Defeat can be a much better teacher than victory. Hillary Clinton entered the 2008 nomination as the odds-on favorite, but in a stunning upset, lost to a young senator from Illinois. Her loss was emotionally searing but politically educational. Specifically, she learned three lessons that she has been applying during the 2016 contest.
First, organize the caucus states. Assuming that primaries were the main event of 2008, the Clinton campaign failed to put enough money and labor into the caucuses (though she did win Nevada). In the end she actually edged out Obama among delegates from states with contested primaries, but Obama became the inevitable nominee by building an insurmountable lead in the caucus states. This time, she is not taking the caucuses for granted, and her superior organization enabled her to prevent a surging Sanders from winning Nevada.
Second, pay attention to the superdelegates. The Democratic Party provides a certain number of convention seats (712 in 2016) to elected officials and other party figures who are free to exercise their own judgment. In 2008, Obama worked the superdelegates much more skillfully than Clinton, even persuading some high-profile Clinton supporters (e.g., Rep. John Lewis of Georgia) to switch sides. This time, Clinton already has the support of more than 400 superdelegates. Expect her campaign to keep careful watch on them: there will be no poaching in this field of delegate dreams.
Third, hang on to the African American vote, which accounts for a huge chunk of the Democratic electorate. Surprising as it may seem today, Clinton started the 2008 campaign with a big advantage over Obama among African Americans. After Obama won Iowa, however, this constituency shifted in his direction. In 2016, Clinton does not have to worry about battling a charismatic African American senator. Still, she is taking no chances, and her campaign surrogates are constantly belittling the depth of Bernie Sanders’s commitment to civil rights. The Clinton line of attack has produced an odd side effect: the Sanders campaign is crowing at the discovery of 1963 photo showing Chicago police grabbing Sanders at a civil rights protest. It is quite rare for candidates to brag about their arrest records, but this novel approach is probably not enough to overcome Clinton’s long ties with civil rights leaders. In Nevada, Clinton won 76 percent of African American caucus-goers, compared with just 22 percent for Sanders.
If Hillary Clinton learned useful lessons from her earlier failure, Jeb Bush learned the wrong lessons from his family’s success. He planned to start the campaign with a huge warchest and list of endorsements, just as George W. Bush had done before the 2000 campaign. This “shock and awe” strategy aimed to intimidate other candidates so Bush could clinch the nomination early in the season.
Under certain circumstances, that strategy could make sense, but in this case, it underestimated the liabilities of the Bush name. Conservatives lament the expansion of government during the last Bush administration, and many other voters have bad memories of the Iraq War. The strategy also overlooked the demagogic appeal of a billionaire celebrity.
In 2000, George W. Bush essentially secured his nomination by defeating John McCain in the South Carolina primary. Sixteen years later, that same state put an end to his brother’s campaign.