Arkansas’s most startling election outcome of the modern era occurred in 1980, when the state’s ambitious young governor, Bill Clinton, was defeated by Republican businessman Frank White. “The Choice 2016,” the well-reviewed documentary on the two major party presidential candidates produced by PBS’s “Frontline,” opens its segment on Hillary Rodham Clinton with that 1980 election at its center. Employing vintage video, that vignette traces the period from her husband’s election as governor in 1978 when she was Hillary Rodham, through that shocking re-election loss in 1980, and through the comeback of Bill Clinton with a joyous Hillary Clinton at his side in 1982. During that four-year period, not only did her name change, but so did her physical presentation (her hair became straighter and blonder) and her public style (her Midwest accent was softened by a slight drawl).
Gabrielle Schonder, reporter and producer of “The Choice 2016,” said the decision to focus on this time in Clinton’s lengthy public career was an easy one.
“[E]arly in our reporting, it became clear that almost everything you need to know about Hillary you learn during the leadup to the 1982 race. Her tenacity in the face of defeat is a defining skill she first learned at this moment. She does not hunker down after the 1980 loss. … She campaigns tirelessly through a state in which she is personally disliked to ensure Arkansans know Bill has learned his lesson. This is a battle for his future and hers, and it’s a `high-stakes, do whatever it takes’ attitude that she will repeat for the next three decades — a permanent campaign stretching all the way to her own candidacy in 2016.”
While “The Choice 2016” emphasizes some of the most challenging moments of Hillary Clinton’s time in Arkansas, her campaign has hammered home a more positive version of her two decades in the state. From the deeply personal address delivered by Bill Clinton at this summer’s Democratic National Convention to her campaign’s “closing statement” in its final advertising push, the “three decades of service” at the center of the Clinton campaign continually hearken to her time in Arkansas working on behalf of the state’s children. Yet, mirroring the ambivalence that’s always been present with her relationship with Arkansas and its people, recent polling shows that Clinton appears on her way to a double-digit loss in the state.
Once it became clear that Donald Trump would be her general election opponent, Clinton’s lifetime of service became the key subtheme of her campaign. (Attacks on Trump’s character and behavior have, of course, been the more dominant theme.) Her life of public service provided a clear contrast to Trump’s more self-centered career. Moreover, while a campaign against a younger opponent would have made it risky to emphasize her three decades in public life, a race against a man slightly older than her erased that concern. Indeed, a special feature on the Clinton website for her late October birthday encouraged supporters to check out what Hillary was doing the year they were born. The 2016 Democratic National Convention was a celebration of that lifetime of service, and much of it focused on her time as Arkansas’s first lady. In recounting “the best darn change-maker I ever met in my entire life,” Bill Clinton told tales of Hillary’s work in the state. She founded a legal aid clinic at the University of Arkansas School of Law and, in 1977, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families — a nonprofit group dedicated to improving the lot of the state’s most vulnerable citizens (in full disclosure, I serve as president of AACF’s board of directors). She provided creative responses to meet the distinctive health care needs of rural Arkansans by expanding access to nurse practitioners and led the implementation of HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters), a still-active early childhood education program. She reformed Arkansas’s education system by leading the group that designed a package of legislation passed in 1983 (that did include a controversial teacher test).
To provide handy visuals to accompany these remembrances of the Arkansas years for the carefully orchestrated coronation, the Arkansas delegation was front and center at the DNC. (In contrast, four years earlier, at the convention that renominated Barack Obama, Arkansas’s delegation was in the rafters of the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte, N.C.) Saline County teacher Dustin Parsons appeared as a speaker on the stage to highlight the impact of the educational reforms in Arkansas. As “running up the score” with female voters became crucial in an election cycle in which white men were skewing toward Trump, emphasizing Clinton’s success with family and education issues in Arkansas made particular sense for her campaign.
The campaign’s focus on her Arkansas years did not stop at the convention. Her fall advertising push used Arkansas examples to demonstrate her lifetime of dedication to children and family issues, and Clinton herself made overt references to her Arkansas experience in the final presidential debate both in expressing her understanding of American gun culture and in contrasting herself with Trump.
“In the 1980s, I was working to reform the schools in Arkansas,” she said. “He was borrowing $14 million from his father to start his businesses.”
The Clinton campaign’s version of Clinton’s time in Arkansas emphasizes her work and accomplishments. Her opponents have focused on a different version of those years, of course. During her Democratic primary battle with Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.), some from the left said that Clinton’s service on the Walmart Board of Directors showed her true colors on corporations and workers’ rights. In the lead-up to the second debate with Trump, the Republican nominee brought forward two women from the Clinton years in Arkansas who renewed their allegations of sexual abuse by Bill Clinton and another rape victim whose rapist was represented by Hillary Clinton as a court-appointed defense attorney. The Trump campaign is consciously emphasizing these stories during the home stretch of the campaign with the goal of suppressing turnout among younger women, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek report ( a Harvard Institute of Politics survey of 18-29 year-olds released late in the campaign says Clinton leads young women by 37 points).
The Arkansas Travelers, the group of Arkansans who traveled to swing states at their own expense in the ’90s to spread the gospel of the Clintons’ work in Arkansas, rode again on Hillary Clinton’s behalf in 2016. Begun in 1992 during Bill Clinton’s first campaign, the Travelers’ mission was to connect with rank-and-file voters across the country, sharing personal stories about their relationships with Clinton and his impact on their home state. The Travelers wore buttons saying, “I’m from Arkansas, let me tell you about my governor.”
Starting in November 2015, dozens of Arkansans once again traveled under the leadership of master organizer and taskmaster Sheila Bronfman, a long-time Little Rock political consultant, and a group of lieutenants operating out of Bronfman’s Heights home office. Working collaboratively with the Clinton campaign, the Travelers often go to smaller towns in parts of swing states similar to Arkansas in terms of their cultural conservatism. Their primary task is to engage in direct voter contact through door-to-door interactions and phone calls. With their own press specialist in tow, they also seek out interviews with small-town newspapers and television stations to talk about their personal relationships with Clinton and the impact of her work on Arkansas. Particularly because the Travelers are volunteers, they have shown themselves to be effective in voter outreach. Bronfman said the way that the Travelers go about their work makes them effective ambassadors for a candidate who has often been perceived by voters as cold and inauthentic: “If you’ve taken time do this, it means she’s a good person.”
Bronfman notes that, because they generally campaign in areas where Clinton supporters are outnumbered, their task is often to empower local Clinton supporters to become more engaged in the campaign. Bronfman said one older Missouri woman told the Travelers that her interaction with them had convinced her “to put that sign up that I’ve been scared to put up.” A teenage African-American woman who was one of only a handful of students of color in her western Pennsylvania high school was similarly empowered by the Travelers’ visit to her high school civics classroom and became engaged in the campaign afterward.
Some Travelers in 2016 are veteran campaigners, and a number have been engaged since the snows of New Hampshire in the winter of 1992. Ann Henry, Hillary Clinton’s faculty colleague at the University of Arkansas who hosted the Clintons’ 1975 wedding reception at her home with her husband, Morriss, noted that technology has transformed their work over the last quarter-century. In 1992, the Travelers went door-to-door without targeted lists of voters and helped build the crowds at rallies; in this cycle, the call and door-to-door lists are honed to those voters most likely to be swayed by such personal interactions.
The Traveler veterans are an aging crew. Indeed, a number of the original Travelers have died or are no longer able to travel. For those like Henry and her husband, the long days are challenging. “When you’re 76 and 84, we can do the early morning, but it’s harder to do the early morning when the ‘light’s out’ is almost midnight,” she said. As a result, the Travelers have reinforced their numbers with younger Arkansans, several of whom are the children or grandchildren of original Travelers. While these younger Travelers, some as young as 16, lack the depth of personal history with Hillary Clinton, they focus on the impact of Clinton’s work on their home state a generation later — the legacy of her educational reforms and work to expand Arkansas Children’s Hospital.
While the Travelers are volunteers with careers outside of politics, numerous other Arkansans have invested many more hours over the past years — and staked their future political careers — on the Clinton campaign. Particularly prominent in this group are Adrienne Elrod, director of strategic communications for Clinton after beginning the campaign cycle at Correct the Record (a unique super PAC built to rapidly respond to attacks on Clinton); Craig Smith, who headed up the Ready for Hillary super PAC that preceded her candidacy and is now in a leadership role on the Clinton Florida campaign; and Greg Hale, the campaign’s director of production. Hale is a Little Rock-based campaign consultant who maintains a connection to his roots in South Arkansas while paying careful attention to every detail of major events for the campaign. Though stagecraft is his primary duty, those close to the campaign say that Hale plays a role in grounding Clinton by tying the candidate back to Arkansas. “He’s a living embodiment of where they came from,” said former Clinton aide David Morehouse (now president of the National Hockey League’s Pittsburgh Penguins).
If Clinton wins, some of these Arkansans hope to gain (and, in some cases, return to) positions in a Clinton administration. Some Arkansans may obtain even higher profile positions than those, like Hale, who work behind the scenes. One might well be former Arkansas U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee when she lost her re-election race in 2010 to Republican John Boozman. Lincoln is rumored to be at the top of the list of candidates to be Clinton’s Secretary of Agriculture. She would not be alone as an Arkansan mover and shaker in a Clinton administration.
Despite these important Arkansas linkages to her personal and political life, recent polling shows Clinton is on her way to losing the state overwhelmingly. Early in the year, Arkansas Democrats were quite confident that Clinton could significantly outperform Barack Obama’s vote in 2008 and 2012. (Obama gained only 37 percent of the state’s vote in his race against Mitt Romney.) She may yet slightly improve on the Obama blowout in Arkansas, but it will be only a marginal improvement. There are twin dynamics driving Clinton’s poor performance in 2016 in Arkansas: She is now a candidate who is seen as a national Democrat by Arkansas voters, and Donald Trump is a candidate ready-made for the Arkansas electorate.
The most recent Talk Business & Politics/Hendrix College poll from mid-October shows a 56 percent to 32.5 percent lead in Arkansas for Trump over Clinton. Although Clinton is running relatively strong in the 2nd Congressional District, which includes Central Arkansas, Trump is dominating the former Arkansas first lady in all other parts of the state. Clinton, unsurprisingly, is winning voters of color and nonchurchgoers, but those groups make up relatively small portions of the Arkansas electorate. Most interestingly, there is no significant gender gap in Arkansas. This is very much unlike the national story, in which there is a large gap between the evaluations of the two candidates by male and female voters.
While Clinton maintains deep connections with Democratic Party elites in Arkansas, she is distanced by time and ideology from rank-and-file Arkansas voters. She’s been gone from the state for two decades, and after serving as a U.S. senator from New York and secretary of state in the Obama administration, Clinton is now clearly a “national Democrat.” As Bill Clinton said last year, “Based on recent events, I don’t know if I could win again down there.” Those “recent events,” of course, include an ongoing animosity to President Obama and the demolition of state Democrats, a shift that changed Arkansas from one of the most Democratic states at the state level to one of the most Republican. Even Hillary Clinton’s most loyal supporters would agree that she is not her husband when it comes to outreach to Arkansas voters.
Too, the electoral pattern across the country is defined by Trump’s connection with whites lacking a college education and Clinton’s historically strong support with voters of color and whites with a college degree. Arkansas has a relatively small percentage of nonwhite voters (in 2014, the Arkansas electorate was 83 percent white, according to exit polls) and is second to last among the states in the percentage of its population with a college degree. In his Arkansas campaigns (aside from the shocking 1980 loss), Bill Clinton was a specialist in dominating the “rural swing” counties that run diagonally from southwest to northeast across Arkansas. He did so by combining economic populism with respect for traditional rural values. However, these disproportionately white, emphatically rural and economically fragile counties have swung decidedly away from Democrats during the Obama era, and Trump promises to run up the score even more in these counties in 2016. While Arkansas Democrats seem generally more comfortable in running with Clinton than they have been with Obama in recent cycles, it is only in those handful of areas where nonwhites and college graduates show themselves in the state that Trump will have a challenge.
One of the coolest experiences I get to have in my professional life is to speak with groups from Road Scholar, the service catering to educational travel for older folks, when they arrive in Little Rock. I regularly present a lecture on Bill Clinton’s relationship with Arkansas’s politics — how he was shaped by the place and how he reshaped it — before the group heads to the Clinton Presidential Center. One point I emphasize is how Clinton transformed individuals who had been political “outsiders” into “insiders.” Included in this category were not just African-Americans, but also women, personified by his wife’s role in policy work in his administration (such as on education) and in his political campaigns (such as her 1990 annihilation of Tom McRae, then challenging her husband for re-nomination as governor, at a state Capitol press conference. Hillary Clinton hijacked McRae’s event, pulling out reports by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, which McRae had headed, praising her husband’s record on education, environment and economic issues).
Inevitably, one of the astute visitors will ask some version of this question: “So, what do Arkansans think about her now?” The answer, as is often the case with Hillary Clinton and Arkansans, is “it’s complicated.” But, one thing is quite simple in 2016: No matter how much Hillary Clinton celebrates her Arkansas history, the bulk of Arkansans casting a vote this year are driven by the political dynamics of today rather than those of the past.