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By Jay Cost

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What Went Wrong with the Clinton Campaign

With the demotion of Mark Penn, it is appropriate to take stock of the Clinton campaign.

There is no doubt that it has been a poorly run campaign. But what has been so bad about it? We could point to a lackluster message, or Bill's various gaffes over the last three months, or the staff that couldn't stop watching soap operas long enough to pay the bills. There's something to all of these things, but I think they are symptoms of an underlying malady.

As you well know, Obama has a huge lead in pledged delegates. But you might not know that nearly 90% of this lead comes from caucuses. Obama has netted 147 delegates via the caucuses alone.

It need not have been this way. Caucuses have exceedingly low turnout - and so victory depends upon organizational prowess. Clinton was poorly organized in the caucus states, and it cost her. For every caucus state she has lost, Clinton could have found enough supporters in those states to at least tied Obama. This is the case even in states where Obama would win a broad-based primary. In Kansas, for instance, Obama had about 18,000 more caucus supporters than Clinton. Grant that Kansas is a state Obama would win in a primary. Shouldn't Clinton have been able to find 18,000 more people? She received less than 10,000 votes for goodness sake!

Even more amazingly, Obama crushed her in states where Clinton probably would have won or barely lost a primary. Obama netted 15 delegates on her in Colorado. He netted 6 in Maine. I'd put the odds of Clinton winning primaries in those states at no less than 50-50. Clinton won the Texas primary outright, but Obama walked away with 9 more delegates in the caucus. Obama won 26 more delegates than Clinton in Washington state. One week later, he beat Clinton in the Washington state beauty contest by just 4 points. Clinton won a clear plurality of voters in the Nevada entrance poll, but Obama walked away with a net of one delegate.

This is an organizational failure of monumental proportions. There is no other way to put it. The question is why did it happen?

There is no great skill that the Obama campaign possesses that the Clinton campaign lacks. Organizing caucus states still has a lot in common with 19th century politicking. You need a friendly smile, a good handshake, and a sturdy pair of shoes. Obama didn't develop a new way to organize. He just chose to organize while the Clinton campaign chose not to.

The only reason it would choose not to organize is if it did not think it was worth the cost. More than 400 pledged delegates have been allocated through caucuses. So, it wasn't worth it because it was insignificant. Then why didn't her campaign organize? I believe it is because it never thought Obama would mount this kind of challenge. It never thought it would have to scrap for every spare delegate. Instead, it thought the race would be over before Super Tuesday.

In other words, the Clinton campaign did not see Obama coming. It underestimated him.

Of course, much of the Washington press corps didn't see him coming, either. But that's not terribly surprising. Washington is their beat, and many of them don't have a great read on how politics outside the Beltway works. But politicians are different, or at least they should be. They should be in touch with life outside the Beltway, and they should know better than journalists. The Clinton campaign should not have underestimated Obama. There were warning signs that it should have picked up on.

First and foremost, Obama raised a gazillion dollars last year, none of which came from PACs. This was an early warning of many things. First, his campaign operation was going to be awesome. It could basically match Clinton dollar-for-dollar without the benefit of a former President. If it could fundraise that well, the Clinton people should have expected it would campaign that well, too. Second, this was an early indication that Obama was resonating with people out there. Political donors are a miniscule subset of the electorate, but in terms of demographic and socio-economic characteristics they have a lot in common with a broader set of people - namely, upscale voters who can figure prominently in primaries. Unsurprisingly, Obama has been winning upscale voters coast-to-coast.

The media wrongly turned the race for money into a proxy for the race for votes. But the Clinton people should have known better. They should have said, "Holy crap! This guy raised a gazillion dollars! We better get things locked down!" I don't think the Clinton people ever said that. They certainly never got things locked down.

Her campaign also overestimated its own position. Once again, the media did this, too. Journalists looked at the summer and fall polls and bought into the inevitability argument. Again, this is par for the course - many journalists do not know the difference between good polling data and bad. Candidates should know the difference. The Clinton campaign should have known. It should have suspected that those eye-popping leads were merely a consequence of her superior name recognition, which would not hold after Obama unloaded his gazillion dollars. I don't think it suspected this. I don't know how else to explain Penn's snide memos touting Hillary's inevitability.

Why did it make these mistakes? Is it because it doesn't understand electoral politics? Unlikely. After all, Bill won two national campaigns.

I think its mistake was its starting point. It bought the same inevitability line it sold to the press. It began with the assumption that Clinton could not lose the nomination. If you assume this a priori, you will inevitably interpret all of the evidence in a way that reinforces your preconceived notions. It's like adding epicycles. If she cannot lose, there is no reason to worry about Obama's money, no need to anticipate that this might be an early indication of his appeal. If she cannot lose, those summer polls are not mere artifacts of her name recognition; they are critical pieces of evidence that demonstrate how the race is over before it begins. If she cannot lose, there is no need to organize in the caucus states because the race will be over by then.

What we are talking about here is plain old arrogance. I think this is the central mistake of the Clinton campaign. It presumed that the nomination was Clinton's. Not Clinton's to lose. Just Clinton's. Period. As a consequence, it behaved in an unduly confident manner. Mark Penn is to be blamed, for sure. So is Patti Solis Doyle. But so also is the entire upper-echelon of the campaign. Above all, it's Hillary's fault. She's the candidate. She sets the tone.

-Jay Cost