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Clinton's Lesson: Attrition Doesn't Work

By Reid Wilson

A year ago, few pundits or political strategists truly believed anyone but Hillary Clinton had a chance at winning the Democratic nomination. Now that she plans her concession speech tomorrow at an event for supporters in Washington, where she will officially offer her support to Barack Obama, it turns out that inevitability is what doomed Clinton in the end.

Virtually no politician in America, save President Bush and Clinton's husband, is better defined than New York's junior senator. Approximately half the nation views her favorably, while the other half views her with a mix of general dislike and utter loathing. It is easy to lose one-time supporters, as Clinton learned -- her favorable ratings dropped precipitously during the campaign's final, ugly months. But it is difficult to win back those who hold an unfavorable view.

Clinton began the race as the clear favorite. In every national poll until mid-January, Clinton led Obama, John Edwards and the rest of the field by wide margins. By the Fall, Clinton had surpassed the crucial 50% mark -- until now, no candidate who had scored higher than half the vote in a primary poll had failed to win the nomination. For months, there was little disagreement that anyone but Clinton would have the slightest shot at taking the nomination.

That is, until the chattering class began looking at polls out of Iowa, and until Clinton herself showed the first hints that the once-impenetrable veneer of perfection was flaking away.

Clinton's strategy, in short, was simple: She led early, and she could run out the clock on her opponents. She could add few additional votes beyond those she would have received the day she announced; Clinton needed only to prevent her soft supporters from abandoning her for other candidates. Once she lost voters to Obama, or to Edwards, it was unlikely she would get them back. But after Obama's meteoric rise, her once slow trickle of lost supporters became a leak too big to stop.

Clinton rarely led Hawkeye State polls, frequently trailing Edwards and, late in the campaign, Obama. In fact, the campaign even considered skipping the first caucuses. In a memo leaked to the media, deputy campaign manager Mike Henry laid out the case for moving straight to New Hampshire, a move he argued would eliminate Iowa's influence in the process. Embarrassed by the memo, though, the campaign publicly pledged to compete in Iowa. Unlike her husband's 1992 race, when he and other candidates made Iowa irrelevant because of Tom Harkin, the state's favorite son, was in the race, Clinton instead helped make Iowa matter, and by extension, made Obama's win that much more important.

Two months before the caucuses, though, at a Halloween-eve debate in Philadelphia, Clinton committed a gaffe large enough to open a window through which Obama and Edwards could crawl. Asked her position on then-New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's proposal to issue drivers' licenses to undocumented immigrants, Clinton offered a few divergent answers within a two-minute span. Through the week that followed, the campaign could not come up with a satisfactory answer they could stick to. As Clinton was facing her toughest moments, Obama had one of his best, at the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson Dinner. His speech, coupled with Clinton's lackluster week on the trail, began to seriously move numbers.

By January 3, when Iowans headed to church basements and VFW halls, community centers and fire stations, Clinton's campaign had already begun lowering expectations. But when a campaign based on inevitability is shown to be vulnerable, the permanent damage has been done. Fortunately, Clinton strategists had established the New Hampshire "firewall," the first time, of many, that word would be employed to describe the point at which Clinton would reassert herself as the front-runner. But to their increasing alarm, Clinton's poll numbers were collapsing in the Granite State as fast as they plummeted in Iowa.

The final RCP New Hampshire Average showed a clear Obama lead, and Clinton strategists, panicked by a second critical loss in a row, began talking of skipping Nevada and South Carolina altogether. February 5's Super Tuesday would be the campaign's next firewall. But the Clinton team again relied on inevitability, while the Obama campaign focused on Congressional districts in Idaho, Delaware and other overlooked states that nonetheless will send delegates to the Democratic National Convention. (Clinton, who focused on California, netted 38 pledged delegates out of the Golden State; Obama equaled that number in Georgia and Alaska alone, and the two essentially split Super Tuesday, with Obama netting 13 more delegates out of the 1,681 available that day)

The constant firewalls and reliance on name identification just didn't work. (Clinton is hardly the only candidate for whom this proved true; Rudy Giuliani's "50 state strategy" involved pulling out of every state except Florida, which he lost badly) And the lesson to future campaigns should be clear: Running a campaign like a war of attrition doesn't work. Playing it safe, in the age of blogs and twenty-four hour news cycles, leads to an image of insincerity. Campaigns of the future can take the hint that a risky strategy can be a winning strategy.

Clinton's initial strength -- indeed, her strength at the end, evidenced by big wins in Kentucky, West Virginia, South Dakota and Puerto Rico -- should not be underestimated. But her campaign tried to build itself as the immovable object. Faced with the unstoppable force of a change candidacy in an election more about change than any in as many as 76 years, that immovable object was bound to collapse. And today, when Clinton offers Obama her backing before supporters in Washington, the unstoppable force will continue on to November.

Reid Wilson is an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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