It was the calendar that killed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign.
Yes, the obituary will (correctly) list several causes of fatality, particularly the decision of her campaign strategists to essentially ignore a string of ten contests between Feb. 9 and 19 to Barack Obama.
In that 11-day stretch, Obama scored one landslide triumph after another, amassing the bulk of the popular-vote and pledged-delegate lead that Clinton spent the spring chasing in vain. Had Clinton not won Ohio on March 4, her campaign would have ended on the spot. As it was, the damage from her mid-February slide has, in the end, proven insurmountable.
But would it really have been much different if she had—like Obama—mounted a sustained effort in the mid-February states and poured her meager budget into field organizing and television advertising?
If one truth has emerged from the four dozen primaries and caucuses held so far, it’s that 2008 is the Year of No Momentum. Obama scored a resounding victory in Iowa—with Clinton in third place—only to lose New Hampshire by the exact same margin he trailed in the state before Iowans caucused. Then Clinton, fresh off her startling New Hampshire triumph and a follow-up victory in Nevada, fell flat on her face in South Carolina, where she was trounced by nearly 30 points. And on and on it went.
In past campaigns, a different pattern has prevailed, with success in a key state (or states) by Candidate A causing an erosion in Candidate B’s support in the next state, a trend that only accelerated the more Candidate A won. So it was that John Kerry in 2004 and Al Gore in 2000 had the nomination wrapped up after wins in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But 2008 has been different, mainly because Clinton and Obama—unlike past candidates—each attracted unusually large, diverse and loyal coalitions. It was tough to see at the time, but from the moment the Democratic campaign came into focus for the masses earlier this year, a fault line was essentially drawn: There were Obama states and there were Clinton states, and there really wasn’t anything that either candidate—or any amount of media coverage—could do about it.
Perhaps an all-out effort by Clinton in mid-February—when Obama-friendly states like Louisiana, Virginia and Wisconsin went to the polls—might have cut into his support, but most likely it would have been around the edges. Instead of making a net gain of 125 pledged delegates in February (80 percent of Obama’s current 157 pledged delegate advantage), perhaps Obama could have been held to a gain of 100. But these were Obama states from the beginning (yes—even the caucus states where Hillary fared better in nonbinding primaries), just like West Virginia and Kentucky were always Clinton states.
It wasn’t her feeble effort in mid-February that doomed Clinton, then: It was the fact that none of ‘her’ states voted in that span. Just consider what a few changes in the primary calendar might have done to the Clinton-Obama campaign narrative.
We now know that Obama’s winning streak wasn’t as magical as it seemed and did not signal, as was widely assumed at the time, a decisive shift among the masses within the party away from Clinton and to him. Rather, it was mostly a function of good timing. Louisiana, Maryland, D.C., Virginia, Wisconsin and Hawaii were tailor-made for him, as were caucuses in Nebraska, Washington and Maine and primaries in the U.S. Virgin Islands and among Americans living abroad. In this same span, there were no Clinton states.
But what if it had been West Virginia and Kentucky—and not Maryland and Virginia—that voted on Feb. 12? And if Puerto Rico and Guam—and not the Virgin Islands and Democrats abroad—had accounted for the offshore contests in February? And if a big Clinton state—like Pennsylvania—had been scheduled for Feb. 19, instead of Wisconsin? The answer is that Clinton would have had the February that Obama had—and no amount of campaigning, organizing, or spending by Obama would have changed it.
The calendar would have turned to March with a completely different story line, one dominated by Obama’s struggles with white working-class voters—the heart of the Democratic base—and his growing deficit among pledged delegates and in the popular vote. He—and not Clinton—would have been on the ropes and facing a do-or-die test in Ohio.
It’s tempting to think that Obama would have been able to recover from a poor February, making up for all of the lost delegates and votes—and then some—when his states eventually voted. Instead of taking mathematical control of the race in February, his ascension would have been delayed until, say, May.
But this assumes that he could have lasted that long.
Clinton suffered grievous damage in February, but she was able to press on in large part because the media and party elites wouldn’t dare write her off. She had entered the campaign as the unbeatable front-runner and she was a Clinton—and Clintons were supposed to dig deep holes for themselves only to engineer remarkable escapes. So she was treated as a candidate who was suddenly facing long odds, but a movement to force her from the race never emerged. And when she won Ohio, she basically guaranteed her survival for the rest of the primary campaign.
Obama may not have gotten this benefit of the doubt. He was the untested newcomer, don’t forget, the one who was supposed to be worn down and run out of the race by the Clinton machine. A big Clinton winning streak in February would have been universally interpreted—by the media and party leaders—as evidence that the inevitable candidate was finally meeting expectations. Obama’s campaign would have been consumed by doubt. Under this scenario, a loss in Ohio to open March could well have produced the kind of pressure to exit the race that Clinton only began to face much later on.
Clinton didn’t lose simply because she didn’t organize in Louisiana and Nebraska and all the other mid-February states. She was in trouble as soon as they were placed on the calendar.