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What Went Wrong?

The exclusive story of Hillary's fall, as told by the high-level advisors, staffers, fundraisers, and on-the-ground organizers who lived it.

Endings are rarely as joyous as beginnings--and in the case of a long, wearing, and ultimately disappointing campaign, they can be downright brutal. But they also have the potential to be educational, for participants and gawkers alike. So it is that we asked (begged, really) a range of Hillarylanders for their up-close and personal lists of “What Went Wrong?” Not everyone wanted to play. Many stubbornly pointed out that their candidate is not yet dead. But, on the condition of total anonymity, a fairly broad cross-section of her staff responded--more than a dozen members all told, from high-level advisors to grunt-level assistants, from money men to on-the-ground organizers.

Many answers fell into a handful of broad themes we’ve been hearing for months now. (She shouldn’t have run as an incumbent. She should have paid more attention to caucus states. She should have kept Bill chained in the basement at Whitehaven with a case of cheese curls and a stack of dirty movies.) Others had a distinct score-settling flavor. One respondent sent in a list of Top 25 screw ups, the first three being:

1. Patti
2. Solis
3. Doyle

While from another corner came another list, reading:

1. Mark Penn
2. Mark Penn
3. Mark Penn

But whether personal or clinical, new or familiar, the critiques are all the more striking for having come directly from those neck-deep in the action. So, here it is, an elegy for Hillary ’08, written by some of those who have worked tirelessly to keep it alive.


“Bottom line: I just don’t think she was hungry enough for it in the beginning. It wasn’t really until the ten-in-a-row loss that she started doing stuff like Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart. In the beginning, it was hard to get her to do those things. Early in the campaign, she spent much more time in the Senate than the campaign would have liked. It took the threat of a real loss to get her hungry enough for it. But time was lost. If you ask the Iowa folks, I’m sure they would tell you she wasn’t there enough.”

“Clearly [Obama] was a phenomenon. He was tapping something really different than anyone had ever seen before. … Months and months before Iowa, he was getting record crowds. I just think they should have really gone after him back in the summer and in the fall. I know it would have been a difficult decision to make back then. She’s the leader of the party, the standard bearer, the big dog. Everyone thinks she’s gonna win and walk away with it. Why go picking on Barack Obama? But that’s just something the campaign should have done sooner.”

“We didn’t lay a serious glove on him until the fall. We tried to a little bit, but we weren’t successful. We did silly stuff, like talk about David Geffen. It wasn’t the substantive contrast we needed to make.”

“Devastating vulnerabilities such as Obama's associations with Wright and Ayers were not unearthed by the campaign's vaunted research team in time to be fully taken advantage of--despite being readily available in the public domain.”

“Running as an incumbent, as the inevitable candidate, was probably our biggest mistake, particularly in a time when the country is really hungry for change.”

“We ran a frontrunner campaign in a party that punishes frontrunners. There was no attention to history: Ed Muskie--knocked off; threat to Mondale; etc. The best thing that could have happened is falling behind in the polls to Obama and then a shake-up ala Gore 2000--maybe even a move out of D.C. like he did it.”

“Not learning from the mistakes of Kerry and Gore, the campaign was based in the D.C. area, rooting its perspective in the fishbowl and echo chamber nature of the capital. And [the campaign] was overstaffed with hired guns with no real allegiance to HRC; she was the safest and easiest bet, no sacrifice necessary.”

“There was not any plan in place from beginning to end on how to win the nomination. It was, ‘Win Iowa.’ There was not the experience level, and, frankly, the management ability, to create a whole plan to get to the magical delegate number. That to me is the number one thing. It’s starting from that point that every subsequent decision resulted. The decision to spend x amount in Iowa versus be prepared for February 5 and beyond. Or how much money to spend in South Carolina--where it was highly unlikely we were going to win--versus the decision not to fund certain other states. ... It was not as simple as, ‘Oh, that’s a caucus state, we’re not going to play there.’ That suggests a more serious thought process. It suggests a meeting where we went through all that.”

“Harold Ickes's encyclopedic understanding of the proportional delegate system was never operationalized into a field plan. The campaign inexplicably wrote off many states entirely, allowing Obama to create the lead of 100+ delegates that he has today. Most notably, we claimed the race would be over by February 5, but didn’t devote any resources to the smaller states that day and in the weeks that followed, allowing Obama to easily run up margins and delegate counts on the cheap--the delegate margin he will win by.”


“Hillary assembled a team thin on presidential campaign experience that confused discipline with insularity; they didn't know what they didn't know and were too arrogant to ask at a time early enough in the process when it could have made a difference, effectively shutting out even some long-time Hillaryland loyalists. Her innermost circle of [Patti Solis] Doyle, [Mark] Penn, [Mandy] Grunwald, [Neera] Tanden and [Howard] Wolfson formed a Board of Directors with no single Chairman or CEO; nobody was truly in charge, nobody held truly accountable.”

“[Original campaign manager] Patti and [her deputy] Mike [Henry] sat up there in their offices and no one knew what they did all day. Patti’s a nice person who was put in a job way over head. She was out of her element. Mike Henry was hired because he was the flavor of day, the catch everyone wanted. I’m sure he was really great, but presidential politics require a unique skill set and knowledge.”

“[Policy Director] Tanden and [Communications Director] Wolfson, the HQ's most senior department heads, had no real presidential campaign experience, and no primary experience whatsoever. Notoriously bad managers, they filled key posts with newcomers loyal to them but unknown to and unfamiliar with the candidate, her style, her history, her preferences.”

“Probably our second biggest mistake was much more operational: Making our chief strategist our one and only pollster. It is impossible to disagree and have a counter view on message when the person creating the message is also the person testing the message.”

“We would just cringe. Ugh. Such an out-of-touch corporate run kind of campaign--exactly what you’d expect from Mark Penn. He did fine during his time in the Clinton White House. But running a campaign to capture the nomination in a change environment is something he had never done. Just look at what he did for Joe Lieberman!”

“She never embraced the mantle from the beginning of being a different kind of candidate. Why did the campaign not do that? Because Mark Penn wanted to do it a different way. Read his book. He thought that you have a list of policy prescriptions. Voters are into that, and that’s how you win. This came at the expense of--and it’s a decision he really pushed for--saying to folks, ‘Yes, she’s a pretty inspiring figure herself.’ ... There’s no reason why she’s not a change agent also. But once the CW is set, it just doesn’t change.”

“There were so many consultants, instead of full-time staff who would have spent their entire time focusing on this. I love some of these people, but it just seems ridiculous. Cheryl Mills spends time doing NYU stuff. Mark Penn, Mandy Grunwald, Minyon Moore, and so on. There were too many people that had too much else going on on the side.”

“[Bill’s] behavior that started off in Iowa, carried on in New Hampshire, and culminated in South Carolina really was the beginning of the end. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, he just kind of imploded. I think, if I had to look back on it, it became more about him than about her. It really was destructive overall.”


“There were more themes in this campaign than anything I’ve ever seen.”

“Our message in fact was working very well through September. What we failed to do is pivot when we needed to. We stuck on the same thing. … We didn’t say, ‘OK, everybody gets that she can do this job.’ We never pivoted to what kind of change she could bring. We repackaged the old message and sent it back out. Instead of ‘Ready on Day One,’ we changed to ‘Solutions.’ It was a very IBM approach.”

“Keeping the same team in place [after New Hampshire] meant that pre-Iowa planning and strategic errors continued nearly unabated, were not corrected. … Too much damage had been done by the time Maggie Williams took the helm.”

“There were a number of people who advised the Clinton campaign back in the spring of ‘07 that this could easily become a longer battle--a war of attrition. She needed to build a broad base of supporters beyond the virtually limitless number of Clinton friends and supporters who they counted on to not only max out, but to use their not inconsiderable Rolodexes to help her. That would have been fine if this thing had ended Super Tuesday. It didn’t, and she ran out of money.”

“There was financial mismanagement bordering on fraud. A candidate who raised more than a quarter of a billion dollars over the years had to pump in millions more of her own money to stave off bankruptcy.”

“If you have no cash because you totally mismanaged the budget, you have no money to go up on TV; you’re getting crushed on TV and in direct mail because Obama has so much more money--that is a huge problem. Who was looking at the money? The financial situation was a disaster. That’s the reason [Howard] Paster had to come in and clean shit up.”


“I don’t think anybody in America doesn’t think she can do the job. What they’re dying for is to know a little bit more about her. And we were unable to present that side of her.”

“If you look at this campaign as a 15- or 16-month gambit, the public turning point was the Philadelphia debate. Her non-answer on the driver’s license issue. Again, it spoke to the character issue: The sense that she will say anything and do anything to get elected. It drove the Obama narrative of her home.”

“Her dense and wonky speaking style was compounded by her speechwriting team’s reporting to Policy Director Tanden rather than Communications Director Wolfson.”

“The Senator is as loyal as she is smart. And I think that removing Patti is where those two things came into conflict. She knew the right thing to do. At same time, she was very loyal to Patti, who had been very loyal to her.”


“We placed a huge financial bet on Iowa and raised its importance by sending senior staff there. And because we didn't plan for a national campaign, we couldn't point to an operation that could withstand an Iowa blow the way Obama could after New Hampshire.”

“It was obvious talking to people on the ground there that they simply did not get the Iowa caucus from a field perspective. That’s where the thing was lost. They didn’t have a good idea of the horse-trading that makes caucuses work for you.”

“Mark Penn and Mandy Grunwald dismissed the possibility of youth turning out heavily in Iowa for Obama, saying on the record after the Jefferson-Jackson dinner, ‘They don't look like caucus-goers.’”

“Penn was preoccupied with the national polls. We were up in the national polls, but Iowa was always a challenging thing for us. Early, early on, our internals showed us a significant number of points behind. ... In Iowa, Penn consistently would show polls that were of the eight-way. That was basically meaningless because it wasn't going to be an eight-way race. The candidates that were the second-tier candidates were not going to reach the threshold [of 15%]. The real race was the three-way. But he always focused on the eight-way when we'd start going over the numbers in Iowa. It was frustrating to the state staff and other people as well. It just showed a lack of understanding and a disconnect.”


“The way we handled you guys was a mistake on our part. What we’re hearing is that we truly treated people badly and weren’t accessible enough or open enough. We had bad relationships with reporters, and it probably bit us on the ass.”

“We ran a press operation that lost all credibility with the press through endless and pointless memos like, ‘Where's the Bounce?’ and polling memos that cherry-picked only positive polls when we were up and ignored polling when we were down.”

“Even among Clinton spokespeople long known for their heavy-handed ways, Phil Singer stood out for his all-too-common and accepted profanity-laced tirades and abusive behavior--both at colleagues and the media, who were all too happy to direct his comeuppance toward Hillary at a time she needed them most.”


“Her people spent all of 2008 making lists blaming each other (but never themselves) rather than lists of solutions.”

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor of
The New Republic.