The Clinton-Obama struggle proved to be one of the most dramatic, historic, nomination fights of the modern era, a contest between two political trailblazers, a white woman and a black man, that produced record voter turnout.
PHILADELPHIA — In the saga of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s defeat, all roads lead to the beginning. Back to Iowa.
Before her loss in that state’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, on Jan. 3, she looked like the near-certain winner of her party’s presidential nomination.
She was one of the best-known women in the world, the former first lady, the senator from New York and the bearer of the Democrats’ No. 1 brand. In national polls, she was 20 points ahead of Barack Obama, an upstart Illinois senator whose campaign had yet to catch fire and whose mantra was easy to belittle.
“Change is just a word, if you don’t have the strength and experience to make it happen,” Clinton told party activists in Iowa last fall. “We must nominate a nominee who has been tested and elect a president who is ready to lead on day one.”
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The Clinton-Obama struggle proved to be one of the most dramatic, historic, all-consuming nomination fights of the modern era, a contest between two political trailblazers, a white woman and a black man, that produced record voter turnout.
But for all that transpired, for all of the slip-ups and surprises, no event had more impact on the outcome than the first one, those Iowa caucuses, in which Clinton finished third behind Obama and John Edwards.
Change that outcome, and everything else changes with it. Had she won there, mistakes that were waiting to happen — including her campaign’s decision to downplay future caucus states in which Obama thumped her — might not have mattered a whit.
The startling result in Iowa stripped her of the veneer of inevitability and made Obama a star.
And it signaled to African Americans, who had been evenly divided between Clinton and Obama until that point, that a black man might be able to capture the Democratic nomination. If he could win in Iowa, a very white place, they figured, he could win anywhere.
Most of her black support migrated to him in a flash, providing Obama with a base that was more than a match for hers among women eager for a breakthrough of their own.
This became hugely apparent when Obama routed Clinton in South Carolina on Jan. 26. That primary, during which President Clinton first stirred racial feelings with his words, was the true thunderclap of the political season, the clearest sign that her candidacy was in jeopardy.
Much of the reason for Clinton’s failure rests with her rival. At a time the nation seemed to crave a new direction, Obama embodied change with his message, his appearance and his roots. For the most part, he ran a splendid campaign, raising an extraordinary amount of money and campaigning almost everywhere.
The Clinton brain trust did not. It made a series of strategic blunders that contributed to defeat: the way it allocated resources, the way it failed to prepare for a long battle and the sense of entitlement it conveyed.
To Iowa Democrats, Clinton offered herself as the candidate of experience, 35 years of it, even though she had served seven years in public office and much of her experience came from being a political spouse.
Obama, in contrast, spoke of “a party that offers not just a difference in policies but a difference in leadership” and a nation that shouldn’t spend “the next four years refighting the same fights that we had in the 1990s.”
The untried newcomer also reminded Iowans early and often that he, unlike Clinton, had opposed the Iraq war from the start. Had she not supported the war resolution in 2002, it’s hard to imagine the Obama campaign taking flight. In Iowa, Clinton was asked constantly to explain her vote, and whether she regretted it.
The contrast was stark — a fresh, compelling change-figure in Obama against a familiar representative of the past. As it turned out, the change-figure had far more appeal to Iowa’s independents and its young people, who came out in droves to support him.
Her defeat in those caucuses put her in a hole from which she never emerged, although she seemed to have done so with her dramatic comeback victory in New Hampshire five days later. And being in that hole highlighted the poor decisions already made by her campaign.
One was the choice to downplay the post-Iowa caucus states in favor of those holding primaries.
At first glance, that made good sense; the more-populous primary states offered a lot more delegates, and caucuses require a huge organizational effort.
But by virtually abandoning such caucus states as Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Minnesota and North Dakota, Clinton let Obama hold her to a draw on Super Tuesday, Feb. 5, the day she had announced in advance that she expected to wrap up the nomination.
The final outcome might have been different had Michigan and Florida, states she claimed as her own, not broken party rules by holding primaries too early, thereby putting their delegates and her advantage in limbo.
Or if she had de-emphasized the “ready on day one” message and moved more quickly to become the fighter for the middle class. Or if her campaign had planned effectively for the long haul.
But none of those things would have mattered had she managed to connect a little better with the caucus-goers of Iowa, back in the days when she still looked inevitable.