Covering a campaign is more like covering a sports team than either sort of reporter cares to admit. The same performance that’s labeled “gutsy” after a win becomes “inadequate” after a loss.
While Hillary Clinton managed more primary votes than any winning candidate before her, it wasn’t enough for the onetime frontrunner to beat Barack Obama. And so the mistakes that would have been obscured by a victory have instead been brought into relief by her defeat.
Here are five of the key mistakes that helped cost her the nomination:
Hillary didn’t just sell the press and the public on her inevitability as the general election candidate; she sold herself the same bill of goods, telling George Stephanopoulos before the Iowa caucus that “I’m in it for the long run. It’s not a very long run. It will be over by February 5.”
Hubris was the campaign’s fatal flaw, from which the others, both strategic and tactical, derived.
2) The Iraq War Vote
“There is a straight line from Howard Dean to Ned Lamont to Barack Obama,” said Carter Eskew, the chief strategist for Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.
The 2002 vote authorizing military intervention in Iraq has haunted Clinton since, and opened up a space for an anti-war candidate in this year’s primary. While John Edwards, who cast the same vote, later claimed to have made a mistake in doing so, Clinton—looking ahead to a general electorate disappointed with the war in Iraq but still hoping for some sort of victory there (and perhaps also back to the 1990s image of the Clintons as serial parsers)—continued to defend her vote even as she criticized the war.
“When you have voted the wrong way on the signature issue of the change election, it’s very difficult to position yourself as the change candidate,” Eskew continued. “The whole energy in this campaign was [in] being anti-war.”
Voters associated Clinton with her husband’s administration, in part explaining why she based her run on “experience” and ceded the more appealing “change” role to Obama, whose limited tenure in Washington, soaring rhetoric and the historic nature of his candidacy all aligned nicely with that narrative. (Though as the first woman with a serious chance at the presidency, Clinton too would been a historic nominee).
Obama’s consistent opposition to the war, from the outset to the present, helped build his brand and voter base, and plugged him in to a network of small-contribution donors that continues to fuel his record-setting fundraising.
Joe Trippi, who served as a top strategist for John Edwards in 2008, believes a Clinton apology would have helped take the issue off the table. But many saw Clinton’s refusal to apologize as a testament to her strength, which she saw as a character trait a female candidate couldn’t afford to compromise.
“They were determined not to make primary mistakes” that would come back to haunt them against the Republican nominee, said Tad Devine, John F. Kerry’s chief strategist in 2004 who remained neutral in this year’s primary. “My reaction to that, you don’t get to participate in the general election unless you win the primary.”
3) The Trouble With Iowa
Clinton’s deputy campaign manager Mike Henry wrote a May 2007 campaign memo arguing that the campaign should “skip” the Iowa caucuses since they "will cost over $15M" but "we will not have a financial advantage or an organizational advantage over any of our opponents” and going all-out there “may bankrupt the campaign [but] provide little if any political advantage." (The memo, it should be noted, also offered the less prescient claim that “In effect, the Democratic Party is holding a national primary with over 20 states choosing a nomineeon Feb. 5.”)
As it turned out, Clinton spent more than $20 million and finished third and short on cash. A great unnoticed irony is that had Clinton mostly skipped Iowa, Edwards would likely have won, and become Clinton’s presumptive rival, leaving Obama out in the cold.
“She should have gone to Iowa but she should not have not doubled down on it. And it cost them the resources that she needed to fight a long fight,” said Devine. “She was the candidate to win a war of attrition.”
4) The Great Caucus Blunder
In the same interview with Stephanopoulos, Clinton shrugged off the effect of a potential loss in Iowa, saying “I don’t think it’s a question of recovery. I have a campaign that is poised and ready for the long term. We are competing everywhere through February 5. We have staff in many states. We have built organizations in many states.” But “many states” turned out to mean organization myopically focused on big state and Super Tuesday primaries.
“Keep everything else the same and add that she competed in the caucus states, she would have won,” Trippi said. “It’s actually fairly amazing.”
There were some built-in advantages for Obama in the caucus states. Party activists are most likely to turnout for caucuses, and Obama was the favorite of the progressive grassroots. But by mostly neglecting these small contests, Clinton conceded delegates that effectively cancelled out her gains in larger states. In Minnesota, for example, Obama beat Hillary by 24 delegates, twice as many delegates as Clinton gained on her rival in the much larger Pennsylvania primary.
After Super Tuesday, the smaller contests also allowed Obama to offer his own, more credible, narrative of inevitability. Between his Super Tuesday draw and the Virginia vote, Obama won five small contests in a row, including three caucuses. Those victories gave Obama a winner’s aura heading into Virginia, which may have helped him increase his margin there, which in turn further increased his perceived momentum.
“You could look at any point in this process and change one or two states and had a totally different outcome,” said Tony Fabrizio, who served as chief strategist for Bob Dole in 1988.
Devine agreed. “If his numbers had not looked so overwhelming, the movement of super delegates would have been inhibited,” he added. “It would have been a different dynamic; a different narrative.”
5) An Old-Fashioned, Offline Campaign
“It’s like no one watched from 1984 to 2004,” Trippi said of Clinton’s campaign.
The spectacular internet fundraising success of Howard Dean’s 2004 primary run seemed to have had little impact on Clinton, who’d built a tremendous network of old-school big-money donors.
Fundraising online might have been more difficult for Clinton, considering how much of her support came from the establishment. Trippi, though, disputes that assertion, pointing out that in February, when Clinton’s campaign adjusted to new-fashioned fundraising and she began mentioning her Web site frequently in her speeches, about half of the contributions she received were for less than $200—while only about a fifth of her contributions had been in that range in the last quarter of 2007.
It wasn’t just fundraising, though. Politico’s Kenneth P. Vogel calculates that Obama spent $6.8 million on web ads from the beginning of the campaign through the end of April, while Clinton spent just $350 thousand. When she finally caught on—spending more on online advertising in March and April than in the previous 14 months—Obama had already built a substantial lead in online presence (including ads on the Politico Web site).
As with any losing campaign, there’s practically no end to the mistakes that can be blamed for contributing to Clinton’s defeat. Oter culprits would include Bill Clinton’s at times unhinged public appearances, the racially coded messages the campaign was repeatedly accused of sending, the Bosnian sniper tall tale, the doubletalk about driver licenses for illegal immigrants, and her damning admission that she did not read the National Intelligence Estimate on Iraq before voting to authorize the use of military force.
What we know with certainty is that pundits and historians will be busy for years assigning and assessing blame—and that the long run was longer than Clinton anticipated, and the end result different.