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Sunday, December 23, 2007
Why Hilary Clinton is Not Out of the Race Yet

Since October 30th's debate, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hilary Clinton (D-NY) has been (depicted as) sliding to parity with Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) in the crucial early states of Iowa and New Hampshire. After a very poorly performing summer, Obama seems back in his element, and, in combination with clever attacks by former Sen. and Vice-President nominee John Edwards (D-NC), the once inevitable Clinton machine, who had, in September seemed to have all but wrapped up the race, is vulnerable and poised for a defeat.

Supporters of Sen. Clinton for president, however, need not be worried for three reasons. One, the best part of the Clinton machine, and one of the reasons that she would make such a wonderful and effective executive, is its attention to detail and voter turnout. For those with longer political memories, you will recall the flap, earlier in 2007 (around May), then Sen. Clinton's campaign staff was thinking about skipping Iowa entirely and focusing its efforts on New Hampshire and South Carolina. Her main advisers knew that campaigning in the state was going to be a time and money suck, with little likelihood of a first place finish (particularly given Edwards has been living in the state since the end of the Kerry coalition). In fact, in May 2007, Sen. Clinton estimated support was 21% compared with 23% and 29% for Senators Obama and Edwards, respectively.

What did Sen. Clinton do in the face of such odds? Answer: enlist the support of former governor Tom Vilsack and Democratic legendary organizer Teresa Vilmain. According to the Wall Street Journal, "Ms. Vilmain first organized in Iowa in 1988, at age 29, working for eventual Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis. This time, Democrats' turnout in the state that kicks off the presidential race is expected to set a record, given excitement about the seven-candidate presidential field and the prospect of taking back the White House. More than at any time since the caucuses gained prominence 32 years ago, organizers such as Ms. Vilmain are searching for ways to draw voters who have never participated in a caucus." Vilmain and Vilsack, who together engineered a two-term victory for the Democratic governor, have built a formidable political network of enthused Clinton caucus goers.

They're hard work has paid off: in October, at the height of Clinton enthusiasm, Sen. Clinton had 29%, compared to 22% and 23% for Senators Obama and Edwards, respectively. (The month of November in the wake of the October 30th debate, however, was tough and now Clinton has sunk to 25%, with 28% and 23% for Obama and Edwards, respectively.) What's crucial to note is that at the time her campaign staff--the Clinton machine--made choices about investment strategies, Edwards and not Obama, and the prospects of an Edwards-Obama two-way race, were the greatest dangers for Clinton. Clinton's actions, and the experience of her team, made what should have been a cakewalk for Edwards and an easily media opportunity for Obama, into a competitive three-way race that for a long time she dominated.

The Clinton strategy has always relied on New Hampshire as its firewall, a lead that has been eroding since Obama found some holiday momentum. Rather than conceding, or sticking to the same strategy that she had been using, Clinton dispatched another Democratic legendary organizer, Michael Whouley, to New Hampshire.

Mr. Whouley is a wizard of turnout victories. Marc Ambinder summarizes the modern magician this way: "In 1992, Whouley served as national field director for the Clinton-Gore ticket. In 2000, Whouley is credited with forcing Gore to engage in more retail policking, a decision that helped to save his campaign in New Hampshire against Bill Bradley. In 2004, he helped John Kerry turn around his fortunes in Iowa. He was Kerry's anointed field czar in the general election, and, horrors, actually found himself conducting telephonic phone briefings with the press." Moreover, Whouley's proteges David Barnhardt and Karen Hicks have been in New Hampshire for months and designed the Clinton campaign's sophisticated turnout program, he as caucus director and she as the planner.

Second, Bill Clinton is big asset to her candidacy and campaign. His constant gaffes and screw ups are a bit annoying, but he still does have star power, and is one of the best centrist Democrat strategists whose actually run for the party's nomination. Unfortunately, former President Bill Clinton sucessfully came out of no where to win the nomination, and thus, by existing, give some of his legacy to Sen. Obama as well.

Third, the Democratic Coalition will probably pull through for Hilary in ways that it cannot for Obama or Edwards. Sadly, there is some decent statistical indicators that voting Latinos tend not to vote for black candidates and have negative perceptions of American blacks in general. I'm afraid that not only with the Latino vote tend toward Hilary in the Southwest, but might also defect to Republicans in the general election. (Now of course we have that whole immigration discourse to deal with, but we'll see.) Oddly, though, it's hard to know how much Latino support for Clinton will be off set by white support for Obama, precisely because he is black.

Moreover, significant portions of the black vote loves the Clintons and trust them, and centrist Democrats in general, to fight for middle and working class black issues. Senator Clinton has played her cards right in highlighting the gendered dimension of race, particularly with respect to AIDS and HIV, giving voice to discourses that many black politicians overlook when talking about the "community." The gender issue also plays well with working class women who tend to see the glass ceiling as something real and right above them. This sense of Senator Clinton putting in her time and working hard plays to their sympathies as well as attracts union support.

Lastly, gay and lesbians, particularly after the Donnie McClurklin flap, wonder what an Edwards or Obama Democratic party would look like for them. Even after the dreadful "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise that resulted from Bill Clinton polarizing the issue of gays in the military before he was willing to spend political capital, gay leaders seem to trust the Clinton's more (no surprises) that the more conservative Edwards and the more symbolically tied to black social conservatism Obama.