3/31/2008

Hillary Clinton: Then and Now

Hillary Clinton started off this year's presidential contest as the woman to beat. She was the undisputed frontrunner who had the luxury of staying above the fray while the longshots, no-shots, and underdogs kept scrapping with each other as they jockeyed for position. Her closest rival for most of last year was Barack Obama, whom she rarely engaged for the first half of the year.

All of this changed, however, after Iowa and New Hampshire. Longshot candidates Richardson, Biden, and Dodd dropped out, thus leaving Clinton a bit more exposed. It's easy to maintain one's frontrunner aura when you are sharing the stage with six or seven other candidates. But when that number was reduced to three, it became much easier for voters to make clear distinctions between the candidates.

On top of this, Clinton placed third in Iowa. This third place finish is what gave Barack Obama both legitimacy and momentum. Clinton was able to eke out victories in New Hampshire and Nevada (though Obama won more delegates in Nevada), but Obama countered with the first true blowout in South Carolina. No longer was Clinton the clear frontrunner. For the first time, the Democratic race was truly a tossup. Both Clinton and Obama were essentially co-frontrunners. They were equals. And they matched each other step for step on Super Tuesday.

However, in politics, perception matters. The perception of Obama was that he finally caught the frontrunner Clinton. With Clinton, however, she got caught by Obama. Implicit in these statements is the idea that Clinton was either on a downward trajectory or had stagnated while Obama was trending higher. So the two candidates may have been equals, but they were clearly on different paths.

After about a five-week period in which Clinton and Obama could legitimately be called equals, Obama began to run up the score by winning 11 straight contests after Super Tuesday. Clinton was able to win a stay of execution by winning Ohio and Texas, but the fact that she had become the underdog could not be denied. And given the lack of pledged delegates yet to be won, the lack of contests remaining, and the margins of victory she would need to win the overall popular vote, Clinton is in serious trouble.

Now Hillary Clinton has become what John Edwards used to be after his third place showings in New Hampshire and Nevada--the decided underdog with little chance of winning the nomination. There simply aren't enough votes left. Clinton may claim that the race is "dead even," but it's not, at least not anymore. And even though Barack Obama cannot become the nominee without the help of superdelegates, it would be very hard for these delegates, many of whom are elected officials, to overturn the will of the people and nominate Hillary Clinton. The party that argued so passionately for Al Gore and his popular vote victory in 2000 could not credibly deny the winner of the popular vote in the primaries in 2008. So unless something cataclysmic happens that renders Obama unelectible (e.g., Jeremiah Wright Part 2 or Eliot Spitzer/David Vitter/Larry Craig Part 794), Obama looks like the Democratic presidential nominee.

So why is Clinton still in the race? Here are three possible explanations:

1. The "I still have a chance" scenario. Again, Clinton could be waiting to capitalize on a major gaffe or scandal that wounds Obama so badly that he must abort his campaign. (This was the John Edwards strategy until he ran out of money.) And despite the clamoring from others to drop out and the fact that her campaign is running short on cash, Clinton has vowed to stay in the race until the party convention. On top of this, the next primary will take place in Pennsylvania, where polls suggest a probable Clinton victory. So it would seem foolish for her at first glance to drop out of the race when the next thing coming down the pike is a likely double-digit victory.

And what about the legions of women who are hardcore Clinton supporters and do not take kindly to other men telling her she should get out of the race? Hearing people like Senator Pat Leahy tell Clinton to drop out only emboldens and angers these women. They want Clinton to keep on fighting when they hear these kinds of remarks. So that could be good for her fundraising and get-out-the-vote efforts.

2. The "I see the writing on the wall, but I want to leave on my own terms" scenario. Could it be that Clinton knows she has less than a 10% chance of winning and is simply waiting for the right timing? Remember, she has had a tough two weeks as she had to deal with the embarrassment stemming from her embellishing her trip to Bosnia as First Lady, losing the endorsement of former Bill Clinton cabinet official Bill Richardson to Obama, the subsequent furor over James Carville's comparing Richardson to Judas, and Obama receiving the endorsement of Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey.

Timing is everything in politics, and right now is not the right time for Clinton to leave the race, even if she wants to. Simply put, politicians want to bow out on a high note. Leaving the race now would put a rather sorry bookend on her presidential campaign and would be the last memory most average voters have of Clinton before she returns to the Senate to finish out the rest of her political career. That would almost be worse than losing. So the bottom line is that if she's going to drop out, she should at least do it when all the other negative stuff has made it off of Page A1.

3. The "I want to be the nominee regardless of the damage I cause" scenario. I recently wrote about the anger this protracted campaign was causing, as a significant amount of voters claimed to be more apt to support John McCain than their own party's nominee. This is the scenario that Democrats most fear. Clinton and Obama are neck and neck. Pledged delegates aren't really bound to anyone. Superdelegates should vote their conscience even if that means overturning the expressed will of the voters. The nominee should be determined by the electoral votes of the states won. I would not have stayed at that church had I known Jeremiah Wright was making anti-American remarks even though this story died a week before I decided to express my outrage about it.

These are the kinds of comments that make Republicans squeal with delight.

Once again, every candidate has a right to run. And Clinton's chances at winning the nomination are far better than Dennis Kucinich's or Mike Gravel's. But if this third scenario is what's keeping Clinton in the race, she risks putting her own presidential ambitions ahead of the party's, and she may very well cause irreparable damage to it. Black voters in particular are still angry with Clinton and may decide to stay home on Election Day. And moderate Republicans and independents who like Obama may do so as well or simply vote for McCain.

This is not to say that a Clinton nomination would instantly inflame the Democratic Party and tear it apart. However, if her nomination reeks of kitchen sinks and backroom deals without a compelling case against the true frontrunner at present, Hillary Clinton's legacy and the Democratic Party will both go up in flames.

8 comment(s):

Thomas said...

I don't understand why Hillary Clinton has to drop out. Nobody told Barack Obama that he had to drop out when he wasn't the frontrunner.

It makes the Obama campaign look a little desperate because a strong candidate wouldn't ask their competitor to quit, they would just beat them.

Also, people in Pennsylvania may take umbrage with having their so-far preferred choice taken away from them.

Brett said...

I think we can all agree that Hillary Clinton helped hang herself in trying to go as the "inevitable" candidate, since it tied her hands; just like Obama has always had it tricky going on the direct attack, her "inevitability" made it impossible for her to make some good campaign decisions (she should have skipped Iowa).

You presented the three most compelling scenarios for Clinton's remaining in the race, and there are probably elements of all three. However, if I had to pick two:

The first is almost certainly the case until the Pennsylvania Primary. As you mentioned, with a probably victory in the wings, why quit? Particularly since her rival has suddenly become the prime target of the Republican Party, and you never know what might happen - not a lot of people saw the Swift Boat attack coming for John Kerry.

I think ultimately the third scenario will be the one that drives her after that. Keep in mind that she could conceivably run again in 2012; her campaign rationale isn't as "time-dependent" as Obama's is (meaning that if Obama were to run and lose, he would have difficulty running as the "movement for change" in 2012; he'd just be another politician).

Nikki said...

Anthony, you have to hand it to James Carville who was asked repeatedly to take back or apologize for what he said about Richardson and he would not. He said what he meant and he meant what he said. Few politicians and their talking head supporters stand behind the words they carelessly or carefully spew in front of the camera. Obama is the one who said words matter and of course Jeremiah Wright is proving that point. Republicans are doing the Hillary dirty work right now and she can take the higher ground and tout her right to stay in the race. I think she should stay in the race, it is better for McCain for the dems to keep at it. I think you should do a post on Howard Dean...thanks for the great read! :)N

Schenck said...

Before i continue reading...

Obama won Texas :-)

but I guess it is public perception that counts.

Schenck said...

I think Hillary knows she only has a slim chance at this point. It's all about timing, although no matter what happens, this primary season will be remembered as a David vs. Goliath scenario with the giant dramatically falling down to earth after the impact of a single stone named Iowa. The question is whether or not the giant's fallen body will be rolled into the ocean by spectators or will it stand and walk away on its own two feet?

I think she will drop out after Indiana, but then again, if she wins Indiana (which I doubt considering her falling favorability numbers) then she might as well stay in until June. I don't see her staying until the convention; that will just make her look even more like a monster.

In the meantime, she hopes and prays daily for an Obama blunder that renders him unelectable.

Schenck said...

Oh yea, also, I think the prolonged exposure is good for the party. Every state in this fight sees huge increases in Dem voter registration, and McCain (who?) struggles to make the news (except for old man brain fart gaffes). McCain is wasting his time, but he can't really help it, the Dem race is so INTERESTING.

Reginald Harrison Williams said...

I think that Clinton's continuation with her nominee will aide a McCain White House victory.

Based on what I have read though, Obama's camp SUPPORTS Clinton's cotninuation as long as she wishes. I think it will be harder and harder for her to justify staying in though.

One person who I think needs to be taken "off the campaign trail" like Bill is Chelsea. Her terse "none of your business" comments are debatably valid...but we're not talking about 50 year olds who will just thumb their nose at such comments. We're talking about sensitive, college students that may get turned off by her perceived "stuck-up" attitude.

So many things are hurting Clinton's chances. If she had more time, she could neutralize them...but it's too late :(

I still think McCain will probably eck it out regardless of who's there in the fall.

I do know one thing: I will NOT vote for Hillary if she is the nominee.

Anthony Palmer said...

RHW,

Obama can't tell Clinton to get out of the race because that would make him appear presumptuous or arrogant. That would be a surefire way to gin up Clinton's supporters. So even though he most definitely wants Clinton to leave, he can't tell her to get out. Obama's not being honest in this regard, but he is playing safe politics.