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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Clinton Understood Surface, Not Spirit, Of Caucuses

Clinton Understood Surface, Not Spirit, Of Caucuses

Though polls show Barack Obama ahead in Iowa, it's still an open question.  If the math between Obama and John Edwards breaks just right, and if Hillary Clinton succeeds in getting out her targeted older women who haven't caucused before, she could still win. 

But strategic changes early on for the Clinton campaign leave questions.  Could she have closed the deal in Iowa?  And how much did the efficient Team Hillary machine really get the unscripted authenticity and spontaneity of the Iowa caucuses?

After the Clinton rally last night in Iowa City, a Clinton precinct captain sighed in frustration and, insisting on anonymity, shared this story.  The precinct captain's friend, a school principal, had said he was trying to choose between Clinton and Barack Obama.  He was on his way into the rally when his cell phone rang.  It was Obama.

Not a campaign staffer, a volunteer, or a robo-call.  It was Barack Obama himself.

The personal request proved to be sufficient, as the principal pledged his support directly to the candidate, turned on his heels, and walked out of the Clinton event.

Now, we all know Iowans are spoiled, and I've heard some stories of Clinton calling individual Iowans, albeit Iowans of the elected official rank.  But the Clinton precinct captain told this tale as an example of frustration with the top-down organization of the Clinton campaign.  An Obama precinct captain was able to get the word up through the county and state structure that this principal, not a party activist but certainly a neighborhood leader who'd look really persuasive standing in the Obama corner at his precinct, could be persuaded by a few words from the candidate.

The Clinton campaign, in contrast, ran a cautious general election campaign in the ultimate retail environment.  But like a singer with perfect pitch who misses the meaning of the song, Clinton kept errors to a minimum but failed to capture the spontaneous spirit of the caucuses.  She started out doing one on one meetings with undecided local activists, but as her national lead held, Clinton moved toward a "general election strategy," as she said at a debate.  By the time Obama was catching up in the fall, it was too late to go back and adapt.

No one incident captures this perfectly, but little detail after little detail paints the picture.

A staffer subtly steering me away from a friend of many years, directing her to the public seats and me to the roped off press area.  Offering the press free pizza after the speech, rather than what we really wanted: time to ask the candidate a question.  The relentless focus on sign war at cattle call events, bringing in loads of staffers and making it harder to ferret out the genuine levels of support.  The careful release, then quick denial, of a strategy memo last spring arguing that Clinton should skip Iowa, underscoring her relative weakness in the state and inoculating her against expectations.  Supporters leaving the Harkin Steak Fry after Clinton spoke without hearing the rest of the candidates, as if to send a scripted message of "I'm only here for Hillary."

Clinton was the only candidate who did not do a question and answer event at the University of Iowa or the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council, and got caught red-handed planting questions at Grinnell.  Even little stuff like Chelsea Clinton smiling but saying not a word from the stage, and no-commenting a nine-year-old child reporter, made the campaign look too careful, too cautious.

A University student who attended a rally in Manchester reported that he was not allowed in until he put on a Hillary sticker, and said that at the end of the speech Clinton offered the crowd a choice: "I can answer some questions, OR, I can shake some hands."  The crowd roared its approval at the chance to meet, maybe even touch, the woman who would be president.

Some of this touch the hem of the garment dynamic was also present at Obama events.  But in general, Obama seemed more relaxed and less rehearsed.  His speech focused on a big picture, while Clinton set out to demonstrate her encyclopedic policy knowledge with a long laundry list of domestic policy.  After some grumbling (mostly from Edwards supporters) that Obama wasn't taking enough questions, he adapted and did more public Q and A.

John Edwards, in contrast, took public questions almost every time I saw him,  (The exceptions were two issue-specific events at which he didn't do the standard speech, the SEIU endorsement and a foreign policy address.)  And at the end of every speech, the staff worked the press platform and directed us to a media availability - sometimes only three questions, but still an opportunity.

Unlike Obama and Clinton, Edwards had the luxury of traveling outside the Secret Service bubble, which had to have helped - it's hard to be loose under heavily armed guard, when access to the candidate is controlled by coveted, coded pins.  But Edwards' more natural style probably had more to do with having been through Iowa before, as an asterisk candidate most of the way before that stunning climb to second place.  He's also, more than the other two front runners, bet the ranch on Iowa.  (So have the second tier - because they have no other choice.)

The Clinton campaign may have been floating some trial balloons last night.  The candidate commented late in the speech that caucus goers are "standing up for those who can't caucus" - citing troops in the Middle East and shift-working nurses and waitresses.  The implication is that those folks would be with her, if only they could make it to the caucus, and it sets a stage for a sotto voce Beltway narrative of "well, you know, Iowa's got this screwy process and it was really stacked against her."

A campaign operative also hit me with the idea that "there may not be a decisive result."  This lets team Clinton dismiss a close third as "a three way tie."  That's not likely to play in press shorthand.  A headline has only so many picas, and a win, by whomever and however narrow, is a win.  However convoluted our results are, they're still the first real results, and they won't be brushed off.

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