Home | Opinion | Columnists | Mark Mellman

The real Clinton mistakes

A post-mortem on the Clinton campaign is premature, but it’s never too early to learn from mistakes. While everyone agrees mistakes were made, the nature of those errors remains a matter of debate.

• Early States vs. Many States — Some have opined that the Clinton campaign spent too much time and money on Iowa and New Hampshire at the expense of later states. I would suggest she dedicated too little to Iowa and the optimum to New Hampshire.

By the end of December, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) had each raised just over $100 million and, in principle, both had about the same number of campaign days. Yet the Clinton campaign allowed the Obama team to outspend them on Iowa TV by 40 percent and to have about the same advantage in campaign events. If she had done more events and more TV in Iowa, would Hillary Clinton have won? Impossible to prove the counterfactual, but it couldn’t have hurt, and there is no doubt that had Clinton won Iowa, she would be the presumptive nominee today.

Alternatively, had she not won New Hampshire, Clinton would have been forced from the race months ago.

So while some of her Iowa spending could have been misdirected, the truth is Clinton spent too little on what matters in Iowa and about the right amount in New Hampshire.

• Micro vs. Macro — Readers of Mark Penn’s Microtrends argue that his micro-messages failed against Obama’s macro-message of change. That too is not quite right. Clinton did have a macro-message early on — experience. It was just the wrong message. Every poll for two years demonstrated that Democrats prefer change over experience by 2 to 1. Good campaigns have both macro- and micro-messages, and in the very best, the two are inextricably linked.

• A Message vs. A List — While Clinton did develop a macro-message, for too much of the campaign she merely had a list of popular proposals. A strong message beats a good list.

• Big States vs. All States — To all appearances the Clinton campaign operated from the theory that only big states count; “small” states didn’t, and that was an error as big as they come. Clinton won more than twice as many states with over 100 delegates, while Obama won nearly three times as many states with under 50 delegates. Yet Clinton’s net advantage in those big states amounted to just three delegates, while Obama’s massive victories in the largely uncontested small states gave him a 55-delegate advantage over Clinton.

Put differently, Obama got a greater delegate advantage from his win in Idaho than Clinton did from her Ohio victory, and he generated a bigger delegate lead in Kansas than she wrested from New Jersey.

• Big Money vs. All Money — In the money chase, too, the Clinton campaign played by old rules, apparently unaware of just how much this game had changed. Through Feb. 29, Clinton had a nearly $7 million advantage with the big donors, though Obama led the money race overall by a staggering $39 million. The entire difference came from donors who gave $200 or less — the fruits of Obama’s effective Internet strategy.

By its own admission the Clinton campaign left this very profitable stone largely unturned until she was forced to lend her campaign money. Not everyone can turn the Internet into a gusher, but the simple fact is that her campaign did not work the medium nearly as hard as Obama did, and it paid off for him. That’s why he is once again wildly outspending her on TV, this time in Pennsylvania, putting a once-sure Clinton win in jeopardy.

Lots for everybody to learn.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982, including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004.