We've been here before: Bill Clinton's getting more involved in Hillary's campaign as she loses ground — but will it help?

Bill's involvement reflects a growing concern the race could tilt toward Bernie if he sweeps early primaries

By Sean Illing
Published January 22, 2016 10:57AM (EST)
  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

The path to the Democratic nomination was clear for Hillary Clinton. In an uncommonly small field with no viable establishment challengers, Clinton was the obvious front-runner. She has all the experience, the overwhelming support of party elites, and plenty of money.

Clinton may still be the front-runner, but the race won't be nearly as uncontested as everyone once thought. We learned last week that Sanders and Clinton are now neck and neck in Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two primary states. Clinton has downplayed these numbers, insisting she knew all along that this would be a tough race, but that's very likely untrue. Clinton, like everyone else, assumed for months that this was her nomination to lose.

It's now impossible not to question those assumptions.

If you're looking for signs that things aren't going according to plan, look no further than Bill Clinton. It appears the former president is getting increasingly nervous about the state of the campaign. According to a report in Politico, Sanders' surge in Iowa and New Hampshire has led Bill to urge Clinton's staffers to shift their strategy away from the early primary states and toward the delegate-rich March primaries.

Politico's Annie Karni writes: “Bill Clinton, according to a source with firsthand knowledge of the situation, has been phoning campaign manager Robby Mook almost daily to express concerns about the campaign's organization in the March voting states, which includes delegate bonanzas in Florida, Illinois, Ohio and Texas.”

So far the Clinton campaign has focused intensely on Iowa and New Hampshire, believing their failure to do so in 2008 helped Obama gain early momentum. The same thing appears to be happening now, however, as Sanders, an insurgent candidate, is energizing the base in ways no one expected. Despite Clinton's Iowa-centric strategy, Sanders has proven resilient in that state, and may well pull off a major coup.

Although Hillary still maintains a comfortable lead in other crucial states, Bill is concerned about a lack of ground-level organization in places like Ohio and Illinois, where Sanders could surge if the narrative changes dramatically after Iowa and New Hampshire. Alarmed by Sanders' rising numbers, Bill believes the campaign should divert some of its resources away from the early states in order to secure Hillary's lead in the later primaries.

Bill's biggest concern is Ohio, where Clinton's presence is surprisingly weak. Karni writes:

“The campaign's organization in Ohio is, so far, nonexistent – there are no campaign offices or staffers on the ground yet – and the Democratic front-runner needs all the support from big statewide Afican-American leadership that she can get, a local source said. Eight years ago, she had the backing of political powerhouse Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, a close friend who served as the campaign's national co-chairman and was the first African American woman from Ohio to be elected to Congress. She died in 2008. This time, she has Rep. Marcia Fudge behind her. But at least one African-American who once backed Clinton, Ohio state senator and minority whip Nina Turner, has shifted to the Sanders camp.”

Clinton still has a double-digit lead over Sanders in Ohio, but, again, that could change quickly if Hillary's inevitability narrative starts to erode. While Clinton's focus on the early states makes sense, given what happened in 2008, it's surprising that so little emphasis has been placed on the rest of the calendar. If she falls in Iowa and New Hampshire, Clinton's myopic 2016 strategy will prove every bit as bad as the long-game approach she took in 2008.

At any rate, Bill's increased engagement in the campaign reflects a growing concern among Hillary supporters that this race could tilt toward Sanders if he sweeps the early primaries. It also suggests that Clinton needs to prepare for the very realistic possibility that she loses the first two states. If that happens, she'll need an active ground game to counteract Sanders beyond Iowa and New Hampshire. Otherwise her front-runner status will be in serious jeopardy.

Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at silling@salon.com.

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2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Bill Clinton Democratic Party Hillary Clinton