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Reality upended expectations in 2008

At the very beginning of the 2008 presidential race, we thought we knew how it would end. But the conventional wisdom has been upset again and again by independent-minded voters, faulty polling, unexamined premises, and arcane rules and procedures.
Image: Clinton, Obama, McCain
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John McCain crossed paths after a debate in Manchester, N.H., three days before the New Hampshire primary.Emmanuel Dunand / AFP - Getty Images file

Back at the very beginning, we thought we knew how it would end.

With so many primaries and caucuses compressed in the first few weeks of 2008, the frontrunner would quickly clinch the nomination. The Democratic contest would be over right after the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, or surely right after the New Hampshire primary five days later.

In the months leading up to the primaries, many expected Sen. Hillary Clinton to raise so much money that no other Democratic contender could threaten her "coronation," as pundits then liked to call it.

In an October 2006 Gallup survey, nearly four out of five Democrats were convinced that Clinton would be their nominee.

On the other side, the consensus thinking was that the Republican presidential hopefuls might have to fight it out long into 2008.

The expectations were the party would split between centrists, such as former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, and social conservatives, such as Virginia Sen. George Allen (remember when he was a presidential contender?).

But the 2008 campaign proved to be a series of explosions, as bits of conventional wisdom were blown to smithereens.

When so many columnists, pollsters and strategists are wrong, it is easy to confess error.

I was wrong, for instance, when on the eve of the New Hampshire primary I wrote a story assuming that Clinton, who’d just been beaten in Iowa, would lose in New Hampshire.

I figured that it would be a John Edwards-Barack Obama race from then on.

Clinton confounds the polls
I was not the only one who got it wrong.

Confounding the pollsters, Clinton won New Hampshire.

In 2008, the conventional wisdom has been upset again and again by independent-minded voters, faulty polling, unexamined premises, and arcane rules.

Foremost among the arcane: the superdelegates.

A wave of puzzlement and fear swept through some grassroots Democrats when they belatedly read the party rules and realized that elected Democratic officials — governors, senators, members of the House, elected state party activists — would account for nearly 40 percent of the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

Would the superdelegates reverse the will of the primary voters, as some Obama fans feared?

In the end, no. Most superdelegates appear to be taking the politically safe course and simply following election returns rather than undoing them.

But what about the money race?

One of the unexamined premises was Clinton’s supposed fundraising advantage. By the fall of 2007, she had raised more than $73 million, to Obama’s $57 million. Who’d have thought that all of her money would not suffice?

Another premise was that Clinton’s campaign team, with decades of experience, would know every twist in the road, and would know how to exploit Obama’s weaknesses.

And yet they didn't.

Clinton team's miscalculation
The conventional wisdom said the Clinton strategists were the smartest political veterans — a campaign dream team. Or were they?

Time magazine’s Karen Tumulty reported that at a planning session last year Clinton strategist Mark Penn predicted that a victory in the March 5 California primary would put her over the top because she’d collect all the state's 370 delegates.

But Democrats award their delegates proportionally, rather than on a winner-take-all basis, as Republicans do in some states.

Penn's apparent error reveals that even the seasoned pros were sometimes clueless about the rules in this unusual campaign cycle.

One of Penn’s colleagues pointed his error out to him, but Tumulty reports that the Clinton strategy “remained the same, with the campaign making its bet on big-state victories.”

She did win California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New Jersey. But it appears that won’t be enough.

In retrospect, there were worrisome signs for Clinton as early as June of 2006, before she formally entered the race.

I went to Iowa and New Hampshire to listen to the early murmuring of Democratic activists. I headlined my story: Some rank-and-file Democrats fear Clinton bid.

I heard from Democrats such as Jan Sutherland, a Council Bluffs, Iowa retiree and part-time teacher of English as a second language, who told me, “There are too many people who dislike Hillary. It’s not that Hillary can’t handle the job, they just simply dislike Hillary and they’d vote against her personally.”

Mark Warner for president?
Remember when Warner was an intruiging Democratic prospect for 2008?

Or Joe Biden of Delaware?

How about Wisconsin's Russ Feingold?

In early to mid-2006, Democrats were eyeing all sort of alternatives.

Yet by the end of the year, it was clear that Obama was the phenomenon. But was he a candidate?

I saw hundreds of fans crowding into an auditorium in Rochester, Minn. to see him, thrusting at him copies of Time magazine with the Senator's photo on the cover for him to autograph. He was there to campaign for Senate candidate Amy Klobuchar, not for himself, but one couldn't tell the difference.

And you never saw such frenzied devotion at Biden or Warner events.

Who would have thought that Obama’s rivals would use the inexperience argument against him again and again with so little apparent effect, at least up to this point?

Bill Clinton raised the inexperience issue in late 2007.

“When is the last time we elected a president based on one year of service in the Senate before he started running?” the ex-president wondered, in an interview with PBS talk show host Charlie Rose in December 2007. The former president asked whether voters were “prepared to roll the dice” on Obama.

The nonchalant Obama shrugged off such criticism with disdain.

“I understand there’s a history of politics being all about slash and burn,” he told reporters the day after the Clinton interview aired. “I recall what the Clintons themselves called the ‘politics of personal destruction’ — which they decried. My suspicion is that that’s just not where the country is at right now. They are not interested in politics as a blood sport; they’re interested in governance and solving problems.”

The Bill effect
And what about Bill? What pundit or pollster two years ago would have predicted Bill Clinton’s intervention in the campaign would do so little good for his wife?

Back in March of 2006, Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore's 2000 campaign, predicted that, largely due to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton would do well in African-American precincts.

“Bill Clinton is beloved (among black voters), and to the extent that these voters have a chance to cast their votes early in the process, it will be very difficult to stop her nomination," Brazile said.

Rendell's race analysis
And who would have foreseen that Obama’s parentage, (his mother a Kansan, his father a Kenyan), would be so overt a factor in the campaign?

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, a Clinton ally, pointed out last February that, “You've got conservative whites here (in Pennsylvania), and I think there are some whites who are probably not ready to vote for an African-American candidate.”

That had been a recurring theme of the campaign and became more so after Clinton won Pennsylvania's primary.

Now it's the Republicans turn
But what about the GOP?

The collapse of conventional wisdom about the Republican contest was as spectacular as on the Democratic side.

Take would-be president George Allen.

“Allen and Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seem the top contenders for the conservative spot,” said the right-of-center magazine National Review in its boosterish November 2005 cover story on Allen.

Allen “probably has the early advantage,” the magazine concluded. It quoted conservative strategist Grover Norquist who said Allen “is right now best positioned in the sweet spot of Republican politics.”

But then came his YouTube moment, with his now infamous "Macaca" taunt during his Senate reelection campaign.

And then there's Thompson, Huckabee and McCain
After Allen lost his Senate seat and vanished from the presidential contenders list, conservatives turned to Romney, and former senator and TV star Fred Thompson.

But few foresaw that Thompson would prove to be so inert on the campaign trail.

And consider former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Few expected he would so completely charm the national media and be the last one standing against John McCain.

And what about the Arizona senator? He defied the predictions.

He went from being the front-runner in the National Journal poll of GOP insiders at the end of 2006, to politically moribund in July 2007, when his poor fundraising forced him to cut staff.

At the time, reporters used words such as "deeply troubled" and "in a political and financial crisis" to describe McCain's campaign.

Six months later McCain upended expectations again. His triumph in the Florida primary was the end for both Romney and Giuliani.

As late as November of 2007, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal national survey indicated that Giuliani was the leader in the Republican race. But Giuliani decided to gamble everything on Florida’s Jan. 29 primary.

Rarely has a candidate made so disastrous a strategic decision.

But don't forget Ron Paul
Finally in a year of one darned improbable thing after another, who’d have imagined the rise of Ron Paul and a legion of devoted online fans?

The Texas congressman, 1988 Libertarian candidate (winning 0.5 percent of the popular vote) and amateur monetary policy wonk, sparked a zealous grassroots movement.

Paul even managed a stunning one-day online fundraising record, bringing in nearly $6 million.

He even had more cash on hand than McCain at one point, and more cash on hand than seven other presidential hopefuls — combined.

Paul seemed as astonished as anyone by his success. “There’s something very strange going on,” he said last October. “I don’t think anyone has fully comprehended how big it is.”