June 4, 2008, Washington, DC – On her first campaign visit to New Hampshire, in February 2007, Hillary Rodham Clinton was confronted by a voter who demanded she explain her 2002 Senate vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
“I want to know if right here, right now, once and for all and without nuance, you can say that war authorization was a mistake,” Roger Tilton asked Clinton. “I, and I think a lot of other primary voters — until we hear you say it, we’re not going to hear all the other great things you are saying.”
Clinton replied, as she would repeat in the ensuing months: “Knowing what we know now, I would never have voted for it.”
Her refusal to admit error failed to satisfy Tilton, a 46-year-old financial analyst from Nashua even though he loved her position on health care and capping Iraq troop levels.
That exchange, pounced upon by some reporters to the displeasure of Clinton’s aides, foreshadowed her demise. Her refusal to back off that vote tied her to the past and to an unpopular war. It embodied her campaign’s fundamental miscalculation: the decision to present her as the standard-bearer for Washington experience, ready for office on Day One.
As such it was a telltale moment in the former first lady’s dizzying 17-month slide from prohibitive front-runner to also-ran — upended by Barack Obama, a rookie on the national political scene, and by his message of change, in a year voters hungered for change.
By itself, Clinton’s Iraq vote didn’t cost her the nomination. There were other culprits: her ever-changing campaign themes, poor financial planning, squabbling staff and a field organizing plan designed for quick victory rather than a 50-state delegate hunt.
And there were events along the way that were omens of her downfall — many not fully appreciated in the bright glow of her near-universal name recognition, endorsements from the party establishment and long early lead in the polls.
The first quarter of 2007 ended with a big surprise for the Clinton campaign, the reputed powerhouse of Democratic fundraising: Obama raised $25 million from more than 100,000 donors in those three months. While the New York senator had raised $26 million from 60,000 donors, just $20 million was for primaries, $6 million for the general election. Obama’s total included $23 million for the primaries.
At first, word of Obama’s stunning success led to near-panic within the Clinton team. Eventually, the agitation gave way to a wary calm. “He raised a lot, we raised a lot,” spokesman Howard Wolfson mused.
Their first response turned out to be more accurate. Obama had shattered the establishment approach to soliciting campaign cash.
Clinton’s money had come largely from squeezing wealthy individuals for the maximum legal contribution of $2,300 for the primaries and $2,300 for the general election. The Obama campaign mined the Internet for small donations from people who could be re-solicited throughout the campaign.
Obama would eventually raise more than $265 million for the primaries from more than 2 million individuals. Clinton raised about $215 million, and would end her campaign more than $30 million in debt. Most important, Obama’s army of small donors paid for the impressive field organization he would build, drawing on grass-roots support across the country and penetrating states Clinton couldn’t afford to contest.
In May of last year, a memo from Clinton deputy campaign manager Mike Henry leaked that both foreshadowed and helped produce dire events for her campaign. Henry recommended the New York senator skip the leadoff Iowa caucuses. The document roiled her campaign and revealed the first of many staff disputes. It also would help seal her poor showing in the state months later, which gave Obama a chance to show that white voters would support a black presidential candidate.
All along, Clinton’s advisers had fretted about her chances in Iowa. Bill Clinton did not campaign in the state in his first presidential run in 1992, and the couple had never built the organization needed to win the caucuses.
Supporters like former Gov. Tom Vilsack warned that Clinton was starting dangerously late and needed to visit the state more. Campaign people worried that Clinton was sticking to a rigorous schedule in the Senate, not spending serious time in Iowa until late summer 2007.
Although the notion that she wouldn’t compete in the campaign’s first contest was never seriously considered by campaigns chiefs, Henry had the respect of many in the campaign including top adviser and delegate-hunter Harold Ickes, and he was encouraged to put his concerns about Clinton’s Iowa chances in writing.
The leak of Henry’s memo — which accurately pointed out that Iowa was Clinton’s weakest state and would require a multimillion-dollar investment that might be better spent elsewhere — was a blow that put her on the defensive in Iowa for the remainder of the campaign.
Sure enough, it cost Clinton $25 million to finish third in Iowa — narrowly behind John Edwards but swamped by Obama, whose organizers had identified thousands of young, first-time caucus-goers to come out for him. Henry left the campaign not long after.
Clinton delivered strong performances in a long series of televised debates, but that streak came apart in a single moment in Philadelphia in late October 2007, when she was asked during a forum on MSNBC if she would support a proposal by her state’s governor, Eliot Spitzer, to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses.
“I did not say that it should be done, but I certainly recognize why Governor Spitzer is trying to do it,” Clinton said.
That response, and other non-answers that night, made her seem evasive and opportunistic. Media coverage, until then largely respectful, turned critical.
Until January of this year, former President Clinton had been viewed as an asset for his wife among her aides and supporters. Although reviled by conservatives for his affair with a White House intern, Bill Clinton remained a beloved figure among Democratic audiences, particularly blacks, who remembered the 1990s as relatively prosperous and his efforts on their behalf.
That changed in South Carolina, where the former president campaigned vigorously for his wife. Her advisers, aware of his tendency to go off message, had urged him to stay positive and talk up her accomplishments, not criticize Obama.
But Bill Clinton chafed at the campaign’s reluctance to take on the Illinois senator, particularly over what the former president viewed as conflicts between Obama’s rhetoric of opposition to the Iraq war and his voting record. So he took it on himself to speak out, with calamitous results.
Obama soundly won South Carolina, and Bill Clinton then made things worse. He seemed to diminish Obama’s triumph by noting that civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, never the presidential contender that Obama had already become, had also won the state’s primary years earlier.
Once so popular among blacks he was dubbed the first black president by author Toni Morrison, Bill Clinton had helped drive those voters away from his wife. Obama’s already strong black support would climb to as much as 90 percent of the black vote in subsequent contests.
Super Tuesday primaries on Feb. 5 looked at first to be a strong showing for Clinton, though not the knockout blow her camp once anticipated.
In fact, a miscalculation about that day propelled her long and steady decline.
Although she won large state primaries — California, New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts — she all but ceded caucuses to Obama in places like Colorado, Minnesota and Kansas. By the final count a few days later, Obama had collected a few more delegates than Clinton of the nearly 1,700 at stake that day.
Clinton had developed an aversion to caucuses after her bad experience in Iowa; she even publicly called them unrepresentative and undemocratic. Combined with poor budgeting and a poor understanding of the party’s system of proportional allocation of delegates, that led to catastrophic strategic planning for the Super Tuesday contests.
When Clinton was still riding high in the polls, campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe, chief strategist Mark Penn and other advisers believed she would come close to clinching the nomination by winning large — if expensive — primary states. The campaign had budgeted accordingly.
Other Clinton advisers, including Ickes, had vainly warned that proportional allocation would allow Obama to pick up plenty of delegates in the states Clinton won on Super Tuesday and dozens more in the caucus states if Clinton did not contest them.
Those warnings went largely unheeded and the big-state Super Tuesday strategy failed badly. Clinton’s campaign was left nearly broke, with no real plan for how to approach the contests to come. Obama scored 11 straight wins in February alone, while Clinton was forced to lend her campaign $5 million just to stay afloat. He took the overall delegate lead Feb. 12 and never lost it.
In March, a self-inflicted wound did more than anything else to undermine her claim of foreign policy experience — and her efforts to reassure voters of her trustworthiness. More than once she personally described coming under sniper fire as first lady during an 1996 airport landing in Bosnia.
“There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport, but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base,” Clinton said during a foreign policy speech in Washington. In the hours and days afterward, her claim was discredited by video of the landing which surfaced on television news and YouTube. But Clinton stuck to her story for a week before finally acknowledging she misspoke. “A minor blip,” she called it.
Her aides knew it to be anything but. Privately, they were horrified by the gaffe and saw almost no realistic way to defend it.
In the end, none of the mistakes by Clinton and her campaign team was fatal in and of itself. She and her husband were experts in extricating themselves from death-defying jams.
But Obama proved to be more than just a traditional opponent. In the end, the Clintons’ usual tactics — big-scale fundraising, high-powered political connections, old-fashioned grit and determination — were no match for Obama and a candidacy uniquely suited to the moment.
Campaigning in the final primaries, Clinton said, “I’ve really enjoyed the process of being able to go out and see this country anew.”
But what she saw was a country that wanted someone new.