Senator Obama's big wins in Wisconsin and Hawaii last night further cement a solid delegate lead that I believe will be carried through the upcoming Texas and Ohio primaries. At that point, calls for Senator Clinton to drop out will start to emerge from corners of the Democratic Party currently inclined to let her lose demonstrably in the first week of March, rather than be seen as betraying her at this moment of weakness. I do not see this campaign lasting past that.
Somewhat lost in this forward-looking analysis is any discussion of why Clinton got to where she is... how exactly her campaign has so unravelled. The post-mortems on the 2008 primary season are yet to be written. After all, there is no mortem yet, despite the lifelessness her campaign demonstrated yesterday. But I think Ezra Klein has written an excellent column that foreshadows what the post-mortems will say, barring any substantial surprise in the coming weeks:
These results, in fact, have less to say about Obama than they do about Clinton, and in particular, the collapse of her campaign. Her aura of inevitability has given way to a fight for relevance. She is no longer the default candidate--her losses are not confined to demographically unfriendly electorates or surprise upsets. They have become the norm for her campaign and are damaging the foundations of her candidacy.
Ezra turns first to notice that for both senators, this is the first tough electoral fight either has faced:
Obama's path to the Senate largely required him to step over the bodies of establishment candidates who self-destructed in scandal. Clinton's 2000 victory over Rick Lazio and her 2006 triumph over the forgettable John Spencer demonstrated little about her readiness for combat.
Of course, Hillary was present and participating in her husband's numerous electoral battles, something that, as Ezra points out, she tried to rely on as evidence that she was the one who had the well-oiled machine, the experience and preparation not just to win the election, but to be ready on the infamous Day One to be President of this country. This picture was a perfect fit for the clear front-runner who was expected to sweep through the primary process and thus needed to focus on general election themes.
Unfortunately, there does not appear to have been a Plan B. Perhaps more surprising than Clinton's status as an also-ran over the past several weeks has been her campaign's total inability to adapt to this new reality. This is the well-oiled machine, loaded with experience? All I've heard is whining about Michigan and Florida, and the endless merry-go-round about superdelegates. How about, you know, winning some primaries? Getting people to vote for you? That's what this little democracy thing is supposed to be about. As Ezra points out, Obama seems to understand how it works:
Obama's campaign, in Iowa, South Carolina, and elsewhere, made good on their promises to excite new voters. Additionally, the Obama campaign ran a disciplined, forward-looking operation. It methodically organized--and, as a result, dominated--the caucus states; it predicted early on that the contest would drag beyond Feb. 5 and was thus better prepared in the recent primaries; the campaign ran a tight ship with little dissension, few gaffes, and no damaging leaks.
Clinton's campaign has done exactly the opposite. Aside from an important win in New Hampshire, she has not overperformed in any state. Tactically, her strategists have made a series of massive errors: They were so stung by their loss in Iowa that they largely turned away from caucuses, a disastrous mistake as the race became more dependent on delegates; they thought the election would be over early on and were unprepared to go past Feb. 5, which is why her organizing in post-Super Tuesday states has been so poor; they appear, only now, to be thinking through the implications of Texas' hybrid primary/caucus system--and Texas is a must-win. No one thought to dispatch an intern to ask the state's Democratic Party, how would March 5 work? How savvy of a campaign operation could this be?
Not so savvy, as it turns out. I think when we look back at 2008 and all the campaigns that crashed and burned, Clinton's will be the most interesting to dissect. Edwards got the same voters he got four years ago, but unfortunately his opponents were much better this time around. He did about as well as anyone expected, I think, so there won't be much more to say.
On the Republican side, Giuliani never stood a chance with the conservative primary electorate, no matter what the national polls said, and his Florida-firewall strategy simply reflected that. Thompson was a media mirage, lured into the race by pundits who falsely promised he would be greeted by as a liberator by voters. Romney's money could only mask his vacuity for so long.
Clinton is the only candidate whose plummet will be worthy of studied reflection. If she somehow pulls out a victory, it will be a revival of Charles Finney proportions. If not, I'm sure some will blame sexism, or Bill Clinton. But the truth will probably be a mixed tale of hubris and the bad luck to run against a man named Obama.
UPDATE: Scott Lemieux has more.