Why we should remember what happened in the 2008 Democratic primary

Hillary Clinton led Barack Obama in dozens of polls of Democratic primary voters from late 2006 into early 2008. According to this huge list at RealClearPolitics, Obama didn’t once break 40 percent in any major polls until the end of January/early February 2008.

Clinton was a huge favorite going into the primary season and had strong backing from the party establishment. Obama had lots of things against him, including limited national political experience, a strange name, and influential super-delegates who had decided to back Clinton early.

Of course, Clinton had plenty of things working against her too, and many voters — including me in a letter to the New York Times — argued against the return of “Clintonian testiness” to the White House. At the time, I wrongly thought that Obama would have better luck working with Republicans in Congress.

This history is worth remembering now in 2016. Bernie Sanders supporters especially need to recall what happened in 2008. Yes, it was entirely possible for an insurgent candidate to beat Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.

How did the Obama team best Clinton, while the Sanders team has failed? There are obviously many ways of answering that question, but there is one key: implementing a campaign strategy that would maximize delegate accumulation.

The Democratic primary process allocates delegates in proportion to the popular vote. There are quirks to the numbers based on a variety of factors — like which Congressional districts have odd numbers of delegates — but the final delegate count in each state is very close to the popular vote. The Obama team did an especially impressive job of taking advantage of low-turnout anti-democratic caucuses, of minimizing losses, and of maximizing wins.

Take a look at the delegate counts at RealClearPolitics for every contest in 2008.

In 2008, there were 3434 pledged Democratic delegates, and Obama ended up beating Clinton by only 127 — 1766.5 to 1639.5. The primary order was different from 2016, which is worth remembering, but it’s still instructive to look at the general sequence of events.

At the end of January, Obama led Clinton by a few delegates, and then came the 23 contests on Feb. 5th. Clinton had big wins in California (+38 delegates), New York (+46), Massachusetts (+17), and Arkansas (+19), but Obama fought Clinton to a virtual draw on that day because of wins like his home state of Illinois (+55) and because of some really strong caucus showings, including taking 48 of 72 delegates in Minnesota, 14 of 23 in Utah, 15 of 18 in Idaho, and 10 of 13 in Alaska.

And then, while the Clinton campaign’s organization seemed in disarray, the Obama campaign reeled off an impressive string of wins from Feb. 9th to 19th:

Virgin Islands: Obama 3 – Clinton 0
Nebraska: Obama 16 – Clinton 8
Louisiana: Obama 34 – Clinton 22
Washington: Obama 52 – Clinton 26
Maine: Obama 15 – Clinton 9
Democrats Abroad: Obama 4.5 – Clinton 2.5
District of Columbia: Obama 12 – Clinton 3
Maryland: Obama 42 – Clinton 28
Virginia: Obama 54 – Clinton 29
Hawaii: Obama 14 – Clinton 6
Wisconsin: Obama 42 – Clinton 32

In those contests alone, Obama picked up 123 more delegates than Clinton. (Remember that his final lead was only 127.)

And, in terms of the math, the contest was pretty much over.

Clinton stayed in the race until June. She had some solid wins in the final months including Ohio (+7 delegates), Pennsylvania (+12 delegates), West Virginia (+12 delegates), Kentucky (+23 delegates), and Puerto Rico (+21 delegates), but Obama was able to hold serve, as it were.

Understandably, Clinton supporters did not want to believe that Obama had built an insurmountable lead in pledged delegates before the end of February, but he had. It’s worth recalling, though, that back in 2008 we didn’t have the social media connectivity that we do today. My sister and I routinely discussed Obama’s overwhelming lead of 100+ delegates, but I wasn’t getting into fights on Facebook (I wasn’t even on Facebook yet in early 2008) about basic mathematics.

And the national press did what it tends to do — they continued to talk about the horse race aspects of the nomination fight, and they left readers with the impression that the pledged delegate count was closer than it was. Surely, trailing by just a few percentage points, Clinton still had a viable path forward?

No, she did not.

Is there anything Clinton could have done to win the 2008 primary? I’m not going to try to answer that question in detail, but a more finely tuned campaign organization probably could have been more competitive in caucuses. But Obama was an exceptional candidate in a variety of ways, and once black voters — especially black women — began to view him as a viable nominee, Clinton probably didn’t have a chance.

One Clinton argument turned out to be a non-starter. Even though Hillary Clinton had many super-delegates on her side early on and was seen by many as more electable in the general election than Obama, there was no way those party officials were going to deny the nomination to the clear winner of the pledged delegates.

So let’s bring this conversation forward to 2016.

Consider the 2016 primary schedule and the results, so far.

After Iowa, Nevada, and New Hampshire, the race turned to South Carolina on Feb. 27th, where Clinton won over 73 percent and took 39 of 53 pledged delegates. I was sitting in my parents’ home in Kentucky that night, fairly bored, but my jaw dropped when I saw Clinton’s margin. It was obvious to anyone who follows the numbers that Sanders had monumental work to do in the South, especially among black voters, if he wanted to remain a viable candidate after the contests on March 1.

So that very night I found a live stream of Sanders talking about the S.C. results — from Minnesota. Yes, he had been to Texas earlier that day, but by evening he was in Rochester, Minnesota. On Feb. 29th, he held a big rally in Minneapolis. It turns out that he spent a lot of time before the S.C. primary in other states, especially ones where he faced smaller deficits.

I was astounded by this bizarre travel schedule. My reasoning was simple: if Sanders continued to perform so badly with black voters and if he got swept across the South by similar margins, his campaign was going to fail quickly.

Sure enough, on March 1st, Sanders did well in a few places and got trounced in others:

Alabama: Clinton 44 – Sanders 9
American Samoa (caucus): Clinton 4 – Sanders 2
Arkansas: Clinton 22 – Sanders 10
Colorado (caucus): Clinton 25 – Sanders 41
Democrats Abroad: Clinton 4 – Sanders 9
Georgia: Clinton 73 – Sanders 29
Massachusetts: Clinton 46 – Sanders 45
Minnesota (caucus): Clinton 31 – Sanders 46
Oklahoma: Clinton 17 – Sanders 21
Tennessee: Clinton 44 – Sanders 23
Texas: Clinton 147 – Sanders 75
Vermont: Clinton 0 – Sanders 16
Virginia: Clinton 62 – Sanders 33

So on that day Clinton took 160 more delegates than Sanders. Game over.

Really, game over? How can you say that?

I suppose the Sanders campaign could have made dramatic changes to their campaign strategy at some point immediately after that shellacking, but it was soon clear that no significant changes were in the offing.

And then there was the fact-free internet commentary like this piece at the Huffington Post about how Sanders actually won on March 1!

By this time, the Sanders team had clearly signaled its preference for symbolic victories and for “winning states” rather than for accumulating delegates. It was a strategy doomed to failure from the beginning.

In the many weeks since that March 1st trouncing, Sanders has continued to double down on that strategy and has tried to minimize Clinton’s wins in the South and therefore her dominance among black voters.

Are there things the Sanders campaign could have done to improve the Senator’s standing among southern voters generally and non-white voters specifically? Absolutely. Are there things they could have tried even in the final few days to minimize their losses? Maybe.

But Sanders opted not to change course, and seemed to assume that a few high-profile wins — even if they netted him relatively few delegates (Michigan, for example) — would change the “momentum” of the race.

As it turned out, the strategy continued to excite his supporters and bring in millions of dollars, but it failed to change the dynamic of the race, and Sanders continued to perform miserably with non-white voters. On March 15th, Clinton picked up 104 more delegates than Sanders in Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio. Sanders had a nice run of impressive caucus wins later in the subsequent weeks — Idaho, Utah, Alaska, Hawaii, and Washington — but Clinton undid that damage with big wins in large diverse states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

So who has the momentum now?

No one. There has been virtually no momentum in the 2016 Democratic primary. Sanders has done better in low-turnout caucuses than could have reasonably been expected, but he has failed to make significant headway with some core Democratic constituencies.

Before the primaries got underway, the data journalists at FiveThirtyEight tabulated contest-by-contest targets for each candidate. These were not predictions but merely targets: if Sanders or Clinton is on the path to the pledged delegate majority, about how many delegates should he/she win in each state?

So far, Clinton has matched or exceeded her delegate target in 35 contests and fallen below her target in 13. Sanders has matched or exceeded his delegate target in 20 contests and fallen below his target in 28. Clinton has matched or exceeded her target in 13 of the last 14 contests going back to April 5th. In other words, she might not be winning in the most recent states to vote, but she would be doing well enough to be headed to the nomination even if she and Sanders were in a virtual tie.

Of course, they aren’t tied. Clinton is way, way ahead.

Now it seems the Sanders campaign is tripling down on its failed strategy. All the talk is about California, a state that Sanders could conceivably win on June 7th, but the Sanders team is downplaying New Jersey, where the demographics make a win less likely. And even if Sanders manages a 20 point win in California — that would be huge! — he’d only make up about 90 delegates, nowhere near enough to dig out of his 270 delegate hole.

Clinton is certainly going to head to the convention with a strong lead in pledged delegates, and it’s likely to be far, far higher than Obama’s lead in 2008. Sanders has been arguing all along that the super-delegates should not exist, but now his campaign is arguing that those very super-delegates should overrule the popular vote. That argument is nonsensical and hypocritical.

The Sanders team has convinced many of their supporters that the whole system is rigged, a cynical argument that flies in the face of recent history. Just eight years ago, an insurgent candidate knocked off the party favorite, and the Obama team won by understanding the rules and playing the game better than the Clinton team did.

Was Sanders hurt by the purge of inactive voters from the voter lists in Brooklyn? Maybe, but Clinton won Brooklyn handily and many of the inactive voters were likely last active in 2008, when Obama won. In other words, any purge of inactive voters in Brooklyn probably hurt Clinton worse than Sanders.

What about the debate schedule, Wasserman Schultz, the closed primaries? Again, Obama overcame these same issues in 2008. Given the huge amount of cash coming into his campaign and the ubiquity of social media, Sanders has had no trouble getting the word out about his positions. And voters in individual states have for decades known the quirky rules about primary voting. The state-by-state variation isn’t something that was just created out of thin air to screw over Bernie Sanders.

Sanders simply did not win, and I expect that we’ll see some really interesting post mortems on the campaign down the road, like this fascinating inside look from VTDigger. (That piece includes the thorny detail that Sanders’ top political strategist is also an owner of an agency through which the campaign spent millions of dollars on advertising.)

I’ve had mixed feelings about Sanders, especially the political impracticality of some of his positions, from the beginning, but like many others I now see his campaign as downright deceptive. Many Sanders supporters seem to think that he still has a chance to overcome Clinton’s pledged delegate lead. Those people are wrong, and they are being encouraged in this false belief by Sanders and many of his high-profile supporters.

So what else can we learn from 2008?

Hillary Clinton fought through the final primaries, but after that she and her supporters finally digested the fact that they had lost, and she threw the full weight of her power behind Obama. I’d sure like to see Sanders do the same here in 2016, but that seems depressingly unlikely.