Hillary Clinton didn't lose the race for the nomination. Barack Obama won it.

Media criticism.
June 4 2008 5:10 PM

Hillary Didn't Lose. Barack Won.

An idiosyncratic reading of today's presidential campaign post-mortems.

In the Hillary Clinton-for-president campaign post-mortems today, reporters can't resist explaining how Clinton lost.

The most comprehensive piece, by Wall Street Journal political ace Jackie Calmes, finds that Clinton was "positioned to be Democrats' 'inevitable nominee' "  before she "called the biggest plays, and … got them wrong." Unnamed sources inside the Clinton campaign ("people," "insiders," "staffers," "colleagues," "critics," "top aides," "supporters in Congress," "advisers," etc.) list the mistakes that "boil down to mismanagement, message, mobilization failures and the marital factor." Clinton neglected to "humanize" herself in time. She blew the caucuses. She didn't "acknowledge the 'Clinton fatigue' felt by many Democrats."

Calmes continues:

Sen. Clinton's management choices, it is widely agreed, gave rise to fatal strategic blunders. The main one, in the eyes of many associates, was her message: She emphasized her Washington experience when voters wanted change.

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Washingtonpost.com's Chris Cillizza points to New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney's "what went wrong" piece from May 20, in which Nagourney inventories Clinton's self-inflicted wounds—not resolving the Florida and Michigan primary dispute to her advantage, booting the question about illegal immigrants' driver's licenses at the debate, not fitting Bill Clinton with a hard bit and a tight bridle (my words). To this list, Cillizza adds Clinton's decision to market herself as the experienced candidate instead of as the passionate one, her choice to run in the Iowa caucuses instead of skipping them, "creative tensions within her innermost circle of advisers," and her underestimation of Obama.

Even the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, which give primary emphasis to explaining how Obama won, not how Clinton lost, still catalog Clinton's big miscues. According to the Post,they are failure to compete aggressively in the caucus states, investing too heavily in a Super Tuesday landslide, and overreliance on state party organizations. The Los Angeles Times reiterates the Post's list and throws in pushing "experience" in a year when voters wanted change and a lack of presidential-primary experience among the Clinton brass. Clinton attempted "to run a general election campaign, aimed at the political center, in a contest dominated early on by liberal voters," the paper reports.

But evidence that Clinton ran a fairly OK campaign, while Obama ran one that simply got better and better, can be found in a chart reproduced in the Journal story from Real Clear Politics data, which averages the national polls since October. (See this larger version of the chart.)

Wall Street Journal via Real Clear Politics.
Source: Wall Street Journal from data provided by Real Clear Politics

Here's my two cents, idiosyncratic as they may be: According to the chart, Clinton's national poll average was basically unchanged between the beginning of October and the middle of May, starting at about 41 percent and ending at about 42 percent. Although Clinton verged on 50 percent of the average poll and dipped to just below 40 before the New Hampshire primary, her numbers remained relatively steady. Meanwhile, Obama's numbers started at about 22 percent in October and rose faster than CO2 levels in the atmosphere, breaking 50 percent at the end.

One interpretation of the average poll data—my interpretation—is that as the field of candidates thinned and undecideds got off the pot, they migrated to Obama in huge numbers, first after the Iowa caucuses and then before Super Tuesday. Clinton, on the other hand, was a candidate whose market share was fixed. She never really expanded from her core of support, despite the many style, substance, and personnel changes she made during the campaign and no matter how much money she spent. And even then, she just barely lost the delegate count.

So the real story, which the Post and the Los Angeles Times detail nicely in their separate ways, is that Obama won by winning, not by Clinton losing.

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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