Clinton underestimated the Democrats’ yearning for change

WHERE did it all go wrong for Hillary Clinton? Eighteen million votes just weren’t enough and her campaign owes as many dollars as votes she received.

Despite the bullishness, her campaign team knew that the argument about winning the popular vote but being denied the nomination by party bosses would not work. What they were really hoping for was to buy enough time to allow Barack Obama to become derailed by some new scandal that would persuade the party’s super-delegates to move towards Clinton en masse. This was always unrealistic. It would also have involved Clinton insisting that there was something fundamentally unelectable about Obama, which would have done damage to the Democratic Party and to a united approach to the presidential campaign in the autumn.

I doubt there is any one moment or incident that cost Clinton the nomination. Too often in the early stages of the campaign, she was simply trotting out dull and wooden speeches — and this during a contest where rhetoric assumed a special status — and was too careful about being seen as in any way radical. Frequently, she was on the defensive and when asked about Iraq at most of her campaign stops in the initial days, her standard explanation was limp — if she had known then what she knows now she would not have voted to authorise the president to go to war in 2002. Not exactly convincing, was it?

This attempt to spin her way out of trouble by emphasising her humanity was a dominant feature of her campaign. In January, her tearful appearance the day before the New Hampshire primary, when she spoke of the opportunities the country had given her and expressed the desire not to see “America go backwards”, was regarded by some as a cynical master stroke and by others as a genuine glimpse of the real and often warm Hillary.

But none of this kind of talk came naturally, according to Niall O’Dowd, an Irish-American journalist and proud member of the Clinton campaign team: “It is not easy for her to bare her soul. At heart, she’s a typical mid-western Protestant woman with sensible shoes who is not given to displays of emotion.”

More importantly, perhaps, was what she said after her surprise victory in New Hampshire: “Over the last week, I listened to you, and in the process, I found my own voice.” The trouble was, she never did. The comments in March about “landing under sniper fire” in Bosnia in 1996 were embarrassing and when she was challenged about their veracity she suggested it was her only slip-up and that “I made a mistake. That happens. It proves I’m human which, you know, for some people is a revelation.” By that stage, this approach had become jaded.

A lot of the attempts to depict her as cold and calculating involved barely concealed sexism, but Samantha Power, Obama’s Irish-born foreign policy adviser who had to resign after referring to Clinton as a “monster” in an unguarded moment, can hardly be accused of being representative of an ingrained sexism.

Perhaps the real problem — despite the obvious one of Obama’s charm, occasional audacity and relative youth — was that she seesawed too much. Despite the occasional tears and emphasis on her humanity, it was her very toughness that made her appeal to so many, which is why she proudly proclaimed in Austin in March, “I have earned every wrinkle on my face.” Her supporters roared with approval but, in truth, her advisers were divided about how Clinton should present herself, and they squandered a lot of money looking for an answer.

As O’Dowd pointed out in February, “The infighting among the staff got worse when it was revealed that chief strategist Mark Penn had been paid $10 million to date for his efforts. His major accomplishment has been to turn her positives into negatives and her clear lead into a nearly insurmountable deficit. Howard Wolfson, her chief media strategist, has been earning $275,000 a month for sending out so many mixed messages that no one knows what is coming next.”

All of this served to illustrate that raising obscene amounts of money will not win a candidate the contest; how it is spent also matters. Huge amounts of cash that Clinton could have used for her nomination bid were squandered in 2006. It is estimated that her former campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, who was fired after Super Tuesday, oversaw the spending of $36m in Clinton’s senate campaign in New York in 2006, even though, in reality, Clinton did not face any serious opposition for the seat.

Clinton showed an extraordinary ability to bounce back, particularly in New Hampshire following Obama’s win in Iowa, and in the run up to Super Tuesday. But as a candidate, she was also too well established. Her candidacy was mooted almost the day after John Kerry lost to George Bush in 2004. At the outset, the feeling seemed to be that she was a shoo-in for the nomination and that the real battle would be for her to defeat a Republican. Her slogans initially were based on the idea that the nomination was hers and that she was “ready to lead”, an unspoken version of which was “been there, done that”.

The Clinton camp undoubtedly saw Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of Obama as a painful betrayal, and Clinton must have got particular satisfaction from the fact that she still defeated Obama on Kennedy’s home turf of Massachusetts. But Kennedy had the phrase to capture the sense that the tide was turning against Clinton: “I feel change is in the air.” This was precisely the sentiment that wounded Clinton’s campaign. The rhetoric of change was always going to sound more convincing coming from Obama and his supporters than from Clinton, given how long she has been a part of the political establishment.

WHAT she constantly faced was the evaporation of sizeable poll leads once Obama was introduced to new audiences — something Samantha Power predicted at an early stage in the campaign would happen and which some observers thought far-fetched. It helped, of course, that Obama had massive funds to help introduce himself — as early as January, the Obama camp was receiving $1m a day; in the same month, Clinton raised less than half of that. The presence of Bill Clinton was also problematical; he was too aggressive during the early days and allowed the question to be asked: how does Hillary represent change? More recently, too many of the images of him during the campaign revealed a purple, devastated face that looked uncomfortable and bewildered.

In February, in one of the last pieces she wrote on the campaign before her death, Nuala O’Faolain accurately observed that the winds of change would become too much for Clinton: “Hillary Clinton emphasises experience over change. But it is an irrefutable fact that Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove had experience, and look where they took the country. I think it won’t be Clinton. So much, if I’m right, for an older woman’s dream.”

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