Hillary Clinton has squandered a huge lead. Can she get it back?
It’s been said that one benefit of the torturous process presidential candidates must undergo is that it gives voters an extended view of their managerial ability. After all, this line of thinking goes, if a candidate can’t organize a national campaign, he or she can’t run the federal government.
If that’s true, there are four emerging reasons why voters may want to take a second look at Hillary Clinton. So far, in a number of key areas, her campaign is falling short — and she won’t solve the problem simply by changing campaign managers, as she did earlier this week.
This isn’t to say Clinton won’t eventually win the nomination, or that many of her problems don’t stem from the fact that she’s up against an extraordinary candidate in Barack Obama. But a lot of her difficulties have been self-made. That’s not only troubling; it’s one reason she has begun to lose her grip on even “the establishment” in the party. And that means her once impregnable stranglehold on the party’s superdelegates — who may well decide the Democratic race if the two front-runners remain virtually tied — is in serious jeopardy.
Take Clinton’s first weakness: her performance in caucus states. In primaries, Clinton has more than held her own (that is, up until this week, when she lost three on Tuesday night). If these were the only contests that determined the nomination, she would be on her way to victory, albeit narrowly. Yet in domestic caucuses (exclusive of those for US territories), where everyone has to vote publicly at the same time and turnout is smaller, she has gone an astounding two for 12, losing many states, such as Minnesota, Washington, and Colorado, by a nearly 2-1 margin. There’s no excuse for this. A caucus is a simple test of organization and planning. It’s like a spelling quiz in school — if you do your homework, you should pass.
The Clinton campaign either never planned for the caucuses, or was so overconfident it thought Hillary would win them simply by showing up. Whatever the reason, it doesn’t say much about her political leadership. If this strategic negligence continues, it could completely derail her efforts — particularly in Texas, which holds both a caucus and a primary on March 4. (Oddly, around one-third of Texas’s delegates are awarded based on the caucus results, with the rest coming from the primary that takes place earlier in the day.)
Then there’s the role of Bill Clinton. In January, a New York Times/CBS poll showed that 39 percent of voters were more likely (versus 13 percent less likely) to support Clinton than Obama because of Bill’s involvement with the campaign. (The rest had no opinion.) By early February, that same poll broke down 18 to 12 percent on a similar question.
In other words, Bill went from being a big plus to a statistical neutral. Far more important, he made it almost impossible for his wife’s campaign to go negative against Obama. Yes, it is understood that, like it or not, attacks are part of presidential politics — particularly when the race narrows to two candidates. But Bill went so over the top in his assaults on Obama, injecting the element of race, that he undermined any future attacks Hillary herself might make against her opponent. If Obama now wears a temporary coat of Teflon, it’s because the Clintons put it on him.
A third reason Clinton is suffering is because her campaign’s finances were mishandled — again, hardly a mark of presidential leadership. We may never know how much cash was flushed down the drain in Iowa, or how other resources were squandered, but it was considerable. To win a national campaign, you need to husband your resources and budget for the long haul — just in case. Clinton obviously never did. Her campaign is now limping into key post–Super Tuesday contests with a financial disadvantage, and she’s begging Obama to debate her virtually every week to give her free air time (a request he will undoubtedly deny).
Finally, the Clinton campaign underestimated the animus in the country against a female candidate — surprising since her gender is her calling card. Yes, Obama is going to carry the South overwhelmingly because of his hold on the African-American vote. But what’s been ignored is that, in many states in this region, he’s also doing well with the white community. That’s, in part, a tribute to his vote-getting ability, but it is undoubtedly also due to the profound and entrenched sexism in the South. Although pockets of that region still wave Confederate flags, animosity to a female presidential candidate is, on the whole, greater than it is to an African-American one. Had Hillary realized her chances of carrying most Southern states (Florida doesn’t count) were virtually zero, she might have run a very different type of campaign.
Clinton, of course, may still win. If she prevails in Ohio, Texas, and Pennsylvania, it’s hard to believe Democrats will nominate a candidate who failed to carry a single large state other than his own (Illinois). But both Obama and Clinton came into this campaign with huge question marks about their leadership and executive potential. So far, Obama has more than assuaged the doubts about himself. Clinton has only exacerbated them.
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