“What’s gone wrong is very simple,” said Hassan Nemazee, a national finance chair for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
“If we had won Iowa and New Hampshire, as we had anticipated, projected, et cetera, you would not have been in a situation in which you are losing all of these small states—because we didn’t put any resources in those small states,” he said. “Obama, on the other hand, put resources in these small states.”
Compounding the damage of the bad defeats in Iowa, and then South Carolina, Mr. Nemazee explained, was the lack of the necessary foresight to invest the campaign’s resources in the states that Mrs. Clinton’s rival, Barack Obama, is now gobbling up as fuel for his ever more threatening momentum.
“You needed to have a Plan B, and Plan B was just doing what we are doing right now rather than having resources in the small states,” he said. “We basically ceded every one of these small red states that he has racked up victories in. And the reason that he has racked up victories at this level isn’t because he was so much more well received, or because his message was any better; it was because we didn’t put any resources in there. We weren’t campaigning there. We didn’t have anybody in Utah, in Idaho, in the Dakotas. In Alaska.”
On Feb. 12, the picture got even worse, as the voters of Maryland, the District of Columbia and Virginia all appeared set to hand lopsided wins to Mr. Obama. With a cold and bleak February calendar staring straight at them—other states set to vote this month are Wisconsin and Mr. Obama’s former home, Hawaii—some of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are wondering how long she can keep losing without her support collapsing in the remaining contests.
Mrs. Clinton has made a show of addressing those concerns by replacing her campaign manager, Patti Solis Doyle, with another loyalist, Maggie Williams. (Several donors interviewed for this story said, in retrospect, that they thought Ms. Doyle was in over her head.) But at this point, no change in personnel alters the campaign’s prescription for recovering its position: win Ohio and Texas on March 4, and Pennsylvania on April 22.
“If she doesn’t do well in these states,” said Mr. Nemazee, “it’s a completely different matter, and the momentum swings completely over to the other side.”
The Clinton campaign’s other scenario—Mrs. Clinton loses a majority of elected delegates but is protected by a buffer of party-appointed superdelegates to make up the difference—looks increasingly unlikely.
“The superdelegates are going to by and large mirror the popular vote,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, himself a superdelegate.
Mr. Schumer said he was “committed” to Mrs. Clinton no matter what. Asked if there wouldn’t be a revolt in the party if superdelegates undid the results of the state primaries and caucuses, he suggested that there was some wiggle room. “If the election is that close that 10 superdelegates going one way rather than the other way [decides it]? No. People will say it was a very close election.”
But, he said, “I don’t see a massive move of superdelegates different than how their states voted.”
The states may well end up voting for Mrs. Clinton in the end. But the realization that seems to have set in, somewhat jarringly, among her supporters is that there’s no safety net if they don’t.
“Everybody is taken aback—nobody expected it,” said John Catsimatidis, a supermarket magnate and prominent donor to Mrs. Clinton. (He was bestowed with the title of “Hillraiser” by the Clinton campaign, signifying that he had raised more than $100,000.) “Nobody expected Obama to be so strong. And at the end of the day, I think the Clintons will win out. But I have been saying that all along and it is getting harder to keep saying that.”
“Here’s the thing,” said Yashar Hedayat, a prominent fund-raiser for Mrs. Clinton in Los Angeles. “I have a lot of donors who are nervous, who are looking at the calendar like you are and saying, ‘How is this possible?’ But I feel very good about Ohio and Texas and Pennsylvania.”
The bad news is that an Ohio-Texas-Pennsylvania strategy sets a very real deadline, past which it becomes just about impossible to argue that there’s still time to turn things around. It’s March 4 (and April 22) or bust.
The good news—the reason Mrs. Clinton’s supporters say they remain hopeful—is that she has proven she can bounce back from a loss.
Mr. Hedayat said that, as was ultimately the case in New Hampshire and California, Mrs. Clinton’s decades of building relationships with voters and activists and officials in those states “cannot be overcome by real or perceived momentum.”
Ellen Chesler, a major donor and friend of Mrs. Clinton in New York, made a similar case.
“There is obviously cause for concern,” she said. “But I think most people look at the calendar over the next month and realize that the states where she does well are yet to come and there is no reason to believe that she won’t continue to do well in those states—the pattern has been very well established.”
She added, “Anyone who really knows politics knows the difference between what has happened in these small caucuses versus when lots of people vote and vote directly.”
“We will do well again,” said Mr. Nemazee, “as we have every time we have had our backs to the wall.”
The scenario they envision is that Mrs. Clinton accumulates enough delegates in Ohio and Texas to compensate for any gap opened up by Mr. Obama in February, and that the race continues into Pennsylvania, where she has the backing of Governor Ed Rendell’s machine, and then into Puerto Rico on June 7, where she is expected to do well.
That protracted deadlock into the convention in August in Denver is not generally what the party wants—Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean took the extraordinary step of saying earlier this month that he’d like to see the candidates work something out between themselves before then, if necessary. Not that the Clinton camp is bothered by it.
“Dean can’t come in and say—to either Hillary or Obama—you’ve got to step aside before Pennsylvania has voted,” said Mr. Nemazee. “How is that possible f
or the chair of the party to say the people of Pennsylvania or Puerto Rico don’t deserve to have their votes counted, particularly since neither of the two will have prevailed by then?”
“The likely time to do intervention is the period after the primaries but before the convention if it’s necessary at all,” Mr. Schumer said.
But it’s not clear that all of Mrs. Clinton’s donors will have that much patience. Already, there seems to be no shortage of advice from them about how things ought to be run very differently.
“A lot of the donors and a lot of the people who know her are frustrated,” said one New York Hillraiser. “She has a tremendous asset in her supporters and surrogates. And she needs to do a better job and her campaign needs to do a better job of having a surrogate operation to get those votes out.”
The donor also criticized the way Mrs. Clinton had been forced to emphasize her experience for so long, and wasn’t permitted to reveal more of her personality.
“I would say to Mark and to others,” said the fund-raiser, referring to Mrs. Clinton’s chief strategist and pollster Mark Penn, “‘Listen, there is not a single person in America today that doubts her résumé. No one doubts that she is the more experienced candidate of the two. But you’re not listening. You’re not paying attention. People don’t really give a crap now about experience. They want to see someone different.’”
It’s far from clear that all of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters, or her advisers, have arrived yet at that conclusion.
Jeffrey Appel, a New York-based mortgage specialist and a Hillraiser, rejected the conclusion that voters—especially the better-educated, wealthier Democrats who have gone in large numbers for Mr. Obama so far—weren’t being persuaded by Mrs. Clinton.
“An interesting sort of spin has been put on this that Senator Obama seems to do better in areas among more highly educated, more intellectual groups,” Mr. Appel said. “And what is interesting about that is that it seems to be well known that Hillary has generated more large donors than Senator Obama has. I find it kind of strange that Hillary is the candidate of the less intellectual, yet she has the larger and more wealthy supporters.”
On the evening of Feb. 11, Mr. Penn—the architect of Mrs. Clinton’s campaign strategy from the very beginning—took a break from the rigors of the campaign to stump for himself at the Strand Bookstore in downtown Manhattan. Surrounded by white copies of his book Microtrends (already-purchased copies of which were not permitted on the premises), Mr. Penn stood at a lectern between a dark window and a small crowd of readers.
“I was determined to take an hour out and talk about the book,” Mr. Penn told the audience, some of whom ate yogurt as they listened by the stacks of art and auction catalogs on the bookstore’s second floor. “It’s not a political book.”
With that, Mr. Penn, who speaks softly and always looks a little nervous, began his presentation.
“The theory of the book is that the era of big trends is over,” he said.
He talked about how society had become “infinitely personalized” because of an increasingly evident “individualistic streak” that manifested itself in, among other things, the way “people don’t want to wear the same clothes.”
As Tina Brown, the former New Yorker editor who is working on a Hillary Clinton book, took notes to his left, Mr. Penn emphasized his distaste for the microtrend he calls “impressionable elites”—supposed leaders of society who, as he sees it, show more interest in a candidate’s personality than policies.
Mr. Obama enjoys the support of this chattering class, Mr. Penn believes, while Mrs. Clinton speaks more to working-class people who really care about policy because policy really impacts their lives. Worse still, Mr. Penn sees the “impressionable elites” growing in number, so much so that he has considered turning “that trend into an entire book someday, because it is becoming more and more evident.”
At least one attendee was skeptical. “Obama strikes me as a macrotrend, not a microtrend,” said Kevin Costa, a 48-year-old government analyst and undecided Democrat, during the question-and-answer session.
“It’s not just in the political context,” Mr. Penn said, explaining that more and more people were being persuaded by media stories and making important decisions in their life based on “hearsay.”
Asked after the event what, if anything, had gone wrong with the Clinton campaign, Mr. Penn suggested that Mr. Obama had simply turned out to be a tougher candidate than originally expected.
“After he won Iowa, he was a different candidate with a larger constituency,” said Mr. Penn. “I think that very much changed the course of the race, but I think you have seen us come back time and time again in situations where the polls and the media were ready to call it, and the voters said otherwise.”