The Big Question: Where did Hillary Clinton go wrong in her campaign to win the Presidency?

Click to follow
The Independent US

Why are we asking the question?

It seems an eternity ago, but as recently as October, the Democratic nomination for 2008 seemed to be Hillary Clinton's for the asking. Now, whatever the result of last night's final primaries in Montana and South Dakota, she seems certain to be defeated. Indeed, by the time you read this, her rival, Barack Obama, may well have secured the absolute mathematical majority of 2,118 delegates needed to nominate at the party's Denver convention in August.

So what was her biggest campaign blunder?

Her campaign team, much of it battlehardened in Bill Clinton's two successful White House runs, made many surprising errors. The biggest strategic mistake however, may have been to assume that everything would be wrapped up quickly. In the past that had indeed been the case – in 2004, John Kerry had basically won after his victories in the first two contests while even in 1992 her husband had effectively locked up the nomination after winning Illinois, just a month into the primary season. This time however, a third-place finish in Iowa on 3 January, behind not only Obama but also John Edwards, destroyed any aura of invincibility.

But for an upset comeback victory five days later in New Hampshire, Clinton might have been forced out relatively early. As it was, "Super Tuesday", on 5 February, which her advisers once assumed would be a coronation, finished in a draw with Obama.

So she underestimated Obama?

Absolutely. She and her advisers could not imagine the extent to which he would capture the imagination of young voters. Only belatedly moreover did they realise that the Obama campaign was one of the best-run in modern times. Unlike the Clinton team, Obama's advisers quickly grasped the importance of caucuses (by which delegates are awarded in 16 states and territories). Still less did they imagine how Obama would turn the internet into the biggest money gusher in United States' political history, enlisting an unprecedented army of small donors who could be tapped for funds time and again – $25 here, $50 or $100 there – without reaching the permitted individual ceiling of $2,300 (£1,170). In the later stages of the campaign, Hillary was hopelessly out-raised. Twice she had to contribute millions from her own pocket to keep her campaign solvent.

Florida and Michigan didn't help either?

Certainly not, and this time Clinton is not to blame. The two states, both of which she would have probably won convincingly, defied party orders and held their primaries in January. The results were initially invalidated. It was only at a contentious meeting of the Democratic rules committee last weekend that their delegates were re-instated, but with only a half vote each. In the end Clinton gained a paltry 23 delegates, a third of what she might have done had the two states followed the rules and their votes been counted.

Did the PR system of awarding delegates hurt her?

Undoubtedly. The system introduced by the Democrats back in 1982, of scrupulous proportional allocation of delegates, plus 800-odd "superdelegates" to act as tie-breakers, makes it much harder for a candidate to quickly run up the number needed for victory in a close fought contest.

It's worth pointing out that had the Democrats operated a winner-take-all, no-superdelegate system like the Republicans, she would long since have wrapped up the nomination.

Remember, she won almost all the biggest primaries: New York, California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, not to mention Florida and Michigan. Obama's only big state victory was on his home turf of Illinois.

Was she thwarted because she was a woman?

Many diehard supporters claim so, arguing that by comparison Obama was given a free ride by a biased media. But the argument doesn't stand up to serious scrutiny. The truth is simpler, that the media love novelty. Obama was new, from a different generation, she was old hat. Yes, not much dirt was raked up on Obama – but maybe there wasn't much there in the first place.

Studies show that the two had about the same favourable/unfavourable proportion of news stories and items. Nor is there real evidence to suggest that Americans are more genetically indisposed to elect a woman leader than the people of Britain, Israel and India, to name just three countries that have had female prime ministers. Far more important were her shortcomings as a candidate.

What was wrong with her?

Like her husband, she's an expert on policy detail. But she lacks his (and Obama's) ability to electrify an audience. She never laid to rest her biggest single problem, her October 2002 Senate vote in favour of the hugely unpopular Iraq war, which Obama opposed from the outset. Also you were never sure which Hillary was running, reinforcing the impression she would say anything to win. She started out promising a Clinton restoration.

Then she was the candidate of change, but Obama trumped her on that. Then she touted her experience, only to stretch the truth on her involvement in issues like Northern Ireland and Bosnia, rekindling doubts about her honesty. Finally she unconvincingly morphed into the woman of the people, knocking back shots of whisky and promising a suspension of the federal petrol tax. But her biggest problem, maybe, was a man.

So Bill cost her the nomination?

At the very least, the man supposed to be the best natural politician of his era didn't help. His outburst in South Carolina, likening Obama to a "routine" black candidate like Jesse Jackson, alienated the black vote (once a pillar of the Clinton coalition). Other periodic eruptions, and some blatantly false claims, suggested the master had lost his touch. In today's electronic universe, where a gaffe can cross the country – and the globe – in a matter of minutes, the impact of such blunders is magnified.

More subtly, her husband inevitably was a reminder of the Clinton restoration that lay in wait. Many superdelegates, most of them high party officials and elected representatives, were uncomfortable at how the Clinton machine dominated the party. In the early days, those who declared their support did so for Hillary. But Bill's mis-steps, coupled with Obama's steady ascent, turned the tide in the latter's favour, as the Democratic establishment scented the end of the Clinton era.

Is the Clinton campaign the architect of its own failure?

Yes...

* The candidate and her advisers fatally underestimated Obama and took victory for granted

* Hillary was ill-served, and often overshadowed, by her husband Bill

* The campaign never understood the vast fundraising potential of the internet

No...

* There was no way the team could have foreseen the Obama phenomenon

* No one can say she hasn't fought. Hillary Clinton's resilience has been extraordinary

* The system made it impossible for her to cash in on her big-state victories

For rolling comment on the US election visit: independent.co.uk/campaign08

Comments