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The Clinton Campaign

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Ezra and The World’s Most Dangerous Professor get in some shots before the plug is officially pulled. And, indeed, the late Penn/Ickes era of strategery is pretty much begging for mockery. What, for example, is this trying to accomplish? It’s 1)silly-to-appalling on the merits (with the particularly high comedy of a campaign dedicated to arguing that states don’t count if they’re too small, use caucuses, have too many black people, if Obama once spent a week there on vacation, etc. arguing that retroactively counting straw polls as elections is central to a “50 state strategy”), 2)not going to work directly because superdelegates aren’t going to reverse a loss in pledged delegates, and 3)unlikely to work politically (“if we go down narrowly we’re taking the Democratic Party with us” is unlikely to persuade many swing voters in Texas and Ohio to help stop the bleeding.) On the other hand, at this point such nonsense is just borne out of desperation; there’s no effective strategic means of getting out of the kind of hole the campaign finds itself in.

In some respects, then, I agree with Matt’s more charitable take although I’d put it a little differently: it was a failure to adapt. Pre-Iowa, the Clinton campaign was a logical frontrunner’s strategy well-executed. I agree with Matt that her communications and speech-writing people are good. What Iowa should have revealed, however, is that Obama was an unusual underdog not only because he has more compelling political gifts but — and this is the key — he had more resources. A frontunning strategy works against Huckabee, although he’s a better politician than his major competitors, because he just didn’t have the resources to compete outside of his base. Because Clinton almost but not quite squandered her big New Hampshire lead, she had a reprieve to react to Obama’s unique advantages, but she failed to do so; rather, her campaign seemed to think that their initial strategy was vindicated. It’s not exactly that the campaign intentionally left states on the table, but that focusing on big states usually allows the frontrunner to take the small states. However, Obama’s fundraising changed the usual calculus, and the Clinton campaign did blunder badly by failing to recognize this in time and not making the modest investment necessary to control Obama’s margins in small states.

In this sense, making fun of Mark Penn’s silly “states we lose don’t count” spin isn’t just a cheap shot, because it seems to reflect genuinely mistaken beliefs about the nature of this particular campaign. Usually, frontrunners can clean up small states off the momentum of big wins, but there’s nothing inevitable about this, and in a PR system failing to understand this is particularly costly. Clinton’s campaign did a lot of things well but could never react properly to the unique challenge posed by Obama.

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