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A Shocker, in Hindsight

By E.J. Dionne Jr.
Thursday, January 10, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Maybe the signs pointing to Hillary Clinton's victory in the New Hampshire primary were there all along, hidden in plain sight by the blur of Obamamania and a stack of flawed polls.

There was that moment in the ABC News debate Saturday when Barack Obama and John Edwards ganged up on Clinton and she fought back. Later, when Scott Spradling, a local political reporter, suggested that voters didn't find her likable, she replied, "Well, that hurts my feelings." It looked like a genuine reaction from someone so often cast as a stick figure.

Obama then made trouble for himself by offering a comment many saw as snarky. "You're likable enough, Hillary," he said. Obama insisted later that he intended it as a "gesture of graciousness." Gestures of graciousness shouldn't have to be explained.

And then, on the eve of the election, Clinton choked up about the difficulties of the campaign. "This is very personal for me; it's not just political," she said, defying another stereotype about her. The media did Clinton the only favor they rendered her all week, playing the video over and over. It was a clip in which she managed to include her basic lines of attack on Obama ("Some of us are ready, and some of us are not") without seeming to be attacking at all.

Did she win the primary on the basis of such episodes rather than policies, on anecdotes rather than data? These were "moments when she finally peeled back the veneer," said Clinton's adviser and friend Paul Begala. And this helped build her large margin among women.

For it was women, and voters of modest means, who pulled Clinton back from the abyss. Women rejected Clinton in Iowa but not in New Hampshire. And the people Edwards courts were the ones Clinton connected with here. She defeated Obama soundly among voters in families earning less than $50,000 a year and among those who never attended college.

She also stole the mantle of empathy from Edwards. Voters who told exit pollsters that they made their choice on the basis of which candidate "cares about people like me" went strongly for Edwards in Iowa. On Tuesday, Clinton narrowly defeated Edwards in this group -- and overwhelmed Obama, 2-1.

Perhaps Hillary played the same trick on her critics that her husband, Bill, did in his epic State of the Union addresses that went on and on about one specific policy after another. Those speeches often got bad reviews but good poll ratings. At one campaign stop last week, as Hillary Clinton droned on learnedly about health care, family and medical leave, and global warming, a colleague in the press section leaned over to dismiss her for offering nothing but "a laundry list of wonkery."

But especially for less well-off voters, the specific things government can do to relieve a few of their burdens may be more important than Obama's soaring and prophetic rhetoric that moved the young and the affluent. To eat some of my own words, maybe prose wins elections after all.

Just to be straight up about it, I have never been so certain and so wrong in many years of watching elections, anticipating as I did a solid Obama victory here. It's little comfort that the Clinton camp was surprised, too, as some in its ranks candidly acknowledged.

The pollsters will have a lot of work to do in figuring out what went wrong. But there are more than enough lessons for the rest of us. Both campaigns -- Clinton's before Iowa, Obama's since -- learned how dangerous it is to assume that victory is inevitable. Candidates who seem certain they'll win may give off a feeling of arrogance that invites voters to deliver a comeuppance.

Yet New Hampshire does not make Clinton's problems disappear. There are many voters, even in Democratic primaries, who want to move beyond the 1990s and have doubts about her. She found a voice in New Hampshire that can win a primary. It's still not clear whether she has a voice that can move a nation.

Obama has the problem that has confronted many idealistic reformers before him: He has a powerful appeal to the young and the well-educated, but he has yet to convince the less affluent that his crusade is for them. "A lot of people are being motivated by his inspirational talk," Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said in an interview at a Clinton event. "But he doesn't really talk about what he'll do."

The campaigns -- and, yes, the media -- need to go back to the drawing board.

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