Even if Hillary is able to confound expectations and pull off a truly improbable victory over Obama, there will still have been a series of serious strategic and tactical mistakes, all of which contributed to her current position. Should she win, it will be despite these errors; more likely, they will bear the responsibility for her loss.
Early in the campaign, Clinton surrogates touted large national leads and a well-tested political machine to push the argument that Clinton's nomination was inevitable. Memo after memo, Mark Penn highlighted national and early state polls that showed Hillary with substantial leads. The logic was to make Obama seem defeated before the race had begun, painting all to follow as a pro forma exercise in democracy that would ultimately end, as expected, with Hillary as the nominee. The media generally peddled the Clinton campaign narrative verbatim, allowing the hypnotic tone of national poll numbers to seep a few layers too deep.
Yet all the while, the Iowa caucuses were a three-way race. Hillary was up by dramatic margins almost everywhere, but in the first contest, it was always close. The possibility of Obama winning Iowa was very real, very early, and the Clinton campaign simply failed to acknowledge that. Obama outraised Hillary in the first quarter of fundraising, and brought on famed organizer Paul Tewes to run Iowa, the same man who maneuvered Al Gore to victory there eight years earlier.
There was every reason to believe that Obama would have the money and organizational resources to compete at the highest level in Iowa. Having seen Iowa skyrocket John Kerry to the nomination, Obama would spend heavily there. And with his unmatchable ability to draw enormous crowds, one could have expected that his organization would turnout supporters in droves. Yet the Clinton campaign, drunk on their own narrative of inevitability, never took the possibility seriously. Instead of playing to her strengths, Hillary's inevitability argument continued to feed her biggest weakness - Iowa. The scale of the upset by Obama in Iowa was enormous, amplified by Hillary's own message. The narrative out of Iowa was not that the race had always been close, and thus the win not entirely earth-shaking. Instead, Obama had defeated Hillary The Inevitable.
Change vs. Experience
One of the most difficult places candidates can find themselves in is believing they are winning a political fight that they're losing. For Hillary, the change vs. experience argument became that problem. The central message of the Clinton campaign was that, unlike Obama, she had the experience necessary for the presidency. As the narrative took hold, voters almost universally accepted Hillary as having greater experience than Obama. And because her national leads were so significant for so long, she and her campaign mistakenly believed that she was winning the debate.
In reality, Clinton's failure on this front was catastrophic. She and her surrogates allowed the media (they often assisted) to portray the race in binary terms: change versus experience. In doing so, she ceded "change" to Barack Obama almost instantly, framing her argument in such a way as to reinforce his embodiment of change with every allusion to her experience. Hillary successfully defined herself as the experienced candidate, but allowed Obama to take ownership of the other side of that coin.
She won the losing side of a debate she framed herself.
The False Hopes Argument
Finding herself in an unexpected battle for nomination, Hillary and her campaign reframed their attack on Obama, arguing not just that he lacked experience, but that he was an empty suit, full of rhetoric and cadence, but not much else. More than anything else, the problem with this argument was that it was less of an attack on Obama and more of an attack on Obama supporters. They had been duped, she was arguing, allowing their hope to be unrealistically inflated, and were in for a wake-up call if they didn't heed her advice. The attack instantly struck a chord, an offensive condescension that seemed misplaced and unfair. Without skipping a beat, Obama's speechwriters responded by capturing the belittlement felt by his audience: "In the unlikely story of America," Obama proclaimed, "there is nothing false about hope."
Hillary failed to recognize, late in the game, that her victory would depend not just on winning undecided voters, but on convincing some Obama supporters to realign. Rather than dismissing their enthusiasm, she could have empathized with it.
While hope and change are the mantra of the Obama movement, at its core, it is undergirded by trust. Obama supporters trust him, and he has gone a long way to cultivate that trust. The extraordinary thing about Barack Obama is not the poetry with which he aspires to hope, change, and political realignment: it is that fundamentally, people believe him. Hillary needed to attack Obama to overtake him, but that attack should have been aimed at diminishing his credibility. Had she framed the debate around whether Obama was trustworthy or not, she would have put him in a defensive position that may have proved more effective.
Showcasing the Old Kind of Politics
The Clinton campaign failed to recognize the allure of Obama's "new kind of politics." Universally, the American people voiced cynicism about Washington politics and the current state of affairs. Among independents from all across the spectrum, the one thing they all share is enough frustration with the party system to decline to state an allegiance. For Obama to be successful in winning the nomination on a "new kind of politics," he would have to paint Clinton as a representation of the politics of old. She should have anticipated this, and been cognizant not to showcase herself as the embodiment of a distasteful political system. And yet, over and over again, she made tactical decisions that solidified his narrative.
She chose to accept lobbyist money at a time when her victory was being cast as so assured, that it remained unclear why she needed it. In South Carolina, she and her husband injected race into the campaign. What was so distasteful was not that the Clintons were racist. On the contrary, it was that they weren't racist, but were perfectly willing to meddle with race if there was a chance it would translate into political currency. So started the Obama message that Hillary "will do anything" to win. And it resonated.
In the twilight of her campaign, Hillary has become the champion of backroom politics in a way that few could have expected. In recognition of her nearly insurmountable climb back to the lead, Hillary is arguing that the Florida and Michigan delegations should be seated, a move that is so calculating and disingenuous, that it can be objectively described as an attempt to steal the election. And if that weren't enough, she is arguing that the super delegates should vote for her, regardless of the will of the people. She has said that "super delegates are part of the process for a reason," but refuses to acknowledge that the reason is to subvert the people's choice. In a campaign about old politics vs. new, she has allowed herself to personify all that is old.
Post February 5th Planning
The Clinton campaign failed to recognize that, if the race were to continue past February 5th, momentum would be defined by the delegate counts. It seems as though the Clinton campaign did almost no planning for post-February 5th, and that when they did plan, they applied the campaigns pre-February 5th dynamics to the calculation. Nevada was a victory for Hillary during the early-state process because she won the popular vote. In a post-February 5th world, it would have been a loss, the result of losing the delegate count.
The Clintons barely contested the caucus states, allowing Barack Obama's superior Iowa-style organization to run up massive victories and net more delegates than either campaign anticipated. She ceded the entire month of February to Barack Obama, save the possibility of Wisconsin, where she has displayed a half-hearted effort. Even now, her firewall strategy focuses on Ohio and Texas, despite the reality that wins for her in either state are unlikely to result in a sizeable gain in net delegates. The formula for victory has changed, but the Clinton campaign has not responded.
A Missing Shake-Up
Immediately after the Iowa loss, the campaign should have had a dramatic shake-up at the top. Ultimately, that shake-up didn't occur until after February 5th, and wasn't sweeping enough. Patti Solis Doyle had mismanaged the Clinton campaign to be sure, spending $175 million with incredible speed. But the campaign had been seriously mismanaged from a strategy perspective, and even today, those same senior strategists are calling the shots.
Mark Penn applied his microtrend philosophy to a macrotrend election. In an election about big themes and unifying ideas, his methodical niching of the voting public completely misread the moment. Later in the campaign, at a time when all indications were that Hillary needed to shift message and focus, Penn relied on a "stay the course" strategy. When Hillary pulled an upset in New Hampshire, Penn misread the results, assuming that "stay the course" had worked. In actuality, it was likely her tears that worked, the first truly honest moment in her campaign. And though she claimed to have found her voice in her New Hampshire victory, that voice was soon shelved, replaced by the same old tone and message and style. The scale of Penn's failure cannot be understated. The fact that he is still at the helm is helping to put the final touches on the Clinton campaign obituary.
The scope of the damage caused by Bill Clinton's South Carolina meltdown is unknowable. But judging from the depths to which the Clinton campaign has suffered since, this was a Dean-scream moment to be sure, stretched out over a much longer period of time. Bill Clinton did so many things wrong in South Carolina: he injected race into the campaign with ease, he became an aggressive attack dog, making himself appear shockingly unpresidential. But more than anything, he introduced the notion that he could not be controlled, that Hillary was either willing to have him campaign as an equal, or powerless to stop it. And that ultimately, her presidency would be his. Even for those who approved highly of President Clinton, the notion was displeasing and particularly anti-feminist. The idea that Hillary would need to be dragged to the finish line by her husband was not a good statement about women. And it didn't resonate well. It's hard to imagine that Hillary (or Bill) will ever be able to reverse that perception.
The nomination race isn't over, but as I've argued, it's far closer to being over than most think. If Hillary does ultimately lose the race, it will be for a combination of reasons - not just because she faced the greatest campaigner in a generation, but because she made a series of strategic and tactical blunders along the way.