The Green Papers
The Green Papers

So, like-- uh-- wha... what happened?

by Richard E. Berg-Andersson Staff
Thu 12 Jun 2008

The question at issue is basic: How could she have actually lost?

Of 18 "principal" presidential contenders in both Major Parties (those who were invited to take part in the pre-Primary/Caucus "season" televised intra-Party presidential debates) as of the end of the previous calendar year (still, as I type this, less than a half year back now)- 8 Democrats and 10 Republicans- only 2, one of each Party, remain in contention for the right to take the Presidential Oath of Office come next 20 January (still longer than half a year away as I type this)... and neither of them is Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York State! Even though, of all these contenders in this otherwise wide open Presidential Election (and as I myself pointed out in an interview I did for the program 'Rear Vision' on Australia's National Radio this past December), Senator Clinton was the closest thing either Party had to a bona fide "front runner" (though I also noted that there were people who otherwise would be expected to support her who just don't like her, thus she was not at all the typical "front runner"!)

Still, while I myself was surprised at just how many women- those I knew personally, as well as many who e-mailed me via my e-mail address- there were out there who, while they admired Senator Clinton's being the first female presidential candidate who had a legitimate shot at, not only a Major Party's nomination but also the White House itself, could nevertheless not bring themselves to be all that enthusiastic for her being the Democratic nominee, let alone President, I thought- at the very time I was being interviewed for the Australian radio program (a little less than two weeks before the interview actually aired on 16 December 2007) and said what I said- that, if anyone could overcome such obvious skepticism, it would be Hillary Clinton!

So, as is posed as a question in the very subhead to this piece: what happened?

What follows is my admittedly cursory attempt to answer this question, if only to provide my own "two cents worth" should someone, examining the 2008 Presidential Election in a more dispassionate analytical atmosphere in the future, wish to examine contemporaneous accounts- including my own- of what might have been thought, at the time, to have been most behind Mrs. Clinton's defeat.

On 'The Green Papers', we have a chart called "Presidential Primaries at a Glance" and one quick perusal of that chart well indicates the difficulty Senator Clinton ended up facing amongst the rank-and-file voter once she had- one has to presume unexpectedly, in the eyes of her own campaign and its supporters- fallen behind Senator Obama early on (NOTE to the reader: I will be discussing John McCain's presidential candidacy in relation to this very same chart in a later Commentary-- yes, I will be dealing with the Republican side soon enough!).

I first came up with the prototype of this chart while still a sophomore in high school back in 1972 (I had a schedule of the Democratic Presidential Primaries culled from a national news magazine and used it as a kind of "scorecard" a-la the way one would score baseball games [a skill I myself had only recently learned from a now-long-deceased friend of mine who was ever the hardcore Baseball fan] in an attempt to keep track of what was happening in all these events [the number of Presidential Primaries had jumped from 16 in 1968 to 23 four years later] as they actually took place, week after week after week) and then tweaked this "scorecard" into pretty much the type of thing you now see on the site today during the Presidential Primaries in both Major Parties in 1976 (this occurring while I was in college in Boston [by which time the number of Presidential Primaries had increased to 30]).

What I discerned, as a result of using both '72 and '76 as (albeit only in retrospect) a kind of "field testing", was that there were, at least at the start, two most basic questions when it came to considering the results of a Presidential Primary (as opposed to the completely separate issue of how many delegates are actually pledged as a result of such a Primary [and, yes- as should be rather obvious to anyone who has looked over this very website- I do so well understand that "it's the delegates, stupid!"... but Primary election results are, nonetheless, useful statistical "snapshots" of the political situation "on the ground" in relation to a given Presidential Primary and its place within the overall intra-Party contest for (ultimately) the Presidency]):

1. did a presidential contender manage to win a Majority of the vote in a given Primary?


2. a.) if so: how big was the Majority? (I came up with three categories of Majority: Landslide [61% of the vote or more for a contender], Decisive [53% to 60% of the vote for the Primary victor] and Narrow [52% of the vote or less, but at least 50% + 1 vote for the winner]: note that the margin over the 2d place finisher is not at all a factor in any of these)

b.) if not: how close did the second place winner come to a contender so held under a Majority of the Primary vote?

I further came to the conclusion that the answers to the above questions could be used in so easily (if only by way of a "thumbnail sketch" of what was going on) analyzing the presidential nomination race as it actually transpired chronologically (Primaries which "tripped up" a presidential contender could be quickly seen in their actual context; the effect of so-called "protest votes" against an inevitable presidential nominee-presumptive later in the Presidential Primary "season" could be more fairly gleaned, etc.).

Now, please note the following from the 2008 version of this 'Presidential Primaries at a Glance' table:

Once 'Super Duper Tuesday' had already been held back on 5 February, Barack Obama (except in two Advisory "beauty contests"- Washington and Nebraska- held in States which were already in the process of pledging delegates via a Caucus/Convention system in which Obama had won the first-step Caucuses by a landslide) never failed to defeat Hillary Clinton by either a Decisive or Landslide Majority. Put another way: whenever Obama won a State's Presidential Primary (once he had taken- and thereafter held- the delegate lead for good, that is), he always won it handily.

Not so Mrs. Clinton! For she but narrowly defeated Obama in both Texas and Indiana- meaning that she ran into noteworthy "bumps on the road" after 5 February that Obama never faced in the States he would win. Moreover, Texas and Indiana were two States re: which any fair political and demographic analysis- the same fair analysis that, even before these Primaries were even held, suggested Senator Clinton would easily win Ohio, then Pennsylvania, followed by West Virginia and Kentucky- indicated Mrs. Clinton should have also won handily... but didn't.

In a nutshell, Mr. Obama always seemed to be able to do just what he had to do to stay ahead of Senator Clinton, while she did not always do what she needed to do in order to at all "reel him in"-- thus, she never caught him!

One can also, on this chart, look only at 'Super Duper Tuesday' itself (hindsight being not just 20-20 but also, at times, 20-15!) for signs and portents- foreshadowings, if you will- of what would transpire the rest of the way: Senator Clinton won narrowly in both Arizona and New Mexico (not even gaining a majority in the latter), which suggests (if only in retrospect) looming trouble in a state like Texas (one can here ignore Clinton's narrow victory in California: the Golden State being a veritable Imperium in imperio- in this case, a Nation-State within a Nation-State; thus, it is rather difficult to look at California and project it as portending anything definitive in relation to any other State of the American Union, since- politically speaking- it so closely resembles just about every other part of the United States in one respect or another [which, in turn, makes it unique among its sister States]!)

On the other hand, Obama was kept from winning Presidential Primaries in States he won that day handily (that is: with Decisive, if not even Landslide, majorities) in only two 5 February States- Connecticut (which should have been "Hillary territory"- after all, she did win Massachusetts, New Jersey and her own New York [all of these handily] that same day; and she would also win Rhode Island [also handily] later on) and Missouri (again, this was a State that should have more easily gone to Clinton for the same reason that Arkansas and Tennessee- and, later, Indiana and Kentucky- would be in her column). Again, Obama won States he was "supposed to win" by significant margins; not so Senator Clinton!

All in all, when one- indeed- takes but a "glance" at the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primaries, Senator Clinton seemed to have far more what might be called "lukewarm" support among the rank-and-file voters in many of the States she would win than Obama had in the States he would win... and one has to then ask (and answer) the simple question 'why?'

The main answer may lie within the large six-letter word so often seen at Obama's public appearances- CHANGE. Put another way: Senator Clinton's biggest asset (that she was a "known quantity"- and, in addition, hearkened back to an era for which many hard-core Democrats still waxed nostalgic [the two four-year Administrations of Bill Clinton]) was, paradoxically, also her greatest liability. For how could one, in the end, argue for being the very agent of such change- the very means and method through which the polarization in Washington could be assuaged- when one had been part and parcel of such polarization for nearly sixteen years (eight as First Lady, the rest as a United States Senator)?

Compared to Senator Clinton, Senator Obama's mere not quite four years serving in the Nation's Capital was something of a "fresh breeze"; indeed, far from being politically harmed by such "inexperience", his candidacy for the 2008 Democratic Presidential Nomination actually thrived on it!

There was also more to it than just this, too: for Senator Obama was a product of what might be- admittedly crudely- called the "post-1960s": that is, if you treat the 1960s (and its concomitant political, economic and sociocultural battles) as having run from- if only for the sake of convenience- the Free Speech Movement at Cal-Berkeley in 1964 through the Fall of Saigon (and the concomitant "last waltzes" of 60s-style mass protest in 1975 [I actually witnessed what is now considered "the last one" in Boston early that May, one which- indeed- felt, at the time, as if one era passeth])- Senator Obama only came of age in the aftermath of all this what can only be described as "the 60s" (even where it might have actually occurred in a year beginning with the numeral 197x).

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was- in many ways- the ultimate byproduct of the 1960s (as herein defined- that is, 1964 to 1975): she entered college during its earliest phases and, by its end, had already served as assistant counsel to the very House committee that had reported out Articles of Impeachment against President Richard Nixon not all that long before the latter's Resignation [Ms. Rodham would marry one William J. Clinton the very Fall after the Fall of Saigon]).

Mr. Obama appealed to many young people- those among the first time voters (though, granted, Senator Clinton had her own large cadre of supporters amongst these as well)- at least in part, because the 1960s was the stuff of the lives of these young persons' parents (or even, in more than a few cases, grandparents!) rather than their own. Martin Luther King, the Kennedys- while still important, if not also iconic, to even many a young Democrat- were merely names seen within the captions underneath black and white photos in high school and college American History textbooks... Woodstock? An old-fashioned something called an "LP" in Mom and Dad's record collection... and "Iraq" was what was the stuff of their concerns over war, not a place called "Vietnam".

This, of course, does not mean that the political and economic battles of the 1960s do not at all color the public marketplace of debate today. Indeed, much of the detritus of what came out of the that long ago era- whether Good, Bad or downright Ugly- still well imbues the Politics of the modern (or should I now say "postmodern" [;-)]) average sociocultural liberal (as it also does, albeit resulting in a rather different viewpoint, that of today's sociocultural conservative), regardless of chronological age. But the fact remains that Senator Clinton much more represented the various and sundry subject matter of these battles as it once was, as opposed to what it is now, than Senator Obama ever did, or could: fair or unfair as such representation, as so perceived, might be (supporters of Mrs. Clinton- as well as the New York Senator herself- well have the right to take all due umbrage at a notion that she could not reach out to the young through couching her 1960s-derived influence in terms of post-1960s proposals for action), the generational differences between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and the effect this might have had on the Democratic presidential nomination contest, should not be underestimated!

It is, therefore, no accident that Senator Clinton appealed more to the older Democratic Party voter (though, again, Obama had more than his fair share of supporters among this group as well)- for, lest we forget, "older Americans" includes an ever-increasing number of "Boomers" (as someone already in my 50s as well, I find myself constantly having to remind my same self that the older people of today are not "my parents' 'Old People' " [;-)]... I often find myself, say, telling a story to friends about how, earlier in my life, "some older guy..." only to suddenly have to come to terms with the fact that, right now, I am actually older than that "older guy" in my story!)

My generation? Hope I die before I get old, indeed! ;-)

Finally, I think that Senator Clinton simply ended up facing the "wrong" challenger (Senator Obama, of course) in the "wrong" scenario (a competitive two-person race for the presidential nomination that emerged "too early") for her to actually win that nomination. Had either of these circumstances- "wrong" challenger or "wrong" scenario- not ever come to pass, I have little- if any- doubt that Senator Clinton, and not Senator Obama, would be the Democratic Party nominee-presumptive as I type these very words.

Back in April 2007, now more than a year ago, I wrote a Commentary critical of the position, already being taken by many (but, by no means, all) within the upper echelons of the Wonderful Wacky World of American Political Punditry, that the ever-increasing "front-loading" (which had already led to 5 February 2008 becoming known as 'Super Duper' Tuesday) would mean that the presidential nomination contests in both Major Parties re: '08 would be over come 6, or at the latest, 7 February. I have little doubt that the campaign organizations of the various and sundry presidential contenders in both "Majors"- including that of Mrs. Clinton- did not themselves consider such a prospect to be at all the case (indeed, as regards most of them [those not in the so-called "top tier"], they so obviously couldn't).

But it also seems that Mrs. Clinton and her advisers thought that either at least two other Democratic contenders would continue to split the 'anti-Hillary' vote for a time after 5 February, allowing Senator Clinton to eventually build up an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates (perhaps as a result of those Primaries held on 4 March which would have favored her success more than that of anyone else?), or- in a two-person "horse race"- that her only competition (should it be such a two-person race) would be someone more along the lines of former Senator (and former Vice Presidential nominee) John Edwards (in which case, she- strangely enough- would have been "the fresh face" in that "horse race").

The emergence of Barack Obama, not only as a viable challenger but also, as things turned out, as her only serious challenger, was likely something for which, in many ways, her campaign had not been built (and this would explain her own downplaying of the, for the most part, early first-tier Caucuses in favor of more vehemently contesting Primaries, particularly in those States with the biggest Electoral Vote [usually for Democrats in more recent Presidential Elections] come November-- though her campaign seemed to, far too late, actually come to terms with the fact that even a big Primary win for her in one of these big-population, Democrat-trending States would, under the Proportionality of Democratic Party National Convention delegate distribution, also give a fairly large chunk of its delegates to a single challenger [thus, there is no way the Clinton camp could have been all that happy to have seen John Edwards bow out before 5 February]).

At any rate, the above are merely a few random thoughts- in the vein of "instant analysis" (as it comes less than a week after Senator Clinton has announced, at the National Building Museum in Washington, the suspension of her presidential campaign and her own endorsement of Senator Obama and but a little over a week after the final Presidential Primaries of this presidential nomination process)- on what actually happened to so derail the initial promise of a Hillary Clinton presidential nomination. Future historians and political scholars can, should they so desire, take what I have written herein for whatever it might be worth- such worth to only become most fairly considered once I myself am no longer around to even hear its ultimate value to them!

Modified .