5 Mistakes Hillary Clinton Made in 2008 That She Can’t Afford to Repeat


Hillary Clinton recently confirmed the suspicions of politicos everywhere by announcing her bid for the presidency in 2016.  While she starts as the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination, she’ll need to battle some trends to win the election.  History shows that it’s very difficult for a party to win three consecutive terms in the White House, as it’s only been done once since Harry S. Truman followed FDR’s four-term bonanza.  Also, as she dutifully reminds everyone, she would be the first female US President.  President Obama’s middling approval ratings (and downright bad ones in some key states) will complicate her strategy as well.  So after some thought, I came up with some ways her campaign struggled then, and how she can improve upon them this time around, because it’s even more critical that she run a good campaign.

1. Overconfidence- This was probably the Clinton campaign’s biggest error in 2008. Hillary’s campaign had an air of inevitability surrounding it, almost trying to create the impression that she had a sort of royal birthright to the Presidency. When Barack Obama emerged as a challenger, she didn’t seem to take him seriously, figuring he’d only appeal to small pockets of Democratic voters.  By the time she realized the urgency of the situation, Obama had surpassed her in the delegate count.  She was able to blunt his momentum some with wins in larger and more blue-collar oriented states such as California, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.  But Obama maintained his delegate lead and clinched the nomination on June 3, 2008.  This brings me to my second point…

2. Fighting unwinnable fights- The Clinton campaign invested a tremendous amount time and energy in claiming that she was the rightful winner of the popular vote in the Democratic primaries. Campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe (now governor of Virginia) went on any political TV show that would listen and claimed that Clinton had, in fact, won the popular vote and thus deserved to be the nominee. First off, the nomination is decided by who wins the most delegates, which doesn’t necessarily mirror who wins the most votes (sort of like how the Electoral College determines the winner of the general election, not the popular vote).  Like it or not, those are the rules.  Second, her claim to winning the popular vote was dubious at best.  According to FactCheck.org, Obama won more total votes than Clinton in contests in which they both appeared on the ballot.  The only way Clinton could have claimed to win the popular vote is if both the Florida and Michigan primaries were included in the count.  These states had been stripped of their delegates because they had moved their primaries up past the earliest date allowed under Democratic Party rules, a decision that was made unanimously by the Democratic National Committee, even those on the committee who supported Clinton.  These primaries, then, weren’t contested by the candidates.  In fact, Obama’s name wasn’t even on the ballot in Michigan.  The only reason she suddenly wanted these votes counted is because they happened to benefit her.

But even including Florida and Michigan wouldn’t have resulted in a popular vote win.  If caucus states, where Obama dominated, were excluded, only then would she have had a slim popular vote lead.  By wasting her energy fighting for a wholesale change in the system that wasn’t going to happen rather than demonstrating to voters why she should be President, it damaged her image.  If something similar happens in 2016, she should give her opinion, make sure it’s heard, and then move on.  People will vote for someone if and only if you tell them why they should, and creating that narrative should be every political campaign’s first priority.

3. Everything is sexist- Another move the Clinton campaign made when backed up against the wall was to rail against the media for their supposed sexist coverage of her campaign. The campaign also claimed sexism nearly every time the Obama campaign criticized her. Notably, these claims were accompanied by few concrete examples.  Clinton’s claim of sexist overtones when the Obama campaign asked her to criticize Sarah Palin is difficult to prove, and while there were incidents in which media types made sexist statements about her, any preponderance of evidence that the media was trying to destroy her campaign because she was a woman is just not there.  Obama had isolated incidents of racist coverage and attacks by others too, but there weren’t many protests about racism coming from his camp.  He stayed on message, and Clinton would be wise to do so in 2016.  This doesn’t mean she shouldn’t respond when someone says something truly sexist, but she needs to avoid using it as an excuse when things don’t go as planned.

4. Lack of focus- Clinton was initially hailed for hiring a team full of strategic geniuses, but this resulted in a campaign that (see a pattern here?) had difficulty staying on message. Clinton’s campaign underwent a major reorganization in February 2008, creating instability at a critical time. Clinton’s campaign was also plagued by infighting over strategy.  For instance, Patti Solis Doyle stepped down as campaign manager in the reorganization, and campaign insiders confirmed that she had been ousted amid criticism over her handling of campaign funds and her failure to manage factional disputes within it, as well as not taking Obama’s challenge seriously.  This was the fourth attempt that had been made to remove her.  Mark Penn, Clinton’s chief strategist, was also a lightning rod in her campaign, arguing with many who had not wanted her to go negative against Obama.  Penn also attracted negative publicity when he resigned from the campaign after it was revealed that he had met with the Colombian government to discuss a free trade agreement that Clinton had opposed.  Clinton’s staff got caught up in the petty squabbles and nitpicky details of the campaign when a better focus on the big picture might have won her the nomination.

Mark Penn
Mark Penn

5. The same voices- This is related to the previous point, and admittedly my evidence for it is mostly anecdotal and based on my own observations of the 2008 campaign. Hillary predictably hired a lot of friends from her and her husband’s past campaigns to help her run in 2008. The Clinton network runs wide and deep, and she utilized it to its fullest extent.  While this is an understandable strategy, I think it created an echo chamber in which the campaign ignored critical problems.  I think Hillary would do well to incorporate a few alternative voices (maybe some veterans of either of Obama’s two runs) that could help her run a better-organized campaign that would ultimately carry her to victory over whoever the Republicans nominate.

While I think Clinton is committed to running a better campaign this time, she needs to keep the lessons of 2008 in mind.  If so, she will be able to win.  A focus on grassroots activism and microtargeting voters, as well as a great GOTV operation, worked well for Obama and will work well for her if she commits herself to them.  She would also be served to utilize the Internet and social media, as Obama effectively did.  Her rollout has been fairly successful so far, and I think she is well-positioned to move forward from her past campaigns.  Check back here for more posts analyzing the 2016 race as the Iowa caucuses draw nearer.

Hillary logo



One comment

  1. […] Clinton: I suppose my 2016 coverage has technically already started, because I wrote a post back in April about the mistakes Hillary Clinton made in her 2008 campaign. Her résumé is well documented: […]

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