You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Autopsy Report

Tuesday's results replicated much of the Democratic race during the last two months. Hillary Clinton once more showed her strength and Barack Obama's weakness among white working class voters in Midwestern swing states, while Obama proved his hold on young and college-educated voters in states where a new post-industrial economy has developed, and where college-educated voters make up about half of the Democratic electorate.

For Obama, the question will be how to capture enough of these white working class voters in November to defeat Republican John McCain. For Hillary Clinton, the remaining question is retrospective. Her success in states like Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Kentucky only puts into relief the question of why--after having been the prohibitive favorite to capture the nomination--she had already lost the nomination to Obama by the time she had begun to articulate her own message of change.

A big part of the reason, extensively reported by my colleague Michelle Cottle, is that she and her campaign made glaring organizational errors. Clinton wasn't prepared for a protracted nomination battle; and when it became apparent that her staff wasn't either, she didn't act quickly enough to replace them (as Ronald Reagan did in 1980). But another part of the reason for Clinton's failure is political: how she ran initially, and how she ran against Obama.

Critics within the campaign have singled out Clinton's decision to run in 2007 as the heir apparent. That was important, but nothing compared to the way she handled the issue of the Iraq war and the possibility of war with Iran. During the campaign's first year--before the Iowa caucus in January--the principal, and perhaps only, way that her opponents (particularly Obama) could undercut her candidacy was through criticizing her support of the resolution authorizing the Bush administration to use force against Iraq.

At the time, the issue of the war overshadowed all other concerns. This was especially true among the party activists who would staff the campaigns and go to the caucuses, and among the Internet donors who would, as it turned out, fund Obama's effort. John Edwards, who had actually been a member in absentia of the Intelligence Committee and had acted far more irresponsibly than Clinton, cut off criticism of himself by apologizing for his vote in favor of the resolution. But Clinton--looking ahead, perhaps, to the general election--refused to apologize. That reinforced an impression that, on an issue as central as the war, she was willing to put politics before principle, and, in so doing, she sustained Obama's campaign at a time when he was making little headway in national polls.

Still, Clinton, who regularly voted in 2007 for resolutions to set a deadline on the war, looked poised to put the issue behind her--until September, when she backed a resolution introduced by Independent Democrat Joe Lieberman and Republican Jon Kyl directed at Iran's "destabilizing influence" in Iraq and at its Revolutionary Guard. The sponsors watered down the original resolution, which had supported using armed force to "combat, contain, and roll back" the Iranians, but what was important was not the specific wording, but the political context of the resolution. At the time, Vice President Dick Cheney, with Lieberman's support, was beating war drums against Iran; and the resolution, like the infamous Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, seemed to be the kind of measure that could eventually serve as a justification, however tenuous, for another preventive war. Of all the Democratic candidates, Clinton alone voted for it.

Like her refusal to apologize for the October 2002 war resolution, her vote on Kyl-Lieberman may have stemmed from her ignoring the primary and thinking about the general election, or--as Helene Cooper suggested in The New York Times--it might have been an attempt to win support from "the pro-Israel lobby," which strongly backed the resolution. Whatever the case, her vote was a political disaster. It confirmed the worst fears of anti-war Democrats about her foreign policy inclinations. Her rivals denounced her vote, and she had to answer for it in ads, mailings, and debates through early January. It gave Obama an enormous push at a time when he seemed to be floundering and laid the groundwork for his success in fund-raising and in the Iowa caucuses.

Clinton's inability to put her Iraq vote behind her was also a key factor in Obama's pick-up of the important endorsement and in his continued success among young and upscale white voters who believed the war in Iraq was the most important issue. In the Connecticut primary on February 5, for instance, the 31 percent of voters who said Iraq was the most important issue went 63 to 35 percent for Obama. He might still have had an edge among these voters, but it almost assuredly wouldn't have been as great if Clinton had quickly apologized for her vote and rejected the Kyl-Lieberman resolution.

Clinton's second great political mistake lay in how she dealt with Obama's challenge. Sometime in December, having realized that Obama was going to be a genuine rival for the nomination, she and her campaign decided to go negative on him. They did the usual thing politicians do to each other: They ran attack ads taking his words somewhat out of context (Obama calling Reagan a "transformative politician"); they somewhat distorted old votes (voting "present" in Illinois on abortion bills); and they questioned old associations (Obama's connection with real estate developer Tony Rezko).

John McCain and Mitt Romney were doing similar things to each other--and Obama did some of it to Clinton, too. But there a was difference between her doing this to Obama and McCain's doing it to Romney--a difference that eluded Clinton, her husband, and her campaign staff. My friend David Kusnet, Bill Clinton's former speechwriter, explained the difference to me by citing what ex-heavyweight champion Floyd Patterson had once said about Muhammad Ali. "I was just a fighter," Patterson had said, "but he was history." Obama, too, was, and is, history--the first viable African-American presidential candidate. Yes, Hillary Clinton was the first viable female candidate, but it is still different. Race is the deepest and oldest and most bitter conflict in American history--the cause of our great Civil War and of the upheavals of the 1950s and '60s. And if some voters didn't appreciate the potential breakthrough that Obama's candidacy represented, many in the Democratic primaries and caucuses did--and so did the members of the media and Obama's fellow politicians. And as Clinton began treating Obama as just another politician, they recoiled and threw their support to him.

In New Hampshire, Clinton didn't pay a price a price for her tactics. But that was because Obama and Edwards turned their guns on her, thereby pushing white women in the state to cast sympathy votes in her favor. And, in truth, she might have been able to parlay that surprise victory into the nomination. But after New Hampshire--in those weeks leading up to the South Carolina primary and then to Super Tuesday--Clinton's campaign against Obama became more negative (eg. Bill Clinton's comparing Obama to Jesse Jackson), and it provoked a backlash that would ultimately cost her the nomination.

The backlash took several forms. First of all, Clinton had actually enjoyed considerable black support in 2007. In a December Pew poll, Clinton trailed Obama among black voters in South Carolina by only one percentage point--44 to 43. Even as late as the post-New Hampshire primary Pew poll, Obama was ahead of Clinton nationally by 52 to 33 percent among black voters. But after Clinton turned negative, Obama regularly won 90 percent or more of the black vote. That virtually sewed up the Deep South for him. Secondly, Clinton suffered defections among college-educated white voters. That was clear in South Carolina where the white vote gravitated away from Clinton and towards Edwards and Obama. In the December Pew poll, Clinton had led Edwards and Obama among white voters by a score of 49 to 20 to 16 percent. In the final tally, Edwards got 40 percent, Clinton got 36 percent, and Obama 24 percent. That trend would persist until the Pennsylvania primary and re-emerged again clearly in Oregon. In Oregon, Obama won college-educated voters, who made up 46 percent of the primary electorate, by roughly 30 points. Obama's advantage among these voters would be reflected, too, in his continuing success in raising money on the Internet.

Finally, Clinton lost the opinion-making class's vote during those fateful early weeks of the primary season. This included her fellow politicians, who would serve as superdelegates, and the media. Even though Obama appeared to be on the skids after losing New Hampshire, he won a bunch of endorsements leading up to the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday, most notably from Senator Ted Kennedy, Caroline Kennedy, and Maria Shriver; Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill (who helped Obama win Missouri) and former Senator Jean Carnahan; Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson; Vermont Senator Pat Leahy; Massachusetts Senator John Kerry; and Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Some of these endorsements might have come anyway, but several of the most important were provoked by Clinton's campaign.

There was a similar turn in the media. It showed up in newspaper endorsements. In backing Obama, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch admitted "to a certain 'Clinton fatigue,'" before launching into this: "The emergence of the former president as the Luca Brasi of the campaign trail reminds us of the worst of the Clinton years; the divisiveness and the bickering; the too-casual, if artful, blend of truth and half-truth. We're not eager for the replay." I heard the same refrain from journalists and bloggers who had been either pro-Hillary or on the fence. They used the same two words to explain their disenchantment with the Clinton campaign: "South Carolina." Indeed, I went from being pro-Hillary (because of her experience and comparative electability in a general election) to a fence-sitter during this period, and when primary day in Maryland came along, I left the booth without casting a vote.

None of this is to say that Hillary Clinton should have refrained from criticizing Obama. They had genuine disagreements, for instance, on healthcare. But if Clinton had stuck to these kind of differences, while making a case for herself as the only challenge-ready candidate in the field and without treating Obama disrespectfully, she might have been able to sustain the lead that she gained after New Hampshire. Instead, her political errors, compounded by her organizational failures, knocked her campaign off balance. By the time, it began to right itself in Ohio in March, it was already too late.

John Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.