After every election, there are two stories to be told, how a candidate and a political party won, and how a candidate and political party lost. Some of these post-mortems are formulaic, and not very insightful. As Bert Bennett, NC Gov. Jim Hunt’s political godfather, told Gary Pearce, “When you win, you did everything right. When you lose, you did everything wrong.”
I am not persuaded by the stories about what a horrible candidate Hillary Clinton has been, what a horrible campaign she has run, and what a horrible person she is, as if that explains her loss. She captured about 48% of the popular vote to Obama’s 48.1%. In a race that close, you could say that every little mistake or misjudgment she made counted, and every smart move Obama made counted. By the same token, her mistakes and misjudgments can be exaggerated because she didn’t do badly.
She won five of the last seven primaries — Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky, Puerto Rico, and South Dakota, while Obama won only two — North Carolina and Oregon. Winning primaries up until the very end certainly justified her staying in the race as long as she did.
The race was extremely close. And looking back, one can see that she made critical mistakes. Yes, her vote to authorize the Iraq war in 2002 hurt, as Charles Krauthammer noted. It’s true she offered shifting personas and shifting messages, making her seem too calculating and self-conscious. She didn’t give many inspirational speeches, too often used hackneyed language, came across sometimes as a scold, and didn’t attract the votes of women under 40, who flocked to Obama. It’s probably also true, as Marie Cocco writes, there was some misogyny in the harshly negative reaction to Hillary:
“There are many reasons Clinton is losing the nomination contest, some having to do with her strategic mistakes, others with the groundswell for ‘change.’ But for all Clinton’s political blemishes, the darker stain that has been exposed is the hatred of women that is accepted as a part of our culture.’ ” Read her column.
In another column, she challenges the platitude that Hillary was objectionable not because she was a woman, but because she was “that woman.” “To look around the globe is to see a stark truth: Americans seem peculiarly averse to female leadership.” Other women leaders have been found wanting and unacceptable for the presidency, despite stellar qualifications, and Hillary is more qualified than they were. If Hillary doesn’t win the presidency, it’ll probably be another 25 years before a woman is deemed acceptable, she contends, concluding with this question: “Is it something about Hillary, or something about us?”
Why She Soldiered On
In an interview with The Washington Post, Hillary explained why she stayed in the race.
The “intensity of my support” was rarely reported, adding, “I think that is a disservice because we have broad coalitions of voters who have voted for me who make up the base of a winning campaign in November that I think want to see this end up with my being nominated.” She wanted to give voters in the final five states a chance to participate in the process (and she won four out of five of those states). Read the whole thing.
What If She Beat Obama?
Of course, if Hillary bested Obama for the nomination, one could write a column questioning whether Americans are ready to elect a black man, and if Obama loses the presidency, in what appears to be an overwhelmingly Democratic year, no doubt some analysts would attribute his defeat to racism, no matter how good or bad a campaign he runs.
Marie Cocco’s analysis is worth considering, but too facile, and no more than half true.
Perhaps more to the point, as Mona Gable wrote, Hillary simply wasn’t “the right woman at the right time.”
It was a close call, but ultimately a plurality of Democratic primary and caucus voters didn’t want 28 years of Bush-Clinton-Bush-Clinton presidencies. They wanted a change from old faces and old dynamics.
Ironically, if she won North Carolina instead of losing it by a near-landslide, she probably would have shifted momentum and gone on to win the nomination. But she didn’t. Why? She would have had to cut into Obama’s strong support in the black community, in the university communities, in rural areas, among military families in places like Fayetteville and Jacksonville. She simply did not win enough support among her supposedly core constituencies — senior citizens, women, and white working class voters. Many of those voters in NC voted for Obama.
Karen Tumulty of Time cites five critical mistakes made by Clinton: She misjudged the country’s mood by campaigning on experience in an election when CHANGE was most important; she didn’t master the rules of the primary and caucus system; she underestimated the caucus states; she relied on old money; and she never counted on a long haul.
Despite the suspicion among Hillary-haters that she will say or do anything to win, if she had played dirtier, she probably could have won. If Obama’s connection to Rev. Jeremiah Wright had been exposed shortly before the Iowa caucuses, as Tom Bevan of Real Clear Politics points out in a Wall Street Journal column, “odds are Barack Obama would not be a hair’s breadth away from clinching the Democratic nomination for president of the United States.”
And even if we assume Mr. Obama could have managed to hang on and win Iowa after the appearance of his good reverend, which is debatable, it’s a near certainty he would not have won as many primaries and caucuses by as many votes around the country as he did in January and February.
In other words, it would be a totally different ballgame.
Hillary ran a strong, mostly positive campaign. E.J. Dionne observed that “the Hillary Clinton who has emerged from these primaries is a stronger and more independent figure than the candidate who once hoped she could parlay the past into the White House. Her future depends on discovering a new role, even if it is not the one she had originally hoped to play.”
In my view, the main reason she lost the Democratic nomination is that she is an old face, a legacy candidate, who does not represent enough of a sense of change when the mood of the electorate (in the Democratic primaries, at least) has been for CHANGE — not only a change of faces, but a change from old ways of doing things, a change away from the passive observation of politics (via television), financed by big-time lobbyists TO participation IN politics (online), financed by small contributions from a vast network of supporters. She has also suffered politically from the public’s “Clinton fatigue,” and desire to “turn the page.”
Perhaps if Hillary had done more grassroots organizing in the caucus states she could have beaten Obama in enough of them to take the lead in delegates and shift the momentum her way. She won the popular vote in Texas — barely — for example, but Obama won a larger number of delegates. Given the proportional representation of the Democratic primaries (not winner-take-all like the Republicans), and the enthusiasm of Obama supporters, she was going to have a hard time shaking him under any circumstances, and he had just slightly more staying power.
Instead of “why Hillary Lost,” a far more relevant question is “why Obama won” because I really think he is winning the nomination far more than she is losing it. And that’ll have to be the subject of another post.