Who's To Blame For Clinton's Recent Stumbles?

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DECEMBER 12, 2007

Who's To Blame For Clinton's Recent Stumbles?

Mark me down as blaming the Clinton campaign-staff in the competing staff-versus-candidate explanations for Hillary's recent troubles. It's true, as Adam Nagourney notes in a piece touching on both theories, that Clinton may have had "trouble mastering the political intricacies" of Iowa. But are those things really up to the candidate to figure out?

Take this example from Nagourney:

Mrs. Clinton spent much of the early part of the year working huge rallies in the state’s major news media markets in the belief that the coverage would reverberate into the more sparsely populated areas. But that is not the way things work in Iowa.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Edwards methodically worked rural areas, appreciating the importance of personal appeals to small groups of voters. Over the last six weeks, Mrs. Clinton has opened satellite offices and intensified her visits to rural Iowa.

Well, who was the strategic genius who didn't realize rural areas need to be courted on their own terms?

For what it's worth, I get the same impression--mediocre staff-work--talking to people out here. I mentioned a Polk County (i.e., Des Moines) supervisor named Tom Hockensmith in my recent piece about Obama. Hockesmith told me he endorsed Obama after meeting with both him and Clinton. The Clinton meeting consisted of a handshake and a few seconds of pleasantries (though it did come after Hockensmith introduced the Clintons at a gathering of local pols and activists, which he was flattered to do). The Obama conversation lasted more than half an hour--basically till Hockensmith ran out of questions. When I asked Hockensmith why he went with Obama, he ticked off a few of the senator's winning qualities, then complained he was really hoping for a more substantive conversation with Clinton.

Likewise, this in today's New York Daily News sort of rang true to me:

Another Democrat with close connections to the Clinton campaign describes Bill Clinton as "very engaged and very agitated. He's yelling at [chief strategist] Mark Penn a lot." ...

A source close to the former First Couple criticized recent campaign ads as lacking focus, faulting [pollster and chief strategist Mark] Penn the most for failing to fine-tune the message: "The key problem is not the spots, but what they're saying."

If you read former Penn partner Doug Schoen's memoir, you know that Penn is a believer in going negative. It wouldn't shock me if he had a role in the recent ham-handed attacks on Obama (though they didn't come as ads), in which case Bill is probably right to yell.

--Noam Scheiber

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