Clinton in 2008 Opposed Early Call of Primary, Told Media 'Nomination Will Be Up to Superdelegates'

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally in San Francisco, California on May 26, 2016.  / AFP / JO
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at a rally in San Francisco, California on May 26, 2016. / AFP / JOSH EDELSON (Photo credit should read JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images)

{NB: The full text of Clinton's 2008 letter can be found at The Atlantic, here.}

In 2008, in a move that surprised Democratic superdelegates as well as many in the media, Hillary Clinton issued a stern warning via letter to both the media and elected Democratic officials clarifying that "at this point, we do not yet have a nominee."

Even more surprising, Clinton's letter to the most powerful members of her party and the entirety of American media noted that even "when the last votes are cast in early June," neither she nor her primary opponent would "have secured the nomination. It will be up to automatic delegates...to help choose our party's nominee."

Citing the then-recent election results in West Virginia and Kentucky -- elections whose results in 2016 would make the same case today Clinton was making in 2008 -- the Secretary observed, seemingly with some surprise, that "even when voters are repeatedly told this race is over, they're not giving up..." She noted that those two recent votes only underscored that Americans "want a President who shares their core beliefs about our country and its future and 'get' what they go through every day to care for their families, pay the bills and try to put something away for the future." The letter implicitly acknowledged that it wasn't yet clear to many of the Party's 700-plus superdelegates whether the candidate answering to this description was her or her opponent.

We're in the same situation today.

Clinton isn't receiving Democratic superdelegate support because of her popular votes or pledged delegates -- the superdelegates have made that clear -- nor because she's a strong candidate, nor because her political views, inasmuch as anyone can discern them, are particularly representative of the views of the Party's base.

As we know from the fact that nearly 400 of Clinton's 500-plus superdelegates issued their non-binding endorsements of her in 2015 -- before the Democratic field was even set -- what guides the candidate's popularity among Party officials is that she is a Clinton and that it is her turn. That, and she raises obscene amounts of the money for the Party machine.

Echoing, in 2008, what many supporters on the other side of the 2016 Democratic primary have been saying of late, Clinton wrote in her letter that "we simply cannot afford another four -- or eight -- years" of not addressing issues of great importance to Democratic constituencies. Clinton noted, too, an experience of the final weeks of a primary that matches perfectly what Sanders has said his experience has been: "Everywhere I go, people come up to me, grip my hand or arm, and urge me to keep on running. That is why I continue in this race: because I believe I am best prepared to lead this country as President..." While in 2016 we might applaud the Clinton of 2008 for giving voice to what Bernie Sanders has been saying for more than a month now, her 2008 decision to so graciously detail the reason a primary underdog might continue their campaign to the Democratic National Convention is nevertheless a political misstep in 2016 -- because her "who is best prepared" standard is one that would permit any Democratic candidate for President not under criminal investigation by the FBI or disliked and distrusted by 60 percent of Americans to continue his primary campaign.

What surprised many political observers in 2008, moreover, was the bluntness of Clinton's language.

She acknowledged, in terms considered unusual for the often guarded candidate, that "recent polls and election results show a clear trend" -- specifically, she wrote in 2008, a trend in which one of the two remaining candidates was, and notably, "ahead in states that have been critical to victory in the past two elections."

Clinton added in 2008 that it was clear one candidate had an easier case to make that they had "strong support from the regions and demographics Democrats need to take the White House." Her letter even included "a detailed analysis of recent [general-election and battleground-state] electoral and polling information [regarding head-to-head match-ups with the GOP nominee]," which compilation of data, if presented to the media and superdelegates in 2016, would almost exclusively favor Bernie Sanders. While in 2008 Clinton also argued that she should secure the nomination because she "lead[s] in the popular vote and in delegates earned through primaries," her normative and of course self-serving preference for primaries over caucuses ignored the historical provenances of the two traditions and, far more importantly, popular-vote leader or no, she emphasized in 2008 that general election polling "in Florida and Ohio" meant that one of the two remaining candidates might well appear to superdelegates as being "in a stronger position to win the Electoral College." Today, the candidate answering that description is, again, Bernie Sanders.

Indeed, a review of polling data pitting Clinton and Sanders against Donald Trump both nationally and in various battleground states suggests that if she wrote these same words about general election polling today Clinton would more likely be speaking of Sanders than herself.

Clinton noted in her 2008 letter, too, that superdelegates are not finally charged with merely selecting whichever candidate wins the pledged-delegate race, but that "ultimately the point of our primary process is to pick our strongest nominee," which in her view (at the time) was to be taken to mean, at least in part, "[the one] most likely to win in November."

These words must also seen as potentially damaging to the 2016 Clinton campaign, as again the candidate they appear to describe is Bernie Sanders.

While noting (if we now simply apply 2008 language to 2016) that Sanders "staying in this race will help unite the Democratic Party...[as] if [he] and I both make our case -- and all Democrats have the chance to make their voices heard -- everyone will be more likely to rally around the nominee," Clinton also noted, in 2008, her historical importance as, prospectively, the first female major-party nominee for President of the United States. This point, in fairness to Sanders, is one that the Vermont Senator has neither contradicted nor downplayed, even as Clinton has not acknowledged the significance of Sanders possibly becoming the first Jew, independent, or socialist to be elected President, and moreover the first first-generation Eastern European -- as while a smattering of other Presidents have been the children of parents from the United Kingdom or Canada, other than President Obama (whose father was Kenyan) no American President has had a parent hailing from any foreign country other than those two.

Clinton closed her 2008 letter with an exhortation for the superdelegates, who in 2016 cannot cast a presidential nominating ballot until the convention in Philadelphia in late July, to accept that "at this point, neither of us has crossed the finish line. I hope that in the time remaining, you will think hard about which candidate has the best chance to lead our party to victory in November. I hope you will consider the results of the recent primaries and what they tell us about the mindset of voters in the key battleground states. I hope you will think about the broad coalition of voters I have built. And most important, I hope you will think about who is ready to stand on that stage with [the GOP nominee], fight for the deepest principles of our party, and lead our country forward into this new century." Observers are now noting, with respect to Clinton's 2008 citation of "recent primaries," that Bernie Sanders has in fact won 12 of the last 19 contests -- while losing Kentucky by less than 0.5 percent, Connecticut by 5 percent, and Arizona in a "split" decision (early voting in February went heavily for Clinton, while the live voting in March favored Sanders 50 percent to 46.5 percent). One of Clinton's remaining four wins was in her home state, New York.

It's with all this in mind that Bernie Sanders now indicates to the Democratic Party his intention to continue making his case to superdelegates in June and July -- in the very same way Mrs. Clinton intended to in 2008 before she realized that then-Senator Obama would make her Secretary of State or Vice President if she conceded.

In stark contrast, Clinton now offers Sanders nothing and, unlike then-Senator Obama, is currently under criminal investigation by the FBI. No pundit in America believes Clinton would have conceded in 2008 if, in addition to the views she expressed in the letter detailed above, she was also awaiting the results of an FBI investigation into potentially criminal conduct by her opponent.

Sanders is also keenly aware that, if nominated in 2016, Clinton would be the most unpopular and distrusted Democratic nominee in the history of contemporary polling.

Many in the media, this author included, hear in Clinton's 2008 description of the ideal Democratic candidate an excellent summary of Bernie Sanders' qualifications, not Clinton's -- rendering the text of her letter from the last hotly contested Democratic primary not just extremely unsettling but also deeply unhelpful to her cause at this critical juncture in the current one.

Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).