Back To Basics

In 1992, Bill Clinton Launched a Manhattan Project to Win Voters’ Trust. Now It’s Hillary’s Turn.

It’s her turn now to convince voters that she believes in a place called Hope and that they can rely on her to guide them there.

10.26.16 5:02 AM ET

If the polls are correct, voters are going to elect Hillary Clinton president even as a majority of Americans say she’s not honest and trustworthy. Her husband confronted the same resistance from voters in 1992, prompting his campaign to mount a “Manhattan Project” to repair his image.

Bill Clinton was on his way to winning after bruising primary fights with Jerry Brown and Paul Tsongas as well as third-party candidate Ross Perot, all portrayed in the media as “truth-tellers” praised for their “authenticity.” Clinton, on the other hand, looked to the voters like a typical politician. He was “Slick Willy.”

“We saw poll numbers that said Bill Clinton didn’t have the honesty and character to be president,” says Stan Greenberg, Clinton’s pollster at the time. A DNC poll had Clinton 24 points behind President Bush on honesty and trustworthiness.

“After the New York primary (when Clinton dispatched his last challenger, Jerry Brown), we knew he was going to win the nomination, and he was damaged goods,” says Samuel Popkin, a political scientist advising the campaign. “We have to rebuild the guy from the bottom up, but how do we do it?”

The answer was the “Manhattan Project,” hatched in April in New York, and named for both its birthplace, and for the super-secret quest for the atom bomb. The work was unbeknownst to the press and went unnoticed until after it was a fait accompli.

As Greenberg tells it, they set up a team with the top campaign people dealing with strategy and message pulling out of the day-to-day primary fights to go “back to basics, focused on how to address the trust issue.” If they didn’t change how the voters saw Clinton, he would have no chance to defeat a sitting president. The nomination would be worthless.

There must be a similar project underway in the Clinton camp today, and if there isn’t, there should be. Clinton is almost certain to win the presidency, but she’s been so vilified during this campaign, that addressing the issues of trust and her perceived dishonesty have got to be a priority if she’s to govern effectively.

Samuel Popkin, who teaches at the University of California, San Diego, was part of that 1992 team that media advisor Mandy Grunwald christened the “Manhattan Project.” He recalled its origins with The Daily Beast, and discussed the extent to which the remaking of Clinton 1992 might serve as a roadmap for Clinton 2016.

Some of Hillary’s negative ratings are going to change fast, he says, but it will be challenging. Bill Clinton’s life story was something of a blank slate when he first ran. “All the voters knew about Bill Clinton were ‘I didn’t inhale, Gennifer Flowers, and I didn’t go in the draft,’” says Popkin, who remembers asking Grunwald and the others, “What three things do you want everybody to know?”

That coalesced into the winning message that Clinton overcame a lot—that he was born poor, didn’t know his father, was raised by his grandparents. That he believed in work and investing in education. And that he had an economic plan.

At the Democratic Convention in July, a video titled “The Man from Hope” evoked Clinton’s humble beginnings in Hope, Arkansas. According to an account in Newsweek, it was Hillary Clinton who suggested a new finale for her husband’s acceptance speech. “I end tonight where it all began for me: I still believe in a place called Hope.”

The campaign had made significant progress in three months from the realization that a drastic overhaul of Clinton’s character and message was needed if he was going to have any chance to defeat President Bush, a war hero and member of the Greatest Generation. As the convention opened, the candidates were in a three-way tie with President Bush and Ross Perot each garnering 32 percent to Clinton’s 29 percent.

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Opinion research and focus groups made the team realize how little the voters knew about Clinton. “They heard about pot smoking and assumed he came from a privileged background,” says Greenberg, a finding that led to the campaign stressing Clinton’s humble origins and that he came from one of the poorest states in the country, and as governor had invested in education.

It’s not as straightforward with Hillary. Knowing more about her is not enough to overcome her deficits in trust and honesty. But beginning with the convention in July, the increased focus on her family and her middle-class background has helped, “and it’s getting better everyday,” says Popkin. “She wins when she is talking about doing things and getting things done.”

The way Democrats have appropriated Donald Trump’s jab at Clinton as a “nasty woman” is helping Clinton galvanize women, and generate the passion Clinton had often failed to generate. “I hope to God the campaign copyrights it before he claims credit,” says Popkin, only half-joking. “Just surviving Trump is part of the legend,” he says.

Much of Clinton’s character as it reveals itself will depend on what the Republicans do. “They can keep her looking bad, but if she offers an olive branch and they stick it in the fireplace, then she looks noble, and they start on the same path that led them to Donald Trump,” says Popkin, whose forthcoming book is titled, The Republican Crackup.

There’s only so much Clinton can do to make herself more palatable to more voters. “How much she gets done depends on how much the Republican Party wants to rescue themselves or dig a deeper hole,” says Popkin. “They can’t help themselves without helping her—and that’s the bottom line.”

The mutually assured destruction that resulted from the original “Manhattan Project” applies to politics as well.