In the 2016 White House contest, celebrity and personality appear to be driving the polls.
Donald Trump, the reality television star, has been leading the 17 Republicans vying for the party’s nomination and dominating the news. Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose marriage and hairstyles, finances and bids for office have garnered headlines for the last quarter-century, sits atop the Democratic pack.
So when former senator Jim Webb, who served just one term representing Virginia, became the fifth Democrat to announce his candidacy for president, Washington pundits chuckled at the so-very-under-the-radar way he chose to do so: via a modest Web video and statement to his website. On the eve of the Fourth of July holiday, no less, a time when most Americans turn their attention to barbecues and family fun.
Politics watchers wondered: What is his game? In a crowded field with a Clinton in the mix and the incumbent Democratic vice president pondering a possible candidacy, a grander gesture certainly could have drawn more attention. It might have even been required.
But Webb, 69, a Vietnam veteran who was secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, has never embraced the grip-and-greet elements of politics. Why then would he dive into the most intensive exercise in schmooze out there today? And where does he fit in to the Democratic field, which also includes a self-described socialist senator, a former Maryland governor who has his own band, and a former senator and governor of Rhode Island who has been both a Republican and independent in his prior political lives?
“Webb despises the show horses and the superficiality of politics generally,” says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “In Virginia, since we know him better, we all laughed at the way he chose to announce. More than a few said, ‘Yep, that’s Webb.’ ”
After an eight-month exploratory period and now more than a month into his official campaign, Webb’s team is a slow-moving work in progress. In just his second visit to New Hampshire, home of the nation’s first primary, Webb will give a speech about the economy and national security Saturday at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Hudson; a spokesman called this event his unofficial launch.
Webb doesn’t yet have paid staff or an office in New Hampshire, however. Craig Crawford, his communications director, said the campaign is instead relying on volunteers.
Meanwhile, Webb’s chief paid staffer in Iowa, which holds the nation’s first caucuses, resigned as state director in May, after just two months on the job. She declined to be interviewed for this article. Crawford points to another paid staffer who lives in Virginia but is managing Iowa for Webb, as well as a paid intern there.
The national staff may be increasing, however. This week, Crawford said, the campaign made three hires, including a finance director and social media manager.
The candidate’s team is apparently shy with the media as well; a representative canceled an interview with Webb for this story the night before it was planned. Crawford rejected a plea to reschedule it, even via phone, explaining that Webb doesn’t do phone interviews and doesn’t care much for print media.
“Jim offers voters what so many have for so long said they want: a nonpolitician who thinks on their own before speaking,” Crawford said in an e-mail, “without handlers, message merchants and poll-driven sound bites. Someone who owes no one and isn’t owned by anyone.”
But in Iowa and New Hampshire, two states that can make or break a campaign, some are concerned that he hasn’t done the groundwork most candidates do before they decide to run for president.
Serious guy, maybe, with bona fides galore, but is his campaign really serious about running?
“To call it a nontraditional presidential campaign would be an awfully nice exaggeration of what’s actually going on,” says Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “He does have a biography that looks presidential. That’s true. But . . . he’s not showing much appetite now for campaigning.”
David Yepsen, a longtime reporter with the Des Moines Register, says people run for president for different reasons — as a protest, to focus attention on a key issue, or perhaps hoping to actually become vice president.
But Sabato thinks that if the eventual nominee wants a Virginian for a running mate, it’s more likely to be one of the two incumbent Democratic senators, Tim Kaine or Mark Warner. “Webb never achieved wide or deep popularity in Virginia,” Sabato says. “And he really didn’t care, which is kind of admirable.”
Thus far, Yepsen suggests, Webb seems interested in the job, just not necessarily in the epic work involved to get it.
“This is a credible person, he’s not some oddball, and if he has a message, whatever he’s doing, it seems he has to get a more serious and conventional strategy for him to take him seriously,” says Yepsen, now the director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “He runs the risk of being an afterthought.”
Joe Trippi, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist, says Webb could have his eye on another top administration position — perhaps secretary of defense. “One of the ways you get noticed is by being out there in the fray, particularly in the debates,” he adds.
Voters in both early-voting states like candidates to woo activists and local officials and learn local as well as national issues before making a commitment.
Iowa, it’s worth remembering, launched President Obama, who was then a one-term senator who won an upset caucus victory in 2008 over Clinton. He was a phenomenon, and his candidacy historic, but he had worked to build a strong infrastructure of support.
So far, Webb has spent a dozen days in Iowa. He seems to be investing more deeply there than in New Hampshire. But activists say he’s not yet sparking interest.
“Webb’s got to do retail politics and do it well,” says Joe Stutler, communications officer for the Iowa Democratic Party’s Veterans Caucus. “He would do well to get some really good staff here that knows Iowa and knows the politics here.”
Iowa state Senator Jeff Danielson was open to a Webb candidacy but ultimately endorsed Clinton because he enjoys the history-making aspect of her campaign and believes she is “one of the most qualified presidential candidates we’ve had in our lifetime.” He says Webb has a lot going for him, though, noting the senator’s military service, in particular, and his reputation for challenging colleagues from both parties.
“I think Jim Webb’s path to victory is [his] strong and steady leadership as a decision-maker throughout his life,” Danielson says. “And his military service, which really ties into public service, which Iowans care a lot about.”
A Missouri native, Webb is a vigorous supporter of the Second Amendment. He has defended the Confederate battle flag for its historic significance. And he has criticized political leaders of both parties for going to war in Iraq.
He is a highly decorated veteran (the Navy Cross, the Silver Star, two Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts for heroism in Vietnam). He has authored many books, fiction and nonfiction. He has been married three times. He is not a candidate whose experience or positions fit neatly into a package Democrats typically sell to the progressive voters who turn out in the early state contests. But it’s not clear, experts say, whether there are many primary votes to be earned running to the right of Clinton.
The Real Clear Politics polling average of those seeking the Democratic nomination shows Webb registering at just below 2 percent nationally. Clinton has a firm command of the pack, at 55 percent. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is winning support from just under 20 percent, and Vice President Joe Biden, who hasn’t declared his candidacy but is putting out feelers, is at 12 percent. Former governor Martin O’Malley of Maryland is on par with Webb, at just under 2 percent, and former Rhode Island senator Lincoln Chafee is barely registering.
“O’Malley has done everything you’re supposed to do retailwise — admittedly we haven’t — and yet we’re not that far apart,” Crawford says. “Bernie generates love and passion, but come voting time voters think harder about electability and he can’t make the case.”
Clinton, Crawford suggests, has turned off some Democrats with her “sense of entitlement.”
Webb is the only Democratic candidate to have served in the military and that, Crawford says, should count for something as voters weigh who will serve as the next commander in chief.
Crawford also suggests that if Clinton stumbles, Webb presents as viable an option as anyone else in the mix. He is from a critical swing state and has deep foreign policy experience and fluency on a range of issues. He has regional appeal as well.
But does he have that certain something — that ability to sell — that the modern age requires? While Clinton has 217,000 Instagram followers and boasts a recent picture of the candidate with Kim Kardashian, Webb’s account notes 262 followers.
Biography can certainly be destiny in presidential politics. Obama’s quintessentially American story provided some evidence of that. But he also became a celebrity, a candidate who could draw thousands to his speeches. Fire in the belly translates on the stump. Without it — and maybe also an active Instagram account — a candidate is just one of five . . . or 17.
Crawford is unfazed. “We’re pretty much right where Bill Clinton was in 1991,” he says.