One sees them whenever Hillary Clinton arrives in town. Without the means to afford the often hefty ticket price to see her speak, they stand outside with homemade signs, chanting, “Hil-Lar-Ree!” They have replaced the background photograph on their Twitter profile to a simple picture of the former first lady; their bio lists Hillary Clinton alongside their favorite sports teams. For seven years, they have tracked her every move on social media. And the moment Hillary Clinton shoots the starter pistol on the 2016 campaign, they will leave behind jobs, families, and responsibilities, and go where she needs them.
To be clear, these aren’t the operatives and fundraisers and Clintonistas and Friends of Bill who are already hosting high-dollar fundraisers or angling for administration jobs. Some of them are, by their own admission, apolitical. But in Hillary Clinton they feel something beyond the usual kinship with a political figure who shares their ideas. It is more like a spiritual connection, one they describe in near-rapturous terms.
“I was never political whatsoever, like at all, but I always loved Hillary Clinton, and I always said that if she was ever going to run for president, I was going to do whatever I could to make that happen,” said Gretchen Baer, a 50-year-old artist from Brisbee, Arizona.
In 2008, that meant buying a number of Clinton’s famous pantsuits, on which Baer stenciled portraits of the candidate, “à la Andy Warhol,” and wore every day for months, she said. It meant making a “HillCar,” an art car covered with Clinton portraits, and traveling around the country like, she acknowledges, a Deadhead, to meet Clinton ahead of her campaign stops.
In 2016, Baer is thinking about hitting the road again, enlisting a team of artists to create their own HillCars, so that a brigade of cars, each with Clinton’s smiling face plastered on the hood, can greet the campaign wherever it goes.
If that sounds like devotion, consider the case of Aaron Darr, who pretty much ran away from his Ohio home at the age of 16 to volunteer for the Clinton campaign in 2008. Now he sports a tattoo of Clinton’s name in elegant script on his waist.
“It always reminds me of why I got into politics in the first place. She changed my life,” Darr said by phone from Florida, where he was laying the groundwork for his own run for office. “I think she just genuinely cares about people. She understands people’s struggles, and people understand that she understands.”
Darr is not the only Clintonista with Hillary ink. Luis Salgado, a 34-year-old tattoo artist now living in Kissimmee, Florida, got Clinton’s face on his upper thigh in 2008.
“I have a leg full of face tattoos, and she is just one of the people that inspired me,” he said, pointing out that Clinton’s visage was jostling for space with Marilyn Monroe and Marlon Brando. “I think she is great. She is a young woman for young women, and our country needs someone like her.”
Next consider the blogger who, for professional reasons, asked to be identified only by her blog name, “Still4Hill,” and who since 2008 has tracked Clinton news obsessively online, sometimes spending as much as five or six hours a day on it, writing up Clinton’s public appearances and rebutting the secretary of state’s negative press while working full time.
Still4Hill, who described her age as “baby boomer,” said it was the 2008 campaign that sparked her devotion.
“I was listening to her speeches and her debates, and everything she said stuck a chord with me,” the blogger said. “If she was running for class president when we were in school, I would have worked hard for her. When she suspended her campaign, that was when I started the blog. I was disappointed. I was lonely. I just wanted to start writing about her.”
Surely every political figure has fans. In parts of Brooklyn, the Obama campaign seemed to create whole new subcategories of hipster. But save for Ron Paul, perhaps, no political figure who has been on the scene for as long as Hillary Clinton has has been able to generate quite the same kind of gaga, starry-eyed devotion of Clinton’s fans. And, her devotees acknowledge, it is not because of any kind of bold policy program that Clinton puts forward. She seems, if anything, to symbolize an even more incremental progressivism than President Obama. Rather, it is something about her, and about her story.
The constant Republican carping. The humiliation of Bill Clinton’s White House affair. The crashing and burning of her last presidential campaign to the unknown, young upstart.
“I think everybody in the world knows that Hillary Clinton has been through some rough times, sometimes very publicly,” said Darr. “But she is Rocky Balboa. She gets knocked down and gets right back up again, she keeps going and going. She taught me that if someone tells you you can’t do something, you get right up and prove that you can.”
Indeed, often when Clinton’s biggest devotees describe what they like about her, they sound as if they are describing themselves, or at least their hopeful version of themselves.
“She never is after the glory. She wanted to work for us. To me that was a big deal,” said Still4Hill. “I work hard. I care that the work gets done. That impressed me.”
“She reminds me of myself in a lot of ways,” said Sierra Myerscough, a 20-year-old college student living in Arizona. If Clinton runs in ’16, Myerscough has already pledged to drop everything and volunteer, even though her father, a staunch conservative, has told her if she does so he will cut off his financial support of her.
“She is a very strong, independent woman,” Myerscough said. “If you call her a bitch, she is not going to think twice about it. She knows what is best in her personal life and in her political life, and no matter what you say, it is not going to deter her from what she believes.”
At times, among her crowd of devotees, Clinton can sound almost superhuman.
Darr described meeting “African and Afghan women and girls” at the Women in the World summit in New York in 2013 who carried around their own photographs they had taken with Clinton during her travels as secretary of state. “They would say the picture of Hillary was their bulletproof vest,” he said. “It has saved their life.”
Baer, the Arizona artist, said she had heard that Clinton reads a book a day. When Mark Murphy, a Bay Area salesman, first heard Hillary speak at a campaign event in 2007, he said, “I literally had chills. It was like, ‘Wow.’ She is just unbelievable to me. Not for any particular reason. She just gets in your head.”
By now, Murphy has heard Clinton speak upward of 20 times, and he is saving his vacation days so that he can hit the trail for her in 2016.
“It seems like she knows everything,” he said. “I don’t know how she keeps that much stuff in her brain. She doesn’t use a teleprompter, you know. And I am sure they don’t give her the questions ahead of time, but she seems to always know the answer. How does she know so many stats and figures? It is crazy to me.”
Meeting the Clintons, added Steve Rosinski, an actor in Las Vegas, was “primal.”
“I hate to describe it as an addiction, but I guess it is,” he said. “Meeting them face to face, there is something that says they are joining with me. I am one of them. This isn’t just a world leader, but this is someone who really cares about me.”
Rosinski tried to draft Hillary Clinton into the presidential race in 2012, gathering nearly 6,000 signatures, which he said nearly led to his excommunication from the Democratic Party. He now runs the Vote Hillary 2016 Twitter and Facebook accounts, a task he calls all-consuming, and said he still tears up when he hears the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign theme song, “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”
“Think about those words,” Rosinski said. “It’s ‘Don’t stop thinking about…tomorrow.’ That is the whole thing, that optimism.”