Saturday, January 5, 2008

Clinton Campaign On the Ropes

Hillary Clinton's campaign has been shaken to the core by its third place showing in Iowa. Karen Tumulty over at Time as an analysis:

The scope of Barack Obama's victory in Iowa has shaken the Clinton machine down to its bolts. Donors are panicking. The campaign has been making a round of calls to reassure notoriously fickle "superdelegates" — elected officials and party regulars who are awarded convention spots by virtue of their titles and positions — who might be reconsidering their decisions to back the candidate who formerly looked like a sure winner. And internally, a round of recriminations is being aimed at her chief strategist, Mark Penn, as the representative of everything about her pseudo-incumbent campaign that has been too cautious, too arrogant, too conventional and too clueless as to how much the political landscape has shifted since the last Clinton reign. One adviser summed up the biggest challenge that faces the campaign in two words: "Fresh thinking."

Specifically, those inside the campaign and outside advisers fault Penn for failing to see the Iowa defeat coming. They say he was assuring Clinton and her allies right up until the caucuses that they would win it. Says one: "He did not predict in any way, shape or form the tidal wave we saw." In particular, he had assured them that Clinton's support among women would carry her through. Yet she managed to win only 30% of the women's vote, while 35% of them went for Obama.

A modest rise in Iowa turnout from traditional levels — say by about 20,000 or 30,000 — might have been easy to write off as merely the result of superior tactics on the part of the well-funded Obama operation. But the fact that voters flooded the caucuses, and that Obama swept just about every demographic group, speaks to something larger that is going on in the electorate, Clinton strategists now acknowledge.

That leaves them facing problems on two levels. The first, and easier one to grapple with, is how to deal with Obama. Even as the results in Iowa were still coming in, the Clinton campaign was mobilizing onto an attack footing. But it's possible that the most difficult problem is not Obama; it could be Clinton. How can she retool her message — and her identity as a virtual incumbent — to resonate with an electorate that seems to yearn more for change than any other quality? Says one longtime Democratic strategist, who is close to the Clintons: "Fundamentally, she is who she is; she can't change who she is, and maybe this is not her time."
Actually, I didn't see Obama winning Iowa until the last few days. Clinton's inevitability seemed just that, inevitable. Her bumps on the road to Iowa - for example, in her flip-flopping debate performances - didn't seem to derail her prospects. Nationally, Clinton still held dramatic leads over her rivals in public opinion. Things looked like they were going as planned.

But in the last couple of days before Iowa we saw local polling presaging an Obama upset. It's always good to take survey results with a grain of salt, but these polls nailed it.

What's it going to take for Hillary to pull it together? New polling shows that race has tightened. While Clinton's campaign continues to hammer Obama on inexperience, it's fairly clear that experience is the last thing voters in Iowa were looking for.

Sure, New Hampshire voters are less volatile, they're less inclined to the politics of experiential repudiation, right? Perhaps not. The Clinton campaign is faced with the monumental short-term task of transmogrifying the candidate into an agent of change. This is after hammering for months the rock-solid credentials of Hillary's six years in the Senate and "decades of experience" fighting for the empowerment of the disenfranchised.

How will it all turn out? Clinton's still in the game, for sure. She could lose New Hampshire, but still have a strong opportunity to take a majority of the upcoming primaries and caucuses. It does look, however, that 2008 is shaping up to be one of those monumental election years of fundamental transformation, as seen in the Iowa results from both parties.

It's still early, but momentum is a powerful thing. This year's multi-format mass-media saturation has magnified momentum intensely. Tuesday in New Hampshire might be the most important first-in-the-nation primary we've seen since the 1970s.

(Note also that Clinton was booed at a New Hamphire campaign stop today. That can't augur well for her chances on Tuesday.)

Photo Credit: Time