Ready for Hillary buttons

Ready for Hillary, a "super PAC" urging Hillary Rodham Clinton to run for president in 2016, already has campaign buttons for supporters. (Astrid Riecken / MCT / February 20, 2014)

Hillary Rodham Clinton will not announce for months whether she will run for president, but as she arrived in California for events this week the machinery of a campaign was cranking into gear around her.

The Ready for Hillary "super PAC," created to encourage her candidacy, will launch a website this week that could serve as the framework for an eventual campaign to organize supporters across the 50 states.

The leaders of another super PAC, Priorities USA Action, have been meeting on the West Coast with a select group of donors, seeking six- and seven-figure pledges (and in some cases checks) to fund expensive ads on Clinton's behalf.

The pro-Clinton research operation of a third group, American Bridge 21st Century, is up and running in rapid response mode — casting Clinton critics such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) as obsessed with her record from the '90s.

After initial tensions last fall, the leaders of the dominant Democratic super PACs have put considerable effort into creating a united front on behalf of Clinton, a circumstance that has enhanced her standing as the far-and-away party front-runner in 2016.

Their decision to coalesce around an as-yet-unannounced candidate contrasts with the tumult surrounding the vigorously competitive Republican field, whose contenders will jockey for position later this week in Washington at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. While there are risks to unifying behind Clinton so early, Democratic super PACs see it as essential to build on cooperation they fostered after being pummeled by GOP-allied groups in the past.

"There was agreement," said David Brock, chairman of American Bridge and a newly appointed Priorities USA board member, "that there was a structure that should be put in place that was closely coordinated; that played to each entity's strength; that eliminated duplication; and that began to operate as early in the cycle as possible, so that we could begin to set our own story lines out before they got set by others.

"All of those lessons are going to apply to the 2016 effort, and we already see that in action," he said. The groups can operate together but, as legally independent entities, cannot coordinate strategy with an eventual Clinton campaign, should she decide to run.

Clinton, who spoke Tuesday at a private fundraiser for the Boys & Girls Club of Long Beach and will join UCLA political science professor Lynn Vavreck for a campus panel Wednesday, has offered sphinx-like answers about her political plans and no argument for her potential candidacy. Last week, she wryly told a University of Miami audience that she did not intend to elaborate on the "TBD" in her Twitter bio, because she had run out of allotted characters.

Nonetheless, the groups encouraging the former secretary of State to run say they have enough to work with for now given Clinton's status as a revered and inspirational figure among base Democratic voters.

As she makes up her mind, they are fashioning the building blocks for a successful campaign: refining the million-plus voter list that would be sold or rented to her campaign, countering hostile Republican voices, and laying the groundwork to engage the core Democratic constituencies that favored Barack Obama over her in 2008.

"If Hillary Clinton runs, she's is the one who is going to have to say what her message is," said Adam Parkhomenko, co-founder of Ready for Hillary and an alumnus of her 2008 campaign. Rather than serving as a "persuasion campaign," the group tries to "echo whatever she does," he said.

When she delivered a speech last year on voting rights, for example, the group emailed its supporters asking them to sign a petition telling Congress to fix the Voting Rights Act — and they made a similar effort after she urged an overhaul of immigration laws in November.

When Clinton headlined an October fundraiser for then-New York mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and campaigned for Terry McAuliffe during his successful gubernatorial bid in Virginia, Ready for Hillary urged its supporters in those states to volunteer or give money to those campaigns.

Priorities USA is expected to garner big donations eventually, though several sources said it may hold off on collecting large sums this year, in part because the organization would not want to be seen as diverting needed funds from vulnerable Democratic candidates.

Ready for Hillary has already plowed much of the $4 million that it raised last year — mostly in less expensive fundraisers — into its central focus of building a robust voter list that will be enriched by new layers of data over the course of this year.

In February, the group for the first time dispatched half a million pieces of direct mail to raise money. This week, Ready for Hillary will launch its website giving supporters access to its 50-state voter file, and asking them to help build the organization's list.

The new portal is intended to give a Clinton backer anywhere the ability to gain access to the voter file through Facebook and find friends whom they can recruit to support Ready for Hillary. (The tactic of using friends to prod friends via Facebook was used successfully by Obama's campaigns.)

The strategy has playful elements: To keep supporters engaged, Clinton supporters who agree to sign up 25 friends can be part of a new "national grass-roots organizing council." The more friends Ready for Hillary organizers bring into the fold, the more quickly they win badges and points that allow them to rise to a higher level on the council. (The badges and points can be used to purchase swag like iPhone covers and "Hillary hoodies" at the Ready for Hillary store.)

Those online efforts — aimed at capturing as much data for a future campaign as possible from every voter who visits the website — will be paired with more traditional tactics on the ground. Supporters fanning out with clipboards and iPads at political meetings and conventions across the country will be asked to give the data on new recruits to Ready for Hillary so the information can be layered into the organization's voter file.

A major focus for Ready for Hillary this year will be engaging core Democratic constituencies: blacks, Latinos, women, young Americans and members of the lesbian and gay community — areas where Clinton fell far behind Obama in 2008.

Obama campaign veteran Mitch Stewart, who helped develop the new website, said the importance of laying that groundwork even two years before an election cannot be underestimated.

"We wanted to make sure we started that relationship-building process as early as possible, knowing that in a lot of these states that's going to be the difference between winning and losing," Stewart said.

"We want to create space for Secretary Clinton to make a decision, but also we want to provide as many of the basics for the campaign as possible so that they hit the ground running."

maeve.reston@latimes.com