Clinton struggles with traditional playbook

Lisa Lerer
Associated Press

White Plains, N.Y. — For months, Democrats argued that voters would get “serious” about the campaign once it reached the fall and would reject Donald Trump’s no-holds-barred approach.

They’re still waiting.

With fewer than 50 days left, polling shows a tightening national race and — most unnerving to Democrats — a Trump rise in key battleground states. But as Trump’s provocative appeal gains traction, Hillary Clinton is sticking with the traditional playbook: Lots of attack ads, a focus on getting out the vote and intense preparation for next week’s first general election debate.

Her approach underscores what’s emerged as a central question of the 2016 campaign: Can Clinton’s play-it-safe political strategy win against a chaos candidate?

Even President Barack Obama, who long dismissed the idea of a future Trump administration, has started ringing alarm bells, warning Democratic supporters to expect a tight race that Clinton could possibly lose. Recent polls suggest the Republican may have an edge in Iowa and Ohio and is likely in a close race with Clinton in Florida and North Carolina.

Clinton’s campaign, Democrats say, has little choice but to stick with its plan. The always-measured Clinton, they argue, can’t out-improvise one of the most unpredictable politicians of the modern era.

“We’re going through the roller-coaster rides of campaigns. All she can do is just keep plowing ahead,” said Steve Schale, a Democratic strategist who ran Obama’s Florida operation in 2008 and advised him four years later. “She’s going to win it by grinding it out.”

Hoping to calm some supporters’ concerns, Clinton’s campaign sent out a memo Monday, reminding them that the electoral map favors Democrats. The memo charted various paths to 270 electoral votes and urged backers to channel their worry into volunteering.

“Battleground states carry that name for a reason: They’re going to be close, from now until Election Day,” wrote campaign manager Robby Mook. “But we are going to win them because we’ve spent the past year building a superior ground game to communicate our message and turn our people out to vote. . . ”

But Trump, who lacks Clinton’s organized effort on the ground but regularly fills massive arenas, is far from a standard opponent. In the primary, he knocked off more than a dozen rivals who took a basically standard approach to his unpredictable rhetoric.

Clinton aides see next week’s debate at Hofstra University as a key moment. The Monday night match-up will finally give voters a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side.