Let's get one thing out of the way: Hillary Clinton is a massive favorite to win the Iowa caucuses -- and the Democratic presidential nomination -- in 2016. (If she runs, of course, which everyone now assumes she will.) Just in case you aren't hip to that reality, CNN and the Opinion Research Corporation released a poll on Friday that made it crystal clear; Clinton led the 2016 field in Iowa with 53 percent followed by Vice President Joe Biden at 15 percent. No one else even got into double digits.
So, when Clinton stops in Iowa for the first time in six years this Sunday -- she and her husband are headlining Sen. Tom Harkin's final Steak Fry -- she will be greeted like a hero. But, it's worth remembering Clinton's problems in Iowa in 2008 when analyzing the approach she takes to all of that adoration.
Clinton finished third in the 2008 Iowa caucuses -- John Edwards narrowly edged her out for second. There were lots and lots of reasons given for her struggles in the state up to and including:
* The Clinton machine wasn't strong in Iowa since Bill Clinton didn't seriously compete in the state in 1992 (native son Harkin made the race non-competitive) and was unchallenged for the Democratic nomination in 1996.
* Clinton was out of step -- particularly on the war in Iraq -- with the liberal activists that comprise the bulk of the caucus vote. Both Obama and Edwards were significantly more outspoken in their opposition to the war than Clinton.
* Clinton fundamentally misunderstood the Iowa electorate. She ran a Rose Garden campaign when Iowa voters wanted her to drop the big entourage and simply talk to them one on one.
It's that last criticism that may be most telling as it relates to 2016. Clinton and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani were the two most famous candidates in the 2008 race. Both came to Iowa wearing that fame -- cocooned off from average folks, defaulting to larger rallies rather than the hand to hand work that has, traditionally, been rewarded by Iowa voters.
Giuliani quickly realized Iowa wasn't for him, skipping the state to spend more time in New Hampshire. (Giuliani eventually scrapped that strategy too; making Florida his firewall. It became his Waterloo.) Clinton stayed; she had no choice since the frontrunner for the nomination can't pick and choose which states to seriously contest.
The exit poll conducted after Clinton's third place finish in Iowa speaks to the problem she had connecting with the electorate on any level other than celebrity-to-supplicant. One in five Iowa Democratic caucus-goers said that a candidate who "cares about people like me" was the most important characteristic in making their choice. Edwards got 44 percent among that group -- double Clinton's 22 percent. (Obama took 24 percent.) By contrast, among the 20 percent of caucus-goers who said a candidate with the "right experience" to be president was most important to them, Clinton lapped the competition by winning almost half of their votes.
The takeaway from the 2008 exit poll is this: No one doubted Clinton's competence. They doubted her compassion. She was always "Hillary Clinton" and never Hillary Clinton. It seems more than coincidental that when, in the runup to the New Hampshire primary, Clinton let more of her "real self" show, her polls numbers improved drastically.
Clinton hasn't talked extensively about what she thinks she did wrong in 2008. But, she has parted ways with pollster and chief strategist Mark Penn, the leading advocate of a strategy that focused on Clinton's competence not her compassion. And, early indications -- particularly in how she has talked about being a woman running for president -- suggest she will take a different approach this time around.
That said, her post-Secretary of State life has largely been defined by making big-dollar speeches and limiting her exposure to the press and most everyone else. Her trip to Iowa is one of the first major tests of what Hillary Clinton 2016 will look like and how -- if at all -- it will differ from Hillary Clinton 2008.