Sometime between Hillary Rodham Clinton’s loss in Iowa and her comeback in New Hampshire, she won Nancy Larson’s heart and her all-important superdelegate vote.
“Sen. Clinton had this humility about her, this vulnerability, this realness,” said Larson, a Democratic National Committee member from Minnesota. “I thought, ‘I really like her.’”
But then came Sen. Barack Obama’s winning streak. He won in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and the Virgin Islands. He picked up Maine. He swept Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
Obama peeled off 12 wins in a row, and Larson found herself swept up in the excitement.
“‘I have to endorse Barack,’” she recalls thinking. “‘I know I do.’”
The Clinton campaign never recovered.
For all of the attention paid to Barack Obama’s rallies, Hillary Clinton’s tears, the Iowa caucuses, the spats over Michigan and Florida, flag lapel pins, sniper fire and the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the race for the Democratic presidential race came down to quiet decisions made by superdelegates like Larson.
When Clinton lost them, she lost any hope of winning her party’s nomination.
It was almost unimaginable just seven months ago.
In November 2007, the Gallup Poll had Clinton running nearly 30 points ahead of Obama nationwide.
Clinton surely wouldn’t need Democratic Party superdelegates to win the nomination, but she seemed to have a lot of them in the bag anyway. In November, an Associated Press survey showed Clinton leading Obama among superdelegates, 169-63.
“There was a time when the press was saying it was over before it was over,” recalls a source close to the Clinton campaign. “The superdelegates really bought into that.”
Obama’s Jan. 3 victory in the Iowa caucuses exposed cracks in the idea of Clinton’s inevitability, but Clinton got her groove back with wins in New Hampshire, Michigan — where Obama wasn’t on the ballot — and Nevada. As more superdelegates made their intentions known, Clinton held on to her 100-superdelegate lead.
But as Obama began to pile up state after state in February, the superdelegates started swinging hard toward him. Between Super Tuesday on Feb. 5 and the primaries in Texas and Ohio on March 4, AP’s surveys showed Obama picking up 51 superdelegates, while Clinton lost one.
Marquette University student Jason Rae was one of the 51.
At 21 — he’s 22 now — Rae was the youngest person ever elected to the Democratic National Committee. He was too young to be an old FOB, or Friend of Bill, and the Clintons’ reliance on old establishment ties left him cold.
“I think that’s where the campaign faltered,” he said. “They were focusing a lot on establishment ties, and people were expected to just jump on board. And early on, they did. But when people learned more and more about Barack Obama, they jumped ship.”
The Clinton camp fought hard for Rae’s support.
He got phone calls from former President Bill Clinton and from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
He had breakfast with Chelsea Clinton.
And then, in late February, he endorsed Obama.
“It wasn’t anything against Sen. Clinton,” Rae said in an interview. “But the Obama campaign made young people feel like they had a spot at the table. My generation was overwhelmingly speaking in support of him, and that’s the reason I went with him.”
As the primary season dragged on, it was becoming increasingly clear that superdelegates would dictate the result. It was also becoming clear — at least to outsiders — that Hillary Clinton could not expect a tsunami of superdelegates to start going her way.
That mssive bloc of pledged delegates, all those old friends who adored and owed both Clinton and her husband? They just weren’t there.
“I don’t know why they ever thought that,” said House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), an African-American leader who ultimately endorsed Obama. “It was always a misreading.”
The Illinois senator had a tumultuous March — thanks, in large part, to controversy swirling around Wright — but it didn’t seem to matter to the superdelegates.
“They weren’t coming our way once we hit [Super Tuesday on] Feb. 5, and Wright made no difference,” said a Clinton campaign staffer.
Clinton’s wins in Texas and Ohio may have slowed the tide but didn’t turn it around.
“In March, even as we were winning states like Ohio and Texas, it seemed like we faced an uphill battle,” a source close to the campaign said. It was becoming clear, the source said, that superdelegates “were not sold” on the argument that the Clinton team always thought would prevail: that Clinton, not Obama, would be the stronger candidate in the fall.
In early May, AP declared that Obama had finally “erased” Clinton’s “once imposing lead.”
Clinton supporters can console themselves with the thought that they were caught on the wrong side of a phenomenon. But superdelegates say there was more to it than that.
DNC member Debbie Marquez, the co-owner of a Fiesta’s Café & Cantina in Edwards, Colo., backed New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson until he left the race, then threw her support behind Obama because of Clinton’s vote in favor of the resolution authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq.
After Marquez endorsed Obama, Bill Clinton called and tried to get her to change her mind.
“I told him if I could stand in my bar [before the war] and argue with customers about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, why couldn’t our senators have done the same?” Marquez said.
While Marquez was impressed by the excitement surrounding Obama’s candidacy — “it was obvious to me that something new and different was going on” — she said she was also influenced by the Clinton campaign’s weaknesses. “When she had to loan her campaign money,” Marquez said, “that’s when everyone started wondering, ‘Can we really get behind her?’”
Florida superdelegate Dianne Glasser expressed a similar concern. After Super Tuesday, she said, the Clinton campaign “had no money and no plan.” Glasser committed to Obama in the final days of the campaign.
Larson had different concerns. As she grew more excited about Obama, she also began to hear what she called “tinges of racism” from the Clinton campaign in South Carolina.
“Bill pulled the racial card,” she said. “And that turned me off.”
The Clinton campaign rejects the notion that Clinton played the race card in South Carolina; indeed, the former president has claimed that Obama was the one who played it on him.
But for the Clinton campaign, the factors on which superdelegates such as Rae, Marquez and Larson based their decisions were at least within the realm of the expected: Which candidate’s views were more appealing? Which candidate was running a better campaign? Which candidate has a better chance of winning the White House in November?
“We assumed [superdelegates] would make a dispassionate, objective, analytical analysis of the two candidates like a rational actor would,” said a Clinton campaign staffer.
Superdelegates in Congress posed a different, and unexpected, challenge.
“They did what’s best for them, period,” the Clinton staffer complained.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) said many of his colleagues put their ownconcerns about reelection ahead of anything else in the decision making process. He called it an “after me, I’m for you” mindset.
“That’s the watchword of the process,” Miller said. “[The superdelegates in Congress] were taking the temperature every morning.”
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Joe Baca (D-Calif.) said he felt compelled to endorse Clinton after his district went for her on Super Tuesday. “We’re all going to vote according to our districts,” Baca said. “If we don’t, we’re not going to get reelected.”
Civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) endorsed Clinton in October 2007 but then switched sides in late February, after Democrats in his district threw their support behind Obama.
Announcing the switch, Lewis cited the transformational nature of the Obama campaign. “Something’s happening in America, something some of us did not see coming,” he said. But in an interview with CNN, he suggested that his motivations may have been more personal. “As a U.S. representative,” he said, “it is my role not to try to subdue or suppress the will of the people.”
If concerns about their own political futures loomed large for some superdelegates, the different ways in which the Clinton and Obama campaigns courted them may have had an effect on others.
Clyburn said Obama reached out to him frequently during the primary season but that Clinton talked to him only through surrogates such as BET founder Robert Johnson and attorney Weldon Latham.
“A lot of Clinton people called me,” Clyburn said, “but she never did. She never, never called me.”
Clyburn endorsed Obama on the final day of the primary season; he spent part of that day helping to round up another 20 to 30 superdelegates so that Obama could claim victory once the polls closed in Montana and South Dakota that night.He said he wasn’t offended that he never heard from Clinton directly, but he said it was “absolutely” a mistake for her not to make the personal connection — a mistake that may have denied her a better understanding of what was happening as the superdelegate race turned against her.
“I think she might have found out personally not to rely on [the superdelegates],” Clyburn said. “If she’d talked to them, she could have found quickly not to rely on them.”
But even if Clinton had done everything right, Clyburn said, it might not have mattered in the end.
“I don’t believe there is one soul alive who would have predicted that the voting public would be reacting this year as they are,” he said.
Larson, who announced her support for Obama in April, knows what Clyburn means.
“I have a lot of respect for Sen. Clinton,” she said. “But I love Obama.”
David Rogers contributed to this story.