The Underperformer

With a population that is more than 91 percent white, Wisconsin isn't African American enough for Bill Clinton to hint that it didn't count. As one of the 20 most populous states in the union, it's not small enough for Clinton's chief strategist, Mark Penn, to suggest it didn't rate. Because Wisconsin uses a primary, the Clinton campaign can't pretend it was noncompetitive because of a mysterious allergy to caucuses.

And so Wisconsin—which gave Barack Obama a resounding, double-digit victory last night—counted. It was Obama's ninth straight victory. With no excuses readily available, the Clinton campaign made none. Indeed, in the space the networks reserved for her concession speech, Clinton said nothing about Wisconsin at all, taking advantage of the media's tradition of televising the runner-up's congratulatory address to bait-and-switch them into covering an attack-laden "contrast" speech that never once mentioned the night’s results. Noticing this, the Obama campaign pushed up their speech. The networks promptly dropped Clinton to give uninterrupted airtime to the night’s winner. It was Clinton’s second loss of the evening.

But give her this: The Clinton campaign genuinely is the story coming out of Wisconsin. About Obama, there is little left to say. His victories have grown almost commonplace, his demographic disadvantages progressively slimmer. According to the exit polls, he fought Clinton to a draw among women, won among whites, and outpaced her among every income group. His was an across-the-board victory, startling in its completeness. But he has not become a much better candidate. His advantages—charisma, eloquence, a crackling aura of potentiality—have remained constant, as have his weaknesses. Without doubt, he's gaining some strength from simple momentum, but with Clinton still favored in Texas and Ohio, momentum is, at best, a partial explanation for his sudden strength.

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.

Before this campaign, neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama had been tested in a tough electoral contest. 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. Thus, unlike John Kerry in 2004, we've not heard much about them as "closers" nor heard tell of their stunning triumphs in tough campaigns (it's easy to forget how much of the Kerry myth was built around his upset victory of William Weld in Massachusetts). Instead, there's been a lot of meta-campaigning—campaigns about what good campaigns they would run.

Obama's argument, of course, was that his staggering charisma would activate whole new constituencies and overwhelm the political process with new voters. Clinton's claim was that her years in the trenches of national politics and her long experience battling Republicans had left her battle-tested and technically skilled—hers would be a disciplined operation that allowed no mistakes, made no missteps, permitted no leaks, and could be trusted to grind out a victory against whomever the Republicans nominated.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the nomination. 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?

Politically, the Clinton campaign has been, if anything, worse. The campaign repeatedly squandered advantages by overreaching on the attack and presenting surrogates it proved unable to control. Bill Clinton's frequent outbursts did not bespeak a disciplined campaign operation. Nor did Mark Penn's increasingly desperate spin, as when he suggested, in what Markos Zunigas called the "insult-40-states-strategy," that the true test of a campaign was its ability to win primaries in massive, heavily Democratic states like New York and California. The constant reports of campaign infighting didn't help, nor did the ceaseless leaks, like the one powering yesterday's (rapidly denied) Roger Simon story in which a "Senior Clinton Official" suggested that the campaign would try to poach pledged delegates.

For all Clinton's talk of bureaucratic mastery, a startling number of her Senate colleagues seem to be endorsing Obama, as are an impressive number of congressional Democrats (including Texas' Chet Edwards, who represents Texas' 17th Congressional District, the reddest district in America held by a Democrat). The campaign's talk of reseating the Michigan and Florida delegations, convincing superdelegates to go against the voters, and winning the nomination through other applications of convention skullduggery has elicited condemnation from no less a force than Nancy Pelosi, who will chair the convention.

Some of these mistakes, some of these leaks, some of this infighting, and some of this desperation are the inevitable outcome of a campaign behind the eight ball. Clinton's operation looked a lot more disciplined when she was the prohibitive front-runner. But explanations are not excuses, and it's growing increasingly hard for Clinton to argue that her experience and electoral discipline set her apart when the largest organization she's ever run—this campaign—is listing so badly and exhibiting a reality so far from the rhetoric. In her speech tonight, Clinton launched her broadside against Obama by saying that "while words matter, the best words in the world aren't enough unless you match them with action." The problem for her is that Obama has matched his words with actions, fulfilled his promises with votes. It's her campaign that rests on an increasingly precarious foundation of words and that needs to demonstrate results to match its rhetoric.