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Assigning The Clinton Campaign Too Much Blame

All the major papers had big articles today on the trouble in Hillaryland, but I think one of the criticisms leveled at the Clintonites is unfair. From the excellent Times piece on the subject:

The answers go to the heart of Mrs. Clinton’s current political challenge. She and her team showered so much money, attention and other resources on Iowa, New Hampshire and some of the 22-state nominating contests on Feb. 5 that they have been caught flat-footed — or worse — in the critical contests that followed, her political advisers said.

It's true that the Obama people brilliantly invested in small caucus states--and planned for a long, drawn-out nomination battle--while the Clinton team focused all their efforts on Iowa, NH, and February 5th. Terry McAuliffe even had the primary calendar changed to help frontrunners with establishment support. And yes, it looks like the strategy failed. But can you really blame them? I don't think the Clinton people have run a bad campaign; rather, they were just unlucky in having to face a unique political talent (surrounded by a very deft team) at his precise political moment. Sometimes you play a good game but the shots just don't fall.

Somewhat separately, Patrick Healy and Kit Seelye's piece does a very fine job of showing why money has in fact mattered in the Democratic primaries (if not the Republican ones):

In Idaho, for example, Mr. Obama’s campaign started setting up nearly a year before the Feb. 5 caucus. By the day of the caucus, he had five offices in the state and 20 paid staff members.

Mrs. Clinton, by contrast, sent one of her supporters, Senator Maria Cantwell of neighboring Washington State, to drop by just before the caucuses.

In Minnesota, “the Clinton campaign was in triage mode,” said Lawrence Jacobs, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota. He said Mrs. Clinton appeared to have allocated her dwindling resources to New York and California, the biggest prizes in the Feb. 5 contests (and which she won), investing almost nothing in media advertising in Minnesota and leaving her campaign there “like a M.A.S.H. unit.”

At the same time, Mr. Jacobs said, Mr. Obama “had developed almost a new style of campaigning.”

“He merges modern campaign technology — he has the list of names, the follow-up effort, all the literature distribution — with these phenomenal rock-arena political revivals,” Mr. Jacobs said. “In a caucus state, it’s formidable.”

Mr. Obama won Minnesota by 34 percentage points.

Three months before the North Dakota caucuses on Feb. 5, the Obama campaign dispatched a staff member there to begin organizing. The campaign quickly expanded to include 11 full-time staff members, including one person solely for media outreach. And in Utah, in preparation for Feb. 5, Mr. Obama opened an office months before Mrs. Clinton did, said Rob Miller, the vice chairman of the Utah Democratic Party.

Mr. Obama won both states.

The key point here, I think, is that allocating delegates proportionally puts a much higher premium on money. By allowing Obama to organize in his states, Clinton allowed him to rack up huge margins (and delegates). In her states, he was able to get close enough that his delegate lead is now pretty imposing. If many of these contests had been winner-take-all, I'm not sure his fundraising prowess would have been quite so important.

--Isaac Chotiner