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What Penn Got Right And Wrong

To my mind, the most interesting tidbit in Joshua Green's big Atlantic story on the Hillary campaign isn't Mark Penn's incendiary "Obama-as-other" strategy (is anyone really surprised?). It's his analysis, from March 2007, about how the race would play out. It's both remarkably prescient and remarkably inept. Penn wrote:

As this race unfolds, the winning coalition for us is clearer and clearer. There are three demographic variables that explain almost all of the voters in the primary—gender, party, and income. Race is a factor as well, but we are fighting hard to neutralize it.

We are the candidate of people with needs.

We win women, lower classes, and Democrats (about 3 to 1 in our favor).

Obama wins men, upper class, and independents (about 2 to 1 in his favor). 

Edwards draws from these groups as well.  

Our winning strategy builds from a base of women, builds on top of that a lower and middle class constituency, and seeks to minimize his advantages with the high class democrats.

If we double perform with WOMEN, LOWER AND MIDDLE CLASS VOTERS, then we have about 55% of the voters.

There are a few points to note here. One, Penn sensed very early on that Clinton would lag among wine-track Democrats and left-leaning upscale independents, at a time when many assumed those voters would be drawn to her. It's an interesting question, which I haven't seen explored fully, exactly what about Clinton made her so unpalatable to this sizable voting bloc, but Penn deserves credit for realizing that her base would be working-class Democrats, particularly women (though Latinos didn't seem to figure as prominently into his thinking).

But Penn's insight was dwarfed by two huge blind spots. One, he seemed to genuinely expect Clinton to remain competitive among African Americans--in fact, he identified black women as Clinton's single best demographic group, and suggested that race in general wouldn't be a major factor. I know hindsight is 20/20 and that in early 2007 it was by no means clear that Obama would run up such huge margins among African Americans, but Penn still seems amazingly cavalier about that possibility. This is especially true given that the strategy he was advocating involved depicting Obama as an outsider unfamiliar with the concerns of ordinary, "real" Americans; did Penn not expect blacks to rally in defense of a black candidate subjected to that line of attack?

A second, related problem is that Penn's math was pretty suspect. It should have been readily apparent to any seasoned campaign operative that, in today's Democratic Party, blacks plus white liberal reformist types gets you very close to 50 percent in a national Democratic primary contest. (It's true that no such coalition had ever been successfully assembled in a Democratic presidential primary, but this was quite clearly Obama's only viable path to the nomination.) Penn seemed to recognize this, acknowledging that Hillary's base of white women and working-class Democrats would get her only a narrow majority, but then bizarrely assumed that this narrow majority would be sufficient to end the nomination fight with big-state victories on February 5. There was apparently no thought whatsoever given to the possibility that a very tight contest overall might produce a very tight result in the Super Tuesday delegate count, which would make caucus organizing and post–February 5 strategy the deciding factor. It's beyond me how someone like Penn could have failed to understand the basic mathematical dynamics of how a nomination fight is decided.

--Josh Patashnik