For all her talk about "full speed on to the White House," there was an unmistakably elegiac tone to Hillary Clinton's primary-night speech in Indianapolis. And if one needed further confirmation that the undaunted, never-say-die Clintons realize their bid might be at an end, all it took was a look at the wistful faces of the husband and the daughter who stood behind the candidate as she talked of all the people she has met in a journey "that has been a blessing for me."
It was also a journey she had begun with what appeared to be insurmountable advantages, which evaporated one by one as the campaign dragged on far longer than anyone could have anticipated. She made at least five big mistakes, each of which compounded the others:
1. She misjudged the mood
That was probably her biggest blunder. In a cycle that has been all about change, Clinton chose an incumbent's strategy, running on experience, preparedness, inevitability and the power of the strongest brand name in Democratic politics. It made sense, given who she is and the additional doubts that some voters might have about making a woman Commander in Chief. But in putting her focus on positioning herself to win the general election in November, Clinton completely misread the mood of Democratic-primary voters, who were desperate to turn the page. "Being the consummate Washington insider is not where you want to be in a year when people want change," says Barack Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod. Clinton's "initial strategic positioning was wrong and kind of played into our hands." But other miscalculations made it worse:
2. She didn't master the rules
Clinton picked people for her team primarily for their loyalty to her, instead of their mastery of the game. That became abundantly clear in a strategy session last year, according to two people who were there. As aides looked over the campaign calendar, chief strategist Mark Penn confidently predicted that an early win in California would put her over the top because she would pick up all the state's 370 delegates. It sounded smart, but as every high school civics student now knows, Penn was wrong: Democrats, unlike the Republicans, apportion their delegates according to vote totals, rather than allowing any state to award them winner-take-all. Sitting nearby, veteran Democratic insider Harold M. Ickes, who had helped write those rules, was horrified and let Penn know it. "How can it possibly be," Ickes asked, "that the much vaunted chief strategist doesn't understand proportional allocation?" And yet the strategy remained the same, with the campaign making its bet on big-state victories. Even now, it can seem as if they don't get it. Both Bill and Hillary have noted plaintively that if Democrats had the same winner-take-all rules as Republicans, she'd be the nominee. Meanwhile, the Clinton campaign now acknowledges privately:
3. She underestimated
the caucus states
While Clinton based her strategy on the big contests, she seemed to virtually overlook states like Minnesota, Nebraska and Kansas, which choose their delegates through caucuses. She had a reason: the Clintons decided, says an adviser, that "caucus states were not really their thing." Her core supporters women, the elderly, those with blue-collar jobs were less likely to be able to commit an evening of the week, as the process requires. But it was a little like unilateral disarmament in states worth 12% of the pledged delegates. Indeed, it was in the caucus states that Obama piled up his lead among pledged delegates. "For all the talent and the money they had over there," says Axelrod, "they bewilderingly seemed to have little understanding for the caucuses and how important they would become."
By the time Clinton's lieutenants realized the grave nature of their error, they lacked the resources to do anything about it in part because:
4. She relied on old money
For a decade or more, the Clintons set the standard for political fund raising in the Democratic Party, and nearly all Bill's old donors had re-upped for Hillary's bid. Her 2006 Senate campaign had raised an astonishing $51.6 million against token opposition, in what everyone assumed was merely a dry run for a far bigger contest. But something had happened to fund raising that Team Clinton didn't fully grasp: the Internet. Though Clinton's totals from working the shrimp-cocktail circuit remained impressive by every historic measure, her donors were typically big-check writers. And once they had ponied up the $2,300 allowed by law, they were forbidden to give more. The once bottomless Clinton well was drying up.
Obama relied instead on a different model: the 800,000-plus people who had signed up on his website and could continue sending money his way $5, $10 and $50 at a time. (The campaign has raised more than $100 million online, better than half its total.) Meanwhile, the Clintons were forced to tap the $100 million plus the fortune they had acquired since he left the White House first for $5 million in January to make it to Super Tuesday and then $6.4 million to get her through Indiana and North Carolina. And that reflects one final mistake:
5. She never counted on a long haul
Clinton's strategy had been premised on delivering a knockout blow early. If she could win Iowa, she believed, the race would be over. Clinton spent lavishly there yet finished a disappointing third. What surprised the Obama forces was how long it took her campaign to retool. She fought him to a tie in the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday contests but didn't have any troops in place for the states that followed. Obama, on the other hand, was a train running hard on two or three tracks. Whatever the Chicago headquarters was unveiling to win immediate contests, it always had a separate operation setting up organizations in the states that were next. As far back as Feb. 21, Obama campaign manager David Plouffe was spotted in Raleigh, N.C. He told the News & Observer that the state's primary, then more than 10 weeks away, "could end up being very important in the nomination fight." At the time, the idea seemed laughable.
Now, of course, the question seems not whether Clinton will exit the race but when. She continues to load her schedule with campaign stops, even as calls for her to concede grow louder. But the voice she is listening to now is the one inside her head, explains a longtime aide. Clinton's calculation is as much about history as it is about politics. As the first woman to have come this far, Clinton has told those close to her, she wants people who invested their hopes in her to see that she has given it her best. And then? As she said in Indianapolis, "No matter what happens, I will work for the nominee of the Democratic Party because we must win in November." When the task at hand is healing divisions in the Democratic Party, the loser can have as much influence as the winner.