You may not support me, but I support you!” Or her nice but rather sleepy Morgan Freeman voiced TV ad.

She’d be better off borrowing a line from a Gorillaz song. “I’m useless, but not for long. The future is coming on.”

This isn’t a job for the political class that has been in charge of Hillary’s campaign. Political professionals have been obsessed with attack ads and sterile ideology for so long they’ve forgotten the power of big emotional symbols.

Hillary needs to take a page from Ronald Reagan’s playbook. In 1984 he enlisted advertising legend Hal Riney to form what they called The Tuesday Team. The result was the brilliantly emotional Morning in America campaign. (Not to be confused with the inept Marco Rubio TV ad of the same name, which actually shows scenes from Canada and is a prime example of why the job should not be left to political strategists).

Ad people have a better handle on millennial generation. That’s the only audience our clients want to talk to anymore.

The pundits trying to analyze the young army following Bernie Sanders like to point about how narcissistic they are, with their selfies and their social media. The reality is much deeper and more fascinating than that. I saw a presentation recently that said 95 percent of millennials say friends are their most credible source of product information. Cultural observer Marshall McLuhan famously said “The medium is the message.” In the new on-line social world, the messenger is the message.

That’s the sort of thing the Clinton campaign needs to understand and embrace. Instead of making the rounds of small town venues in South Carolina it would make better sense to conduct a town hall forum entirely on Twitter.

Hillary’s husband Bill once won the presidency with a strategy that was only four words long: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

A re-brief for her campaign would be just as simple.

It’s the millennials, stupid.