Axelrod writes about a crucial lesson he learned from working on so many mayoral races. Voters want a “remedy, not [a] replica” in the next candidate, even when the incumbent leaving office is well-liked. He says this rule—which he learned most directly in the 1989 race for the mayor of Cleveland where Michael White, the Democrat, followed the popular incumbent Republican George Voinovich—applies to presidential campaigns, too. He wrote to Sen. Obama in 2008: “When incumbents step down, voters rarely opt for a replica of what they have, even when that outgoing leader is popular. They almost always choose change over the status quo.” This is a different formulation of what President Obama was talking about recently when he said voters wanted “that new car smell.” Clinton is associated with the status quo even more because she has the Obama years and the Clinton years attached to her. 

Given this view, simple distinctions between Obama and Clinton on policy or positioning won’t be enough to break the third-term lock. It will be very hard for Clinton to offer herself as a remedy because there is nothing that makes her so constitutionally different from Obama that voters will notice. She is probably, for example, a better deal-maker and would work harder at connecting with Republicans, but that’s hardly a vast distinction that makes voter sit up. Gender is an obvious distinction, but that’s not the basis for a presidential platform.

Perhaps this is one of the reasons Clinton is working so hard to come up with a message that is so unique and powerful it looks new. Amy Chozick of the New York Times reports that Clinton has consulted more than 200 experts in her effort to craft an economic message. She’s not just trying to come up with a policy that creates distance, but one that achieves escape velocity.