There are a lot of articles being written about why Hillary Clinton’s campaign failed to deliver her the nomination, despite the fact that she started out as the undisputed front-runner. Along those lines, I offer my analysis of why the Clinton campaign fell short.
Though they might not have come out and said it, inevitability was the meme the Clinton campaign was based on. Her organization was lauded, as was her discipline. Her campaign’s fundraising was prolific. And she was dominating the polls–nationally and in most of the early states.
Of course, those polls meant nothing–early polls are little more than surveys of name recognition, and they’re highly fluid. And Clinton’s fundraising apparatus–as impressive as it was–became overshadowed by Obama’s. If Obama hadn’t raised the money he did, he never would have been a competitive candidate.
Clinton won 2 out of 4 early states, and she won an incredibly impressive spate of victories on Super Tuesday. But expectations for her campaign were so high that, what normally would have been seen as an impressive performance was seen as a loss.
Change vs. More of the Same
The Clinton campaign also seriously misjudged the national mood when they crafted their message. They thought America wanted an experienced, proven, competent President who could wade into our national morass and sort our problems out. Instead, America wanted a change–they wanted someone new, someone untainted by the battles of the past, who could lead America in a new direction.
The Clinton campaign recognized this during the campaign, but by then it was too late–Clinton was the experienced yet status quo candidate, and no amount of attempted re-packaging could shake that first impression of her.
The Clinton campaign built one of the most impressive fundraising apparatus in political history–unfortunately, it was based on a model pioneered in the 1990’s. The Clinton’s network of well-connected, rich donors was supposed to keep her campaign awash with money–and it did.
Just not enough.
Obama’s model was a lot easier to set up, operate, and maintain–his campaign courted small donations from regular individuals. The upside of this is that it takes far less effort to get a ton of small donations from supporters than to bundle $2,300 checks from wealthy connections (many of whom expect something in return for their generosity). In addition, Obama’s network of small donors could keep giving and giving and giving, while Clinton’s donor base quickly got tapped out.
Obama’s fundraising prowess is what made him competitive to begin with–had his fundraising not matched or exceeded Clinton’s, he would have never even have had a chance.
The Philly Flip-Flop
The first chink in Clinton’s inevitability armor came during the Philadelphia debate during a question on granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants. When asked if she supported the plan, she failed to give a yes-or-no answer; when pushed by moderator Tim Russert, she equivocated. After that, it took several days for her campaign to release a clear answer, but by then it was too late.
Clinton’s campaign was praised for their organization and message discipline. She was unflappable at the debates, and performed exceptionally well. Yet, she failed to answer a yes-or-no question live on national television, floundering before an audience of millions. It made her look calculating and seemed as if she were trying to play both sides, neither of which are preferable traits to have in a President.
Yeah, the issue was more complex than a yes-or-no answer would allow. But her equivocation on such a national scale gave a lot of Democratic voters pause and, even worse, it lent credence to the charges that Clinton was a panderer and an equivocator.
If Philly was a dent, Iowa was a big, huge crack. Had Clinton won Iowa, she would have become the Democratic nominee–her inevitability would be confirmed, and her subsequent victory in New Hampshire would have sealed the deal.
So what happened?
Again, inevitability became a problem, particularly in a state that Clinton was never really winning–Iowa was first Edwards’, then it was a three-way tie, then it became Obama’s. The national narrative was that she was inevitable, but in the state of Iowa, she was never really leading at all. Thus, her loss in Iowa–which, overall, was not that big a deal–was seen as a huge turning point in the campaign. Once again, the Clinton camp was hobbled by their own message.
The Clinton campaign expected Hillary to win the nomination on Super Tuesday. They focused on the early states and the larger states voting on Super Tuesday, assuming that they would win enough by then to effectively win the race. Unfortunately, Obama performed far better than expected, winning half of the early states and putting up a massively impressive showing on February 5th. Clinton won a lot of big states, but she only won the states she had focused on–all the rest went to Obama. He walked away from that night with more states and more delegates; Super Tuesday resolved nothing.
Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign had no plan B. They had no infrastructure put in place to deal with a post-Super Tuesday campaign. So they lost state after state–11 in a row–while Obama racked up huge margins of victory and a significant lead in delegates.
It was this single problem that really cost Clinton the nomination–she didn’t plan for the future. Instead of organizing everywhere, instead of running like she was 20 points behind (as the old political adage says you should), she ran like she was the dominant front-runner. And when her dominance turned out to be not nearly as solid as it needed to be, there was no plan B. So Obama went on to win state after state, racking up a significant delegate lead, putting Clinton in a deficit she has yet to come out of.
I’m sure there are a lot more factors out there that contributed to her loss, but these are some of the big ones. Clinton built an impressive campaign, but it just wasn’t good enough and, as time went on, her legendarily on-message, disciplined campaign fell to bickering and infighting. In the end, though, it was the campaign’s strategic decisions that cost her the race–had things played out slightly differently, we would all have Hillary bumper stickers on our cars right now.