How Hillary blew the nomination

Clinton had Democratic race in the bag, but she made four crucial miscalculations

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The Gazette, Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When the books are written on this U.S. presidential year, the story of the Democratic campaign will be as much how Hillary Clinton lost the nomination as how Barack Obama won it.

Obama clinched an absolute majority of elected delegates with last night's primaries in Kentucky and Oregon. And he was back in Iowa last night, where it all began for him in early January, to "close the circle" of the nomination campaign without claiming a final victory.

But his now mathematically insurmountable lead among pledged delegates puts even more pressure on automatic or superdelegates to break his way, a direction in which they have been moving for weeks anyway.

In absolute numerical terms, Obama has now won about 1,950 delegates, just short of the 2,026 needed to secure the nomination. Only Puerto Rico (55 delegates), Montana and South Dakota (16 and 15 votes) remain on the primary schedule, which ends on June 3. If Clinton stays until the end, she will win Puerto Rico, with its strong Hispanic base, and he will win Montana and South Dakota, which will put him on the cusp of 2,000, without any more supers breaking to him.

He has won the pledged-delegate race, now leads in superdelegates, has won twice as many states as she has, and leads the popular vote by a margin that cannot be overcome in the remaining races.

In her closing arguments, she is down to moving the magic number to include the disallowed Florida and Michigan races. She's also said that if state races had been determined by Republican winner-take-all rules rather than the Democratic proportional system, she would already be the nominee. She has even suggested that if Electoral College rules (which determine the outcome in the general election) were in play, she would also have clinched the nomination by now. These are new standards in wishful thinking.

"I'm gonna make my case, and I'm gonna make it until we have a nominee," Clinton said on Monday in Kentucky, where among other things she had to endure a Sunday sermon on marital fidelity. "We're not gonna have a nominee today, and we're not gonna have a nominee tomorrow, we're not gonna have a nominee the next day."

How has she come to be on the verge of mathematical elimination from a race that she was supposed to win on a walk?

The Clinton campaign was fatally flawed in three aspects.

First, there was the assumption that she was inevitable. And Obama smashed through that in Iowa, where she invested millions of dollars to finish third. Once her air of inevitability had been dispelled, the Clintons began to lose their grip on the Democratic establishment. Superdelegates stopped being afraid of being leaned on by the Clintons.

Second, she ran as the candidate of experience in a time of change. For weeks, her compare- and-contrast slogan to Obama was "ready on Day 1." Yet as the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency, her candidacy was absolutely historic. But she did not make that central to her narrative. Not only did she cede change to Obama, his compelling personal story propelled his other message as the candidate of hope. Change and hope are always more powerful themes than continuity.

Third, she assumed, as she said early on, that the nomination race would be wrapped up by Super Tuesday, and her campaign had no strategy going forward from there. Obama, meanwhile, actually won more of the 25 Super Tuesday states than she did, and then blew by her in the delegate count by running the table on the next 12 races before Ohio and Texas. By which time, the Clinton campaign was broke, living on borrowed money from the Clintons' personal fortune, and unable to compete for air time.

Clinton ran a traditional top-down campaign that relied on expensive consultants and big-name donors. Meantime, Obama's Internet-based campaign drew 1.5 million small donors who have raised $200 million and now comprise a standing army of volunteers, all of them connected to the campaign's list-serve. What Howard Dean began in 2004, the Obama campaign has developed into sophisticated web-based platforms.

Finally, the Clintons had a sense of entitlement about the Democratic nomination. It was their turn for a Clinton restoration. Why didn't they see Obama coming? Weren't they in Boston in 2004, when he electrified the Democratic convention with his keynote speech? Didn't they know he was the real deal?

While they thought it was their turn, he has instead made it his time.

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