Hillary Clinton's 5 mistakes
By DAVID PAUL KUHN | 6/7/08 6:19 AM EST
Covering a campaign is more like covering a sports
team than either sort of reporter cares to admit. The
same performance thats labeled gutsy after a win
becomes inadequate after a loss.
While Hillary Clinton managed more primary votes than
any winning candidate before her, it wasnt 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
Here are five of the key mistakes that helped cost her
Hillary didnt 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 Im
in it for the long run. Its not a very long run. It
will be over by February 5.
Hubris was the campaigns 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 Gores 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 years primary.
While John Edwards, who cast the same vote, later
claimed to have made a mistake in doing so,
Clintonlooking 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, its very difficult to
position yourself as the change candidate, Eskew
continued. The whole energy in this campaign was [in]
Voters associated Clinton with her husbands
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
Obamas 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
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
Clintons refusal to apologize as a testament to her
strength, which she saw as a character trait a female
candidate couldnt 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. Kerrys
chief strategist in 2004 who remained neutral in this
years primary. My reaction to that, you dont get to
participate in the general election unless you win the
3) The Trouble With Iowa
Clintons 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 nominee on 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
Clintons presumptive rival, leaving Obama out in the
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 dont think its 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. Its 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
winners 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
Its like no one watched from 1984 to 2004, Trippi
said of Clintons campaign.
The spectacular internet fundraising success of Howard
Deans 2004 primary run seemed to have had little
impact on Clinton, whod 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
Clintons 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
$200while only about a fifth of her contributions had
been in that range in the last quarter of 2007.
It wasnt just fundraising, though. Politicos 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 onspending more on online
advertising in March and April than in the previous 14
monthsObama had already built a substantial lead in
online presence (including ads on the Politico Web
As with any losing campaign, theres practically no
end to the mistakes that can be blamed for
contributing to Clintons defeat. Other culprits would
include Bill Clintons 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
What we know with certainty is that pundits and
historians will be busy for years assigning and
assessing blameand that the long run was longer than
Clinton anticipated, and the end result different.