5 Things Mitt Romney Can Learn From Hillary Clinton's 2008 Presidential Run


A version of this article originally appeared on the Harvard Political Review. Follow the HPR on Twitter @HarvardPolitics.

Let’s take this scenario: A highly successful politician from a well-known political family decides to run for president, starting to unofficially prepare for a run years in advance. Confident about their chances, they assume the title of presumptive nominee far before the primaries begin.

But they can’t make the sell. Seen as polarizing, out-of-touch, and entitled, their support hits a ceiling. Despite pouring in millions, they lose Iowa to a surging candidate people didn’t take seriously. They win New Hampshire, though, regaining the mantle of inevitability. Nevada bolsters their credentials, but their percent of the vote in South Carolina is embarrassing. And February is somewhat of a disaster, with the potential to derail their campaign entirely.

We could be talking about Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State and former 2008 Democratic presidential candidate, or Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor running for the Republican nomination this year. The Clinton-Romney comparisons have been made for a while now, the comparisons are now becoming even more evident and noteworthy. As a Clinton supporter, I followed her campaign very closely in ‘08, and the parallels between her campaign and Romney’s are striking. There are a number of takeaways from Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign that Romney should keep in mind:

Take caucuses seriously. Hillary Clinton famously won only one caucus in Nevada. The terribly flawed caucus system which made her leave Texas with a delegate deficit was completely non-representative of her support in several states. The numbers are surprising: In Idaho, Clinton won 17% of the binding caucus vote, but 36% in the non-binding primary. In Washington, she won only 31% in the caucus but came within striking distance of Obama with 46% in the primary. In Nebraska, the story was similar. In each of these cases, the primaries were just held for fun, but display clearly part of the reason why Obama ended the race way ahead in pledged delegates. And of course, in Texas, where Clinton won the primary, a third of the delegates were given away in a sketchy caucus that Obama won with 56% of the vote. Romney took quite a hit in Minnesota and Colorado recently, un-won Iowa, and may not have won Maine. Caucuses, other than Nevada, have not been great for him. Caucuses are a great way to fall behind in delegates for no good reason, and pouring money into caucus states doesn’t work, as both Clinton and Romney have seen.

Don’t let yourself be the underdog. A supposed frontrunner should really try to avoid spending the majority of the race with their back against the wall. Yes, that’s when Clinton performed best, but ultimately, it wasn’t enough for her to win, and didn’t do much for her media narrative. Her memorable March 4th victory speech included a shout-out to underdogs. “For everyone here in Ohio and across America who’s ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, and for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up, this one is for you.” But it’s hard to be an underdog when you are a popular former First Lady or governor with tremendous establishment influence.

Don’t ignore the “first” factor. In today’s unfortunately unequal society, where discrimination on the basis of gender and religion is still very much a problem, Romney and Clinton both have had to grapple with the problem of being the first Mormon or woman to come close to the presidency. Romney, seeking the nomination of a party with a serious religious litmus test, attempts to downplay his religion, as Clinton, with her short hair (which is now much longer, incidentally) and pantsuits tried to draw the focus away from her gender. It was only too late that Clinton realized how significant her run actually was, when Sarah Palin, who symbolized a whole different set of gender stereotypes, single-handedly iceberged Clinton’s efforts to make the national stage one where women would feel welcome. Yet Romney’s religion is perhaps not a huge barrier the way Clinton’s gender was, and overcoming it would not be the historic accomplishment Clinton’s win would have been.

Don’t discount third-wheel candidates. One of the Clinton campaign’s unfortunate mistakes was not being concerned enough about John Edwards. He came second in Iowa and won a fair amount of the South Carolina vote, making Clinton’s losses in those states that much worse. Romney’s failing to take Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich – all of whom have spun around in third-wheel status at some point in this campaign – has seriously hurt him in almost every state there has been a race.

Never trust the establishment. For the bulk of the 2008 campaign, after the dust had settled from the first two months of primaries, Barack Obama was the establishment candidate. The same establishment, famously characterized by the ritzy cadre of “superdelegates” that were to hand Clinton the nomination, abandoned her in a heartbeat when it looked like Obama was going to win. Clinton calmly waited until 2008 to run, cheering on John Kerry in 2004; he did not return the favor, and now seems interested in her spot at State. The very Ted Kennedy who had famously defenestrated the Carter campaign in 1980 called for Clinton to quit; his niece Caroline, another Obama supporter, hypocritically leaped at the chance to grab Clinton’s senate seat after the election. Clinton superdelegates jumped ship faster than Francesco Schettino when the Obama train became fashionable. Bitterness and jealousy towards the Clintons, a self-made political success story, led delegates to back Obama, whom they had no reason to hold personal grudges against. Romney has been leaning on the establishment far too much this campaign, rolling out fancy endorsement after endorsement – but that hasn’t been resonating with the voters, who are leaning towards Santorum possibly because he isn’t the establishment’s poster boy. As long as high-profile insiders keep telling GOP voters who they should be supporting, they’ll sound patronizing and won’t make the sell.

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