Why did Hillary lose (or why did Obama win?)

[I've been writing this on and off in spare moments since Saturday, so apologies if it is a bit stream of consciousness like].


Wow. After nearly a year and a half it is finally over. The most remarkable political contest I have ever seen for sure, and I would venture to argue the most amazing thing seen in American politics since at least 1968, if not more. After that, it seems quite likely the general election itself will be something of an anti-climax. But now seems a good moment to offer some provisional and very sketchy answers on how the whole thing turned out the way it did. I'm not alone in this undertaking. Today's papers were littered with pieces analysing the outcome (here, here and here for a few) and Daily Kos (here, here, here and here for some examples) has been running a symposium on just this subject.

The first thing that came into my head was what to call this post. The original version is the unbracketed title above, namely "why did Hillary lose?". I added the additional bit because it seemed a little unfair not to acknowledge Obama's achievements. But, despite all of Barack Obama's manifold political achievements, it does seem more compelling to focus on Hillary Clinton, as her candidacy fits neatly into a broader story - an epic story at that - about the Clintons and the generation they are a part of. In this sense, her campaign is part of a curve in American politics that starts with the spike in birthrate in the postwar period, and continues as that generation has its political consciousness shaped by the Vietnam war and the events of 1968. 2008 might mark the last chapter in forty year journey, the end of what Obama refers to in the Audacity of Hope as "the psychodrama of the baby boomers". In the shorter term too, we only need to go back about a year and it would have been hard to find more than a handful of commentators arguing anything other than Clinton's inevitability. Undoubtedly, something did go horribly wrong for her campaign, even though Obama skilfully exploited the opportunity it presented.

So here is my, very provisional list of thoughts (and I also have to give a hat tip to my friend Jon, who I had email exchange with on this subject a few months back which has done a lot to shape my views on the question, although the decision as to which arguments to include and how to phrase - and thus their shortcomings - are entirely my own). Just before I begin though, I want to make one more point. I don't believe their was a mono-causal reason for Hillary's defeat. For that reason, I reject arguments such as that articulated by Maureen Dowd in the New York Times: "She didn’t lose because she was a woman. She didn’t lose because America isn’t ready for a woman as president. She lost because of her own — and her husband’s and Mark Penn’s — fatal missteps." I think this misses the point. Hillary's defeat and Obama's victory was a perfect storm, bought about my a multitude of factors. Change any one of them and it is possible to conceive a different result. With that in mind, here we go (ideas are sketched into headers, with other key points highlighted). 

The war. I'm sure history will judge this as being hugely important to Hillary's defeat. It was, but a big caveat need to be thrown in: I'm pretty sure she still could have won with it hanging round her neck. But it had three significant impacts. Firstly, it gave Obama his opening. Because he'd opposed the war from the beginning, in contrast to any other candidates in the race, he could use this stance to justify his position in the race. Secondly, the war vote allowed older doubts about the Clintons on the more radical wing of the Democratic Party to solidify and create hardened opposition. Thirdly, and finally, many of the networks and communities which Obama was able to exploit, were created in the aftermath to the Iraq war on blogs and Democratic-supporting websites. This was especially important to Obama's fundraising success. Which leads neatly too...

The Internet. The Obama campaign got it, as did many of their supporters. If you've been following the campaign over at TechPresident this much is quite clear (as Micah Sifry suggests in his post-primary season essay on the subject). As the famous Apple / Think Different video illustrated the power of a creative commons approach to campaigning. I do think the really important thing to grasp though is the Obama campaign was in reality a hybrid. It harnessed the best bits of Howard Dean's open source mentality for sure, but in its ruthless approach to data-management it also borrowed heavily from the Bush campaign in 2004. It success was found in a combination of collective activity, open source campaigning and information management. The most obvious example of this can be seen in fundraising, which simultaneously managed to be very centralised (as anyone on the Obama email list will know - messages were posted perfectly in synch with campaign events) but also relied on a decentralised network to publicise and galvanise supporters. In many ways, the great achievement of the Obama campaign was appreciating that these two approaches to politics were not mutually exclusive.

Fundraising. I mentioned fundraising above. But really... fundraising. Obama's success (and for that matter Clinton's, at least in comparison with everyone else ever to compete in a primary other than Barack Obama) was mind blowing. But two points. Firstly, it did have an impact. In 2007, Obama's money making made him look viable. Later on, it made it look possible that he might achieve the holy grail - being able to opt out of general election, as well as primary season, state funding. Secondly though, fundraising (or more specifically the power it gave Obama to buy lots and lots of TV advertising) had a pretty negligible impact. In many of the late primaries, Obama outspent Clinton 3-to-1. And it had no impact on the voting blocs and who they supported.
This was a change election. I've seen this written so many times, and I'm still not really sure what the term means - especially when John McCain is still polling somewhere north of 40 per cent. Clearly not everyone in the US thinks it is a change election. But it is also true that there is a sense - after Iraq, Katrina and economic slow down - of real Bush fatigue. A bigger and academically-grounded theme, bought out in Michael Hais and Morley Winograd's book Millennial Makeover, is the idea that the US is in the middle of one of its recurring political realignments, wherein political power shifts from one generation to another. It is this idea that brings us to the concept of post Baby boomer politics and also might explain Obama's support from younger voters. If that is the case, newness was good. 

Hillary ran as an incumbent.
Because the electorate were not happy with the status quo, Hillary's decision to dwell on her experience and the nineties was a big mistake (not least because this raised fears of dynastic politics - Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton anyone? Although a voxpop with a young voter on this subject a few months back came up with my very favourite line of the whole election: "We're for Obama. We don't want royal families. We don't want Bush, Clinton, Bush, Clinton. We want Obama. He's our Robert Kennedy". Ahhh, the irony). Of course, this might have made sense in 2004. It might have even made sense if there had been no Obama. But with the fresh-faced nearly shop new Senator from Illinois in the race, it was a dreadful error. Aside from his perennially popular anti-war statement, Obama had virtually no history for people to judge him on. As a result, voters were able to project all their political desires onto him. Clinton backers might have asked "what the hell does hope actually mean?" - but failed to figure out the real problem. It could mean anything voters wanted it to, especially in the early stages the campaign when Obama was running strongly as a post-partisan candidate.

Hillary had all the disadvantages of being the establishment candidate, but not all the advantages. Despite the fact that she ran as an uber-insider, Hillary didn't actually gain all the benefits one might have expected to from this position. While she got a good lead in super-delegates early on it was far from decisive, and she got little help from the party establishment later in the race, when the likes of Howard Dean and Nancy Pelosi did a lot of harm to her campaign, while remaining technically neutral. Other senior Democrats, most notably Ted Kennedy openly came out and endorsed Obama. Why did this happen? I suspect it was because, despite their political successes, the Clintons was never really true party insiders. They were certainly not liked when they came up to Washington in 1992, and despite his political recovery culminating in re-election, Bill Clinton was never able to do much to help Democrats down the ballot running for other offices. And maybe senior Democrats were wary of a return to the Clinton dramas of the nineties. The support the Clintons gained early on was largely due to their power. When that power began to ebb, then so did the support. In contrast, the fact she was seen as a Washington insider killed her.   

2004, 2006 and 2008. I think one also needs to look at the circumstances of previous elections in order understand the collective decision making processes at work in the Democratic Party this time around. In 2004, they rejected Dean and instead went for the safe option of Kerry, and look where it got them. 2006 was a different story. They fought across the country and bought their opposition to the war front and centre... and won out (this lesson shows something of a capacity for partially remembering history, of course - the Democrats chose plenty of centrist candidates during that election, and they lost the most ideologically charged contest in Conneticut). But these two electoral experiences seemed to give the Democrats a taste for risk taking. 

Sectional voting patterns. This really was an election in two parts. Although it seems a long, long time ago now, Obama was originally spoken of as the candidate who was going to unite people, regardless of race, gender, class or even political leanings. The first crack appeared in this edifice when Clinton won the New Hampshire primary and the Nevada caucus - in New Hampshire, women turned out to vote for her, while in Nevada it was noted that, despite support from major labour unions, Obama was not getting the support from Hispanics. This took us into a second electoral phase, were support for both sides was frozen and largely predictable. By super Tuesday, the super-voting blocs, almost evening matched in size were arranged against each other. On Obama's side, there were African Americans, upscale voters and young people. On Hillary's side there were women, traditional working class Democrats and Hispanics. And it pretty much stayed that way for the next four months (for a good and detailed account of electoral coalitions, check out this set of Real Clear Politics essays on the subject - this is part one, use the links at the top to access the other three parts). Only rarely, as occurred at Wisconsin for example, was either side able to break through. By and large, we could have guessed every primary result from Super Tuesday through to the end with what we knew about voting patterns that had occurred up to that point. It just so happened that Obama's coalition was a little bit bigger, and he was better at mobilising it (especially in caucuses) than Clinton's was. This leads me to one of the more controversal points I want to make...

Hillary didn't go negative soon enough. I'm sure many will disagree. But I think a good argument can be made that Clinton didn't go negative at Obama early enough. Lets be clear what I mean by this. I don't mean some of the more brazen nastiness that has (rightly or wrongly) been linked with the Clinton campaign (such as this or this ). I mean a more deliberate and systematic attempt to question Obama's experience and wisdom, and compare it with Clinton.

This is most famous ad of the campaign, and it does exactly that. However, it was only deployed before the Texas primary. Although it may have helped in that campaign, it wasn't enough to get Clinton to prevail overall. The reasons, I think, is that sectional voting patterns had already become really solidified. People judged the argument through the prism of already being strongly supportive of a candidate - in other words, they saw what they wanted to see: inexperienced Barack verses level headed Hillary, or an evil Clinton hatchet job. Which leaves me asking: what would have happened if this ad had been deployed before these patterns had developed? Would the 3am ad have even been as a negative ad? After all, it focuses on Hillary's skills. It was only negative in Texas because she was in a one-on-one run off with an opponent who she was trying to label inexperienced. I think the root cause of this problem was very simple - in December or January, when this ad might have made a difference, the Clinton camp were simply not taking Obama seriously enough to think about running it. If one wanted to go a bit deeper into the dark art of politics, there is also a question as to whether the Clinton people were doing their op-research well enough. Why, for example, did they not turn up the Reverend Wright clips? When these did come out, they were certainly a problem for Obama (and might still prove to be a problem for him in November). But his primary coalition was, by this time, solid enough that it barely budged in response to the flap. Had this story come out in January, things might have been very different. 

Heisenberg uncertainty principle
. In particular, the idea that act of observing something changes its behaviour. This worked at two levels in this campaign. Firstly, the Clinton campaign was built on established wisdom from politicians, journalists and academics (yes, I got it mindboggling wrong too). Momentum was everything. The campaign could not go on beyond Super Tuesday. It might be over in Iowa and New Hampshire if a candidate could score two clean wins. For that reason the campaign planned insufficiently for small states and contests after Super Tuesday. That would cost them during Obama long run of wins in February and March. In contrast, the Obama people didn't buy this idea. They understood it was a contest about delegates, where Clinton's momentum could be offset by racking up large wins in small states. Secondly, the observers themselves - the press - proved to be a vital constituency. It is probably going to far to say they were Obama's base (Clinton after all had some big cheerleaders in the national media), but they helped his cause a lot.

Also a shoutout for Saturday night live, who seemed to really hit the right note a few times during the course of the campaign. 

The electoral system. Clinton was unlucky in one major respect. The electoral system did not help her one bit. A key element here was the order of the primaries. Had one of "her" states voted straight after Super Tuesday instead of all being six weeks later, things might have been very different. Secondly, it is hard to imagine two states that could have caused Hillary more problems by discounting themselves than Florida and Michigan. Of course there is lots of internal state politics involved, but I wonder would have happened had it been, for example, Washington State and South Carolina that had moved themselves up?

Cock ups. Bad luck on the rules cannot excuse some serious cock ups on behalf of the Clintonistas. The biggest mistake she made was an inability to handle caucuses. And the anti-established wisdom excuse holds no water here - her campaign should have known that insurgent candidates always do well in this form of competition, because they have a motivated support base. There is also (frequently verified) story of Mark Penn not understanding the rules of the California primary. In the last weeks, the Clinton campaign became fond of arguing that, under a winner takes all system, they would have won. True enough, and this contest has demonstrated some problems with a proportional system. But the Obama people factored proportionately into their strategy - they knew that winning small states big was as good or better than winning big states small. 

Sexism and race. Aside from the drama of the whole contest, future historians will undoubtedly focus on an historic election which pitted the first viable African American candidate against the first viable female candidate. This had unfortunate consequences. At times there have been very unseemly conversations about whether blacks and women were historically sinned against to a greater degree and which group "deserved" the presidency first. I certainly don't want to enter into these, not least because I think it starts an argument that can't be won. But I do accept a point Peter Tatchell made last year about different forms of discrimination and prejudice. They aren't equal, either in their absolute outcomes, in their acceptability or the impact they have on our political culture. This manifested itself in a number of ways. I was pretty shocked as to how people (rightly) spoke of "Obama's historic candidacy" but neglected to mention "Hillary's historic candidacy", which, like her or hate her, it undoubtedly was. I suspect this was because people were so familiar with the former First Lady and got used to the idea that she would win the nomination last year; on that basis it didn't capture their imagination in the same way. I also think it is fair to say that people are much more touchy about race than they are about gender - racial jokes for example, have a complete red line around them, gender, not so much so. I don't think we can quantify the impact this had on the race, but it certainly changed the narrative of events. The issue of race also gave Obama one huge advantage - he could make an amazing speech on it, and gather the plaudits. Obama deserves a lot of credit for the speech and its content, but the issue of gender did not and never could afford the same opportunity to look statesman (or stateswoman) like. 

There is one more interesting point to be made about race and gender. Obama's candidacy generated intellectual unity across the generations of African American supporters, ranging from old style civil rights activists such as Jesse Jackson to younger, professionals. In contrast, Clinton's candidacy cut to the heart of the division between second-wave feminists (who tended to support her) and younger post-feminists, who were more likely to go for Obama, or at least regard the Clinton candidacy as a far less important struggle. So this division was not just generational, but intellectual (as this excellent Slate piece outlines). Obama didn't have to contend with a division like this.

Human interventions. Finally, two people deserve special mention. I suspect we don't really know the impact of Bill Clinton on this election. Before hand, he was regarded as a huge asset to Hillary. Then, in South Carolina, it all went a bit wrong for him. And throughout the campaign, he intermittently caused problems. But he was also did a lot of quiet campaigning, especially in the rural parts of later states that might have proved decisive. I suspect he did damage her on occasions, but without him, she would have had to drop out sooner. And secondly, John Edwards. Obama owes him a big thank you. Whether intentionally or not, he was a huge help. Iowa might have turned out very differently without him running, and Clinton could have run Obama a lot closer. He also dropped out at just the right moment for Obama, when the latter was firmly established as the major anti-Clinton candidate and needed to coalesce his support.

So what does everyone else think?