Hillary Clinton got beat last time because she wanted to win big in Democratic strongholds, and she got outflanked. Now she’s pursuing a 50-state strategy, starting with the primaries. She wants to compete everywhere and expand the map—an audacious play, particularly for a candidate so synonymous with insularity and caution.
Unlike the last time around, Clinton lacks any serious competition for the Democratic nomination. But despite the primaries looking like a cakewalk for her, Team Clinton isn’t taking any chances, and is looking to lay down campaign infrastructure that would ward off Democratic opponents and then benefit her in the general election.
Her campaign sent out a press release last week touting headlines across the country, including in Republican strongholds: “Hillary Clinton launches Wyoming campaign presence;” “First presidential candidate with a presence in Utah—Hillary Clinton,” and “Hillary Clinton dispatching a full-time organizer to Texas.”
Paid staffers are on the ground in all 50 states and the territories, but they won’t be there long, says a Clinton aide. “What we’re doing is building a volunteer-driven organization in those 50 states and that means we’re being very efficient with the dollars.” Democrats have learned that paid staff are essential to jump-start any volunteer effort. But the Clinton staffers won’t stay; they’ll be gone by the end of May, replaced if all goes well with trained and enthusiastic volunteers.
Clinton was in Nevada on Tuesday, the only caucus state she won in 2008, in what her campaign insists is the first of many trips. Bill Clinton worked the Vegas scene that year, shaking hands with workers as their shifts ended, but it was too little too late: despite losing the popular vote, Barack Obama out-organized her in rural areas, and picked up one more delegate than Clinton.
This time around, Hillary wants her erstwhile Democratic rivals to know she won’t neglect states that award delegates through caucuses the way she did in ’08, giving Obama an opening that let him build the lead among delegates that made him the nominee.
The Iowa caucuses were her first stumble in 2008, and she recovered with an upset win in New Hampshire. But her campaign’s failure to aggressively compete in caucus states sowed the seeds for her defeat. “There was a kind of a feeling back then that primaries had more validity than caucuses,” says Geoff Garin, who polls for Priorities USA Action, a pro-Clinton super PAC.
More people vote in primaries, and they’re seen as a purer expression of democracy than caucuses, which attract fewer voters, and are dominated by activists. “But I think that it’s not a matter of which kind of election you prefer. You have to excel at primaries and caucuses,” says Garin. “In a whole host of ways, Hillary for President 2.0 is much better suited temperamentally and attitudinally to running strong caucus campaigns.”
Clinton in ’08 had a “Big State strategy,” which didn’t include establishing a base of operations in smaller and non-primary caucus states. She counted on decisive wins in big Super Tuesday states, and in key Democratic states that followed, like Ohio and Pennsylvania. She won Ohio decisively and Pennsylvania by 10 points, and she embarrassed party patriarch Ted Kennedy, who had endorsed Obama, by defeating Obama in Massachusetts.
But none of those victories could overcome the cushion of delegates that Obama was methodically building by competing in states that weren’t on Clinton’s “Big State” grid—states like Colorado, Minnesota, Maine, Idaho, Alaska, Wyoming, North Dakota, and Kansas. Many of Obama’s wins against Clinton came from Republican territory, which Hillary’s overconfident campaign had decided to largely bypass.
When analysts look back on ’08, they tend to credit Obama with capturing lightning in a bottle, while Clinton is dismissed as a bad candidate, running a campaign of entitlement doomed from the start. That’s unfair, says Joe Grandmaison, a Democratic activist and former party chair in New Hampshire.
“If a decision had been made to compete in at least selected caucuses, it can be argued she would have been the nominee and elected president in November,” he says. This was a critical mistake for Clinton because Democrats have proportional representation in primaries and caucuses. In theory at least, Clinton left a lot of delegates unclaimed by not aggressively competing in caucus states.
Howard Dean popularized the phrase “50-state strategy” when he chaired the Democratic National Committee from 2005 to 2009. “You can’t ever win those states if you don’t try,” says Grandmaison, who gives Dean credit for trying to rebuild the party in states where Democrats don’t usually compete. Obama’s election expanded the electoral map for Democrats, and Clinton is working to hold that ground and push the boundaries further.
Clinton’s last campaign was plagued by infighting and indecision, and she lost, which made it by definition a bad campaign. But she came closer than people realize, and if she had organized in some of those fly-over red states, she might have won.
Now her campaign is off to a good start from an organizing perspective. Forget the questions around the Clinton Foundation, and the Benghazi hearings; Garin calls them “mud balls,” and thinks she’s dealing with them pretty well.
Something could potentially derail Clinton, but it won’t be because she didn’t play the game in places she didn’t think mattered. And when the general election begins, she’ll have a vast network of supporters to call on, potentially forcing Republicans to fight for states whose electoral votes they’ve long taken for granted.