World·Analysis

Hillary Clinton sets out to redefine image as presidential campaign swings into full gear

During the four-day Democratic Party convention, Hillary Clinton, her husband Bill Clinton, U.S. President Barack Obama and many other speakers set out to redefine her and change her narrative as she tries to convince Americans that she is best suited for the presidency.

Democratic candidate will need to convince voters who don't trust her to come to her side, professor says

U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton took to the stage Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, making a speech billed as the most important in her political life. (Scott Applewhite/Associated Press)

Partway through her historic U.S. presidential nomination acceptance speech Thursday night, Hillary Clinton acknowledged that other politicians who have stood in the same spot at a convention podium over the years are sometimes new to the national stage.

"As you know," she said, "I'm not one of those people."

And therein lies one of the challenges for the former first lady, New York senator and secretary of state who after 25 years in the national political spotlight is considered one of the most polarizing political figures in the United States. 

The Democratic Party's candidate is also deeply unpopular with some of the U.S. public. Polls following the Republican convention have shown, for the first time, that Clinton's unfavourable ratings are worse than her Republican rival Donald Trump — although the two of them have the worst ratings for presidential candidates in modern history.

And Clinton seemed to hint at this issue when she said: "I get it that some people just don't know what to make of me."

That statement seemed to be one of the underlying messages during the convention — you know Clinton but you really don't know the true Clinton.

And it may be why she, her husband Bill Clinton, U.S. President Barack Obama and many other speakers during the four-day convention set out to redefine her as she tries to convince Americans that she is best suited for the presidency.

"Her obstacles include public fatigue with eight years of a Democratic administration and distaste for the Clinton dynasty," said Barry Burden, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and director of the Elections Research Center. "She will also need to convince voters who don't trust her to nonetheless come to her side by November."

Clinton: 'I accept your nomination for president'

World

5 years ago
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Hillary Clinton accepts her nomination as the first woman candidate for president for a major party 0:55

Part of that effort at the convention involved focusing on the threat Democrats say Donald Trump would pose to the country as president.

But there was also much time spent on informing the public about Hillary Clinton the woman, the wife, the mother and — before politics — the fierce social activist. Most significantly, her qualifications to lead, her political experience, her toughness and her resiliency were also common themes stressed throughout the week.

"I think her strongest trait, even with some Americans who don't like her very much, is that she's tough," said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist.

Trump received a convention bump in the polls and Clinton, no doubt, will be aided by the Democratic event in Philadelphia. By all measures, it was a well-orchestrated affair compared to the Republican convention in Cleveland the week before where a number of controversies served to distract from the messaging.

Unhappy Sanders supporters

But when the Democratic convention kicked off on Monday, it looked as if it might face the same problems as the GOP, forced to deal with a loud, angry contingent of delegates unhappy with their party's choice.

It was the Bernie Sanders supporters, whose continued dismay over the nominee was only intensified by the WikiLeaks release of thousands of embarrassing emails of senior party officials.Those emails revealed that key party members favoured Clinton over Sanders as the presidential nominee and appeared to consider ways to discredit the Vermont senator during the primaries.

Some of those Sanders supporters who vowed to never support Clinton continued to be loud, vocal and disruptive during the convention. But Sanders helped squash some of the unrest by endorsing Clinton in a rousing speech on Monday and, later during roll call, asking that all his delegates be allocated to his one-time political rival. 

Yet many believe that it was First Lady Michelle Obama's well-received and emotional speech, in which she heaped praise upon Clinton, that helped lower the temperature.

Michelle Obama at DNC

News

5 years ago
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President's wife gives an impassioned speech to support Hillary Clinton 15:52

"I really think when she spoke Monday night that really changed the mood of the convention," Bannon said.

On the second day, it was Clinton's husband, former U.S. president Bill Clinton, who took centre stage, and who sought to portray his wife as a person, not a politician. He mostly left Trump alone, and instead recounted his courtship of Hillary, but notably, never directly referencing his marital troubles.

'Best darn change-maker'

He was her biggest cheerleader, reciting a resume of her accomplishments, referring to her as "the best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life."

Bill Clinton's Democratic National Convention speech

News

5 years ago
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The former U.S. president gives his argument for Hillary Clinton at the DNC 41:50

The former president sought to change the narrative about her, suggesting that her political opponents have painted her as a cartoon character.

"What's the difference in what I told you and what they said? How do you square it? You can't. One is real, the other is made up."

By the third night, the attacks on Trump ramped up, with Clinton's vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine, Vice-President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama all coming out swinging against the New York real estate mogul.

'He has no clue'

"He has no clue about what makes America great. Actually he has no clue, period," Biden said in his passionate speech, adding that no major party nominee in U.S. history has ever known less or been less prepared to deal with national security.

Joe Biden's rousing DNC remarks

News

5 years ago
17:22
Outgoing U.S. vice-president tells Democratic convention Americans have an 'unbreakable spirit' 17:22

Obama as well sought to take down Trump, whom he referred to as a "homegrown demagogue" who, he suggested, is not fit to be commander-in-chief. With Clinton, Obama said, there has never been a man or a woman more qualified to serve as president. 

U.S. President Barack Obama's full convention speech

CBC News

5 years ago
49:30
U.S. President Barack Obama gives a powerful endorsement of Hillary Clinton. 49:30

Finally, on Thursday night, in the speech billed as the most important in her political life, Clinton sought to tell her life story. It was in part personal, talking about her family and her advocacy for children's issues. Much, though, was devoted to her policy platform and what she intends to do in her first 100 days in office if she becomes president.

Yet she was perhaps most effective, if effectiveness is measured by memorable lines, when she turned her attention to Trump. She railed against her opponent, questioning his temperament, asking Americans to "imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons."

She said that she, like many, thought "he couldn't possibly mean all the horrible things he says" and that "someone who wants to lead our nation could say those things, could be like that."

"But here's the sad truth: There is no other Donald Trump. This is it."

It's a strategy, said Bannon, to make this campaign a referendum on Donald Trump, who is unlikely to pull any punches going after the Democratic nominee whom he repeatedly refers to as "Crooked Hillary."

"Because they feel if they make Donald Trump be the focus point of this campaign, they'll win," Bannon said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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