What Went Wrong for Hillary
By Kent Klein
06 June 2008
Late last year, many U.S. political analysts believed that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York would easily win the Democratic Party's presidential nomination in 2008. Now, while Senator Barack Obama is the presumptive Democratic nominee, Senator Clinton is reconsidering her political future. VOA's Kent Klein examines what went wrong for the Clinton campaign.
Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), 4 June 2008
After this year's final Democratic primary elections, last Tuesday night, Barack Obama made a speech many people would have thought highly improbable a year ago. "Tonight I can stand here and say that I will be the Democratic nominee for the President of the United States of America."
A short time earlier, Hillary Clinton addressed her supporters. "Now the question is, where do we go from here?" And given how far we have come, and where we need to go as a party, it is a question I do not take lightly," she said.
It was not the speech she had hoped to make.
As the primaries concluded, Clinton did not concede the Democratic nomination to Obama, but it was apparent that her rival had the support of enough delegates and superdelegates to become the party's nominee.
With the primary season over, political analysts are assessing the factors that caused Senator Clinton's defeat, when her victory had seemed almost certain months earlier.
That sense of inevitability, both inside and outside the Clinton campaign, may have led to overconfidence, according to University of Virginia political professor Larry Sabato.
"They thought they were going to knock Obama and everybody else out of the box with the first few primaries and caucuses, and they were just dead wrong," he said.
The seeds of defeat for the Clinton campaign may have been planted as early as 2002, when Senator Clinton voted in favor of waging war in Iraq. Although she later renounced support for the war, that vote may have put Clinton at a disadvantage against Obama, who opposed the war from the start, according to Bruce Miroff, a professor of political science at the State University of New York at Albany.
"Because Hillary Clinton voted for the resolution in 2002 authorizing President Bush to use military force in Iraq, there was always the likelihood that there would be a significant anti-war challenger to her in the Democratic primaries, and that a lot of the activist base of the party would rally behind such a challenger. So the premise that Hillary was a kind of inevitable nominee was always questionable," he said.
Also, some analysts say Clinton made a mistake by touting her experience at a time in which voters preferred change. Indira Lakshmanan has been covering the campaign as a political correspondent for Bloomberg News.
"Initially, all of her slogans had to do with experience and readiness, and eventually then it became 'Ready to change, ready to lead.' More and more, there was this evolution in her campaign, trying to then say, 'Wait a second, I am the change agent, I am the person who has the experience to make change happen.' But it was not a nimble enough operation, it seemed, to adapt quickly to, apparently, what the American electorate wanted in this election cycle, which was 'change, change, change,'" she said.
Tactical errors also seem to have played a role in Clinton's failure to win the nomination. Sabato said the Clinton campaign spent too much of its money in trying to win the first contest of the season, the Iowa caucuses, in which Senator Clinton finished third.
"They spent far too much on Iowa. They probably should have skipped it. John McCain skipped Iowa, and he is the Republican nominee. You can skip Iowa. You can get away with it. They wasted an awful lot of the money that she collected, and she was the fundraising leader at the end of 2007," he said.
However, both Sabato and reporter Lakshmanan believe the Clinton campaign did not try hard enough to win in other states that held caucuses instead of primary elections.
"And it turned out Obama won essentially an insurmountable lead by the middle of February, largely due to his success in caucus states," she said.
Some problems in the Clinton campaign were beyond the candidate's control. Professor Bruce Miroff says Senator Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, was seen as a skillful politician and a huge asset to the campaign, until he began making unpredictable comments, especially regarding racial issues.
"So it was assumed by everybody that this was a big advantage for Hillary Clinton. Rather, what we saw was that some of President Clinton's more unruly personal habits stepped on her campaign and caused problems that she certainly did not need," he said.
Another setback for Clinton was when the delegate-rich states of Florida and Michigan, which may have been likely to support her, were penalized for holding their primaries too early in the year. Due to a compromise, delegates from those two states will receive only a half-vote each at the party convention.
Despite these factors, Hillary Clinton came closer to winning the Presidency than any other woman in U.S. history. Her bid to become the first President's wife to return to the White House as President herself generated enthusiasm through the entire primary election season, and fell just short in the end, narrowly defeated by the first African-American to win a major-party Presidential nomination.