Why Hillary Clinton Lost

>> Saturday, June 7, 2008

It is particularly fashionable to be doing the Clinton campaign post postmortem and thought I would do one too as my first entry here. My general perception gleaned from comments spread around the tubes is that most people focus on her Iraq war vote. I do not feel that is the biggest reason for her loss. I believe that there are two things that combined to cause the Clinton campaign defeat. The first is the hiring of Mark Penn as Chief Strategist and Pollster and the second is Hillary Clinton’s choice of loyalty over results.

I should explain why I do not believe the Iraq war vote was the cause. Those in favor of this rationale believe that the vote itself opened the door for an Obama candidacy. They use John Kerry as an example of someone who was unable to overcome the war vote. I do not believe that the war vote in itself doomed Kerry but it was his inability to properly explain the vote. Clinton could have overcome this by taking the track Edwards did and apologizing profusely far in advance of her run. The war has been unpopular for a long time now and Clinton was planning her run long before that. She had more than enough time to build a foundation of remorse and anti-war credibility. Sen Clinton may never have fully won over the anti-war crowd but it would have made a much smaller opening for Sen. Obama. Her vote was not cast out of consideration for a presidential run, that is just her political and foreign policy style but she is more than capable of making a political choice to position herself as against the war. The long planning that went into her run is what allows the blame to fall on the two causes I chose.

“Mark Penn has run this campaign,” said Ickes in a brief phone interview this morning. “Besides Hillary Clinton, he is the single most responsible person for this campaign.- Harold Ickes, NYO Feb 28, 2008.

Mark Penn has been with the Clinton’s for a long time. He is credited with getting Bill reelected in ’96, although Doles age probably helped. He was also in charge of Sen. Clinton’s 2000 senatorial campaign. This first senate race is where Penn mapped out the strategy for Hillary Clinton that he would later repeat during the presidential campaign. In 2000, Penn forsook big themes and relentlessly focused on poll-tested pothole politics, such as suburban transit lines and dairy farming upstate. This is the core of his philosophy, all politics is local. He is known for breaking groups down into micro-categories and trying to target them with programs and policy that he thinks appeal to them.

The NY times quotes a source discussing Penn from his time during Clinton’s Senate run:

For months now, a dispute has preoccupied Hillary Clinton's campaign. Put crudely -- as it often is -- it centers on whether the campaign should primarily be about personality or issues.
''Mark's attitude is the issues, the issues, the issues,'' one exasperated Clinton adviser said. Penn's view has been that Hillary needs to keep talking about things like the Westchester County Bee-Line and Suffolk County beach erosion."

It was Penn’s idea to avoid the humanization of Hillary Clinton. He was determined to show that she was tough enough to be commander in chief and in doing so he over extended on that issue. People never doubted her toughness. Instead, they thought she was a poll driven robot. It was obvious to many of her aides and supporters that she needed to be humanized and show her personality. She played into the exact negatives she needed to overcoming not reinforcing. Against seemingly everyone else in the campaign, Penn has bet the house on his strategy. He has been using the same ideas for the past 12 years. He needs them to work, it is his life. Given this, it is not surprising that he was slow to change or adopt new messaging in response to Obama.

It should also be obvious Penn was never going to change his beloved strategy if he could avoid it. Another point is that once Penn was forced to change he would no longer be in his element. Remember he worked his micro-targeting for his entire political life. He was just unable to properly adapt to a new way of thinking. Batting right handed your entire life and then trying to switch to lefty is not usually going to work out so well either. That is why after the March 4 victories the campaign was unsure what to credit for the victory. Some were sold on the simple demographic advantage others on the red phone.

Many of her advisers are waging a two-front war, one against Sen. Barack Obama and the second against one another, but their most pressing challenge is figuring out why Clinton won in Ohio and Texas and trying to duplicate it. While Penn sees his strategy as a reason for the victories that have kept her candidacy alive, other advisers attribute the wins to her perseverance, favorable demographics and a new campaign manager. Clinton won "despite us, not because of us," one said.

Sifting through the data yesterday, her divided circle offered other theories. Some credit field operatives who set up organizations in record time. Others cite strong Hispanic outreach in South Texas that held off a late Obama push. And even some Penn opponents grudgingly cite his television commercial that asked which Democrat is more prepared for a 3 a.m. crisis call at the White House. Source

Penn also made the fundamental choice to set up Senator Clinton as inevitable and he made the choice about pursuing electoral strategy. The campaign message adopted by the campaign geared toward tightly focused policy without an overarching uniquely Hillary Clinton theme set up the Clinton campaign to capture certain Demographics more than others. Specifically, they were set up to capture an older population more risk adverse and a lower income population distrustful of intangible long-term vision. Her message resonated with people who felt too uncertain about Obama. However, the message locked Clinton into this group and prevented her from branching out in the campaign. She was at the mercy of demographics for the entire race.

The idea of an inevitability argument is not bad in and of itself. It might have been very effective in pushing Obama and others to the margins and causing some to practice strategic voting and avoid a vote for Sen. Obama. This is a high-risk strategy because once it is pierced it forces the campaign into a major overhaul. Instead, Penn and Clinton needed to try and turn Obama into a Kucinichesque figure. Obama needed to be painted as too liberal and as the one note antiwar candidate, someone everyone kind of likes but no one votes for. Clinton failed to define her opponents when she was defining herself as inevitable and left a large opening. The Obama candidacy needed to be pro-actively killed before it got off the ground. Clinton allowed him to establish his theme of change and a new way of doing things and it cost her putting her on the wrong side of the electorate.

Remarkably not knowing she was on the wrong side of the electorate is also Mark Penn’s fault. He was the chief pollster and responsible for testing his own message. This is not a good idea as some people in the campaign recognized.

Three times, campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle and senior adviser Harold Ickes tried to hire another national pollster so Penn would not be the one to test his own message, campaign sources said, and three times they were rejected. Source

You need an objective party to test a message. Penn was able to design and craft his questions and his interpretations so that he could justify his own beliefs. Even if this did not happen, it very well could have and never should have been allowed to happen. Penn was also very reluctant to allow his poll numbers to be seen by others and for a long part of the campaign, there was no checking is his conclusions fit the data. There are examples from Penn’s own career where he did a poor job evaluating data

Over and over, Penn told the Vice President that Bradley posed little or no threat, that Bush was not as far ahead as public polls suggested and that most voters were confusing the Texas Governor with his father. At one point, when Penn was insisting that Gore was no farther than 10 points behind Bush, a campaign official quietly asked another pollster to check Penn's work. The number came back: Gore down by 18. Source

And it was happening in the Clinton campaign too.

Unlike most campaign pollsters, he does not delve deeply into the numbers he has gathered when he makes his presentations and recommendations. "He never shows you the crosstabs," says one Democratic strategist who is familiar with Penn's work. "He does a PowerPoint, and he never shows you the data that underlies the conclusions he is presenting." A source who knows the workings of the Clinton campaign says that, after much wrangling over that issue, Penn started turning over his data to the top echelon of officials there — but that it usually came in weeks after a decision had already been made and executed on the basis of his advice. Source

Penn was also responsible for the electoral map. There is some debate over whether the Clinton camp should have skipped Iowa. I tend to side on the side that they should not have skipped Iowa because the inevitability argument only works if you do not lose. Skipping Iowa probably guarantees a loss and there would have been no way to predict how it would have affected the campaign. Winning in Iowa and then winning in New Hampshire and then in Nevada would have put Obama in a very bad position. Obama winning in South Carolina would not have been as effective without his wins in the white state of Iowa and may not have happened at all. The rest of the caucus states is another matter entirely.

The entire big state strategy was a very poor idea. Once it was known that Obama was not going away quietly, Clinton needed to reorient her strategy to a long-term one picking up delegated wherever possible. She did not and the failure to anticipate the effects of the proportional representation system has to be laid at the feet of Penn. He drew the map and decided where they needed to play. The failure to plan for not only the caucus states but post Feb. 5 states is a major strategic blunder.

"Until we got to the 6th or 7th of February, there was no Hillary Clinton campaign in Wisconsin or most other states," said Joe Wineke, chairman of the Wisconsin Democratic Party. Obama outspent Clinton on the air in Wisconsin by $1.5 million to $300,000, he said, and scored a strong victory on Feb. 19. source

None of this ever should have happened. Therefore, Penn is second only in responsibility to Clinton herself. She should have fired him after Iowa or New Hampshire when it was clear his initial strategy failed. The failure to do this is all on Hillary Clinton. It was a widely held belief that he should be the one to go

When word got around, there was a "parade to the doorstep" of the candidate by other top aides urging her to keep Solis Doyle or accept their resignations, a senior adviser said. "There was virtual universal agreement that if there was fault, it should be laid at the door of Mark Penn, not Patti Solis Doyle," the adviser said. "People thought change should be made, but the wrong person was being fired. And it created enormous resentment within the campaign." Source

Clinton clung to Solis Doyle when it was clear she was not being effective at her job then threw her under the bus too late to make a real difference in the outcome of the race. Doyle had a reputation earned in the 2006 Senate race for hemorrhaging money. By now, we know that the Clinton campaign was held up only because of personal loans from Clinton to her campaign. The Clinton campaign ran a bloated operation spending money like it was going out of style and spending it in the wrong places like millions to Mark Penn and not in caucus state. When personnel decisions needed to be made at critical times before Obama really took off and won all of February Clinton stuck with Penn. Clinton made the wrong choice and it was her campaign thus she bears the ultimate responsibility with mark Penn a close second.


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