Image: Hillary Clinton
Matthew Cavanaugh  /  EPA file
Sen. Hillary Clinton speaks to the American Nurses Association at the Washington Hilton Hotel on June 26.
By Chief White House correspondent and political director
NBC News
updated 8/12/2008 2:53:06 PM ET 2008-08-12T18:53:06

Just how close did Hillary Clinton come to getting the Democratic nomination?

The way a Democratic strategist, an activist or a donor answers that question can reveal his or her Clinton bias.

With the Democratic convention just days away, we're about to be inundated with a number of retrospectives on the primary.

And many of these will include several "what ifs," thanks in part to two new pieces of information:

  • The Atlantic Monthly's release of internal memos and emails from Team Hillary
  • John Edwards' admission of an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter

Let's start with the second item first. Already, one of Clinton's senior advisers has wondered aloud if Edwards cost her a win in Iowa.

There are so many reasons why this theory is off, I don't know where to begin.

As network entrance polls pointed out, Barack Obama topped Clinton nearly two-to-one when it came to second choice picks by Edwards backers.

Crunching the numbers
Assuming this is the actual breakdown of how things would have split among Edwards' thirty percent, this scenario would have given a little more than 50 percent to Obama and a little less than 40 percent to Clinton, guaranteeing him a double-digit Iowa win.

It's also likely that Obama may have snatched somewhere closer to 60 percent, given that Iowa had already turned into a two-person contest. But maybe Joe Biden or Bill Richardson would have popped up on the radar in an Edwards-less field.

Video: Would Clinton have won? The idea that Clinton's standing would have somehow improved in Iowa without Edwards is just not supported by data or observation.

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Both Edwards and Obama were running as populist change agents. They pigeon-holed Clinton as the status quo politician.

If anything, Edwards' relative strength with labor unions kept Obama from getting key early endorsements — backing that could have secured an Iowa blowout and possibly a victory in New Hampshire.

If anything, Edwards was the reason why Obama didn't rule the roost pre-Super Tuesday.

But I want to touch on another aspect of the Edwards story that no one seems to be paying attention to in Clintonland.

Had this affair come to light during the Democratic primary process, it could have potentially destroyed Hillary's candidacy.

Why? A smooth-talking Southern politician getting caught having an affair with an eccentric "blonde" woman? Sound familiar? Exactly.

An Edwards revelation in late 2007 or early 2008 would have forced Hillary and her campaign to relive all things Monica and Gennifer and Paula.

How helpful would that have been? You think the cable pundits were tough on Hillary because of her gender? Imagine a world where Bill's paramours were front and center once again.

Talk about feeding into Obama's "turn the page" message, wow...This would have been a Rev. Wright-level issue for Hillary. In order to save her candidacy, she would have been forced to give the "Bill speech" or sit down with Dr. Phil and explain why she stayed.

Of course, count me as someone who always thought she should have given this speech anyway.

A number of Obama's key supporters were with him simply because of Clinton's baggage. If these folks could have heard Hillary explain how she planned to distance herself from Bill on these issues, they might have been won over.

We can go on and on about these Edwards "what ifs," but it seems there are more anti-Hillary scenarios than pro-Hillary ones in an Edwards-less race.

Memo controversy
Moving on to those campaign memos and emails published in The Atlantic Monthly — not only are they painting a devastating picture of a candidate not ready to be president, but they're giving backseat campaign drivers more ammunition.

Apparently, Clinton followed only half of Doris Kearns Goodwin's historical advice. She hired a "team of rivals" just like Abraham Lincoln, but didn't assert any authority over them.

If anything, these folks were screaming for decisions to be made, only to be thwarted by every organization's potential Achilles' Heel: paralysis.

There are a number of ways to interpret these Mark Penn memos or the ones from Harold Ickes.

I could sit here and argue that Penn was wrong about "X" or that Ickes misread "Y," but ultimately, Hillary appears to be the bad actor here.

All she knew was she didn't want to lose — but didn't know why.

Hillary never made that "why" speech. In fact, she found a message only in response to Obama's juggernaut.

It's as if she only developed a message appealing to voters who hadn't been won over by Obama. Hers was a defensive and reactive campaign from the beginning.

Read the Penn memos and it’s clear that the entire campaign was consumed with responding to Obama rather than redefining the race on their terms.

The release of these memos will end up doing one of two things:

  • Put an end to Clinton’s presidential aspirations because they potentially paint a picture of someone not ready to lead
  • Provide a blueprint for Clinton not to follow, encouraging her to surround herself with a new team of folks, specifically those whose entire professional political existence wasn't born of her husband

One other point on the Clinton campaign...it’s been interesting for me to hear so many of her supporters claim she came *this* close to winning the Democratic nomination.

Her chances
By the numbers, you can make that case and certainly she always had a “chance” at the nomination after Super Tuesday.

But what were those chances? Were they 50-50 or were they 10 percent?

By my calculation, her chances at the nomination were less than 25 percent. And after Feb. 19, those odds dropped to around 10 percent.

But the media never challenged the idea that Clinton had a real shot at the nomination, and in the end, that's been a disservice to her supporters.

Many of them bought into that idea of victory, and now, they're feeling mistreated by Obama's camp ahead of the convention.

The last 75 days of this primary campaign were a gift to Clinton. She had an opponent who didn’t want to fully engage with her, trying his best to have one foot in the general and one foot in the primary.

He stopped fully engaging Clinton, attacking only when necessary.

This allowed Clinton to revitalize her own profile a bit, which in turn helped her win more votes than she would have if Obama campaigned as hard as he did in November, January and February.

It’s tough to war game "what if " scenarios without fully living through them. So be careful when you hear folks trying to rewrite the history of the primary campaign.

Campaigns are rooted in the science of physics. Every action forces a reaction — one that can sometimes open a new host of unexpected questions and possible scenarios.

It may have been that this Democratic nomination was never Clinton’s to lose but Obama’s to win.

And depending on how things turn out in November, don’t be surprised if history is rewritten again.

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Video: Secret Clinton attack memos

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