Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

Explaining Clinton’s turnaround

Hillary Clinton’s New Hampshire comeback was nothing short of remarkable. While the erroneous polling (about which more in a future column) raised expectations for Barack Obama, the simple truth is that if polling had been banned during those five days and we had only historical precedent and crowds by which to judge, nearly everyone would have predicted an Obama win. And, with the possible exception of the candidate herself, everyone did.

Four central factors account for Clinton’s nearly miraculous revival:

By raising questions about the extent to which Obama represented real change, she made inroads among “change” voters.

Clinton also added “empathy” voters to her coalition — a group that supported John Edwards in Iowa.  With Sens. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Chris Dodd (Conn.) out of the running, Clinton consolidated her “experience” base.  In stark contrast to her performance in Iowa, Clinton forged an emotional connection with New Hampshire voters.

In New Hampshire, as in Iowa, voters who preferred a candidate of change outnumbered those who prioritized experience by almost three to one, and Obama got a similar share of that group in both early states. But with Sen. and President Clinton both making the case for her as a change agent — and by calling into question the degree to which Obama represented real change — Clinton increased her share of the “change” vote by nearly 10 points.

Second, Clinton won over a new bloc of voters — economically hard-pressed individuals who most wanted a president who “cares about people.” In Iowa this segment comprised nearly one in five voters, and Edwards beat Clinton among them by two to one. Five days later Edwards had faded and Clinton won this group, doubling her support with “empathy” voters.

Clinton also benefited from the withdrawals of Sens. Biden and Dodd, as well as from New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s faltering effort. In Iowa, Clinton campaigned largely on experience, but she had to share that vote with others, capturing 49 percent of those who cited that as their top priority. With other candidates out of the way, Clinton consolidated this vote, garnering 71 percent of “experience voters” in New Hampshire.

Finally, we come to the role of emotion. In previous columns I’ve explored the role of emotion in politics and described the importance for candidates of forging an emotional connection with voters. Last week I noted Hillary Clinton had failed in this respect in Iowa, leaving Obama to accomplish that important goal. In New Hampshire, Clinton demonstrated she too could play on that turf. While the now-famous tearing-up moment certainly crystallized that connection, it was only part of the story. The pressure she was under, the vituperative derision spewed by the tabloid press against a well-liked figure, and the fact that she threw away her scripted stump speech to speak from the heart all built toward that emotional moment.

Moreover, the moment itself was more than just a display of emotion on her part. Through the catch in her voice, she delivered central elements of her message in a highly charged sound bite, heard ’round the clock. It was about change — “I see what’s happening. And we have to reverse it.” It was about experience — “Some of us are ready, and some of us are not. Some of us know what we will do on day one, and some of us haven’t thought that through enough.” It was about vision — “It’s about our country. It’s our kids’ futures. It’s really about all of us together.” In that moment Clinton communicated her message in the most emotionally compelling framework possible.

Clinton lost Iowa on message and emotion, but won New Hampshire the same way.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leaders of both the House and Senate.