By Kathleen Hennessy
NEW YORK (AP) — For two weeks in February, Hillary Clinton’s campaign appeared on the brink of falling into an all-too-familiar pattern.
Her razor-thin win in Iowa and crushing defeat in New Hampshire to Bernie Sanders sparked questions about her weaknesses as a candidate and second-guessing about her operation. A flood of “helpers” — the derisive term some aides use to describe the legion of Clinton friends and allies outside the campaign— wanted to offer advice. Press reports began popping up about an internal shakeup.
“There was a moment when we were worried,” recalled Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Clinton backer. “We thought this will be really a test, can she withstand everyone talking in her ear?”
It was a test Clinton would pass.
Within weeks, she started opening a delegate lead that would never close. Her campaign team remained intact, displaying strategic and financial discipline that surprised veterans of the Clintons’ past political operations. After victories March 15 in Florida, Ohio and three other states, aides celebrated at the campaign’s Brooklyn headquarters with a boozy, late-night dance party, confident that Clinton had put the nominating fight out of reach for Sanders.
For Clinton, those were the moments when she finally shed the ghosts of her failed first White House run in 2008, a cursed campaign that repeatedly buckled and ultimately collapsed under pressure.
“We just stuck together and hung together,” said Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager and a target of early shakeup rumors. “That was a really galvanizing and important moment for the campaign.”
In many ways, Clinton’s 2016 success was a redemption story, the tale of how a flawed candidate overcame some of her failings. But the campaign also underscored that Clinton can’t help being her own worst enemy, with new revelations about her private email use at the State Department and her refusal to release transcripts of her highly paid speeches to Wall Street banks.
The question now is which Clinton — the rehabilitated policy wonk or the reflexively defensive politician — will win out as she faces perhaps her most unpredictable challenge: Donald Trump.
Nearly two years before announcing her candidacy, Clinton commissioned an extensive evaluation from a team of Democratic consultants. They delved into her weaknesses, likability, potential challengers, finances and electoral possibilities.
The consultants from Dewey Square Group, some of whom now work for her campaign, made the following recommendations:
Clinton would have to run a more disciplined, frugal operation — one not poisoned by the in-fighting and free spending that defined her first bid. She’d need to focus far more on winning delegates than voters. And she would have to overcome questions about her authenticity to connect with voters.
On two of those three fronts, Clinton found a winning formula in her primary campaign against Sanders.
Gone were the old Clinton hands, with their warring fiefdoms. Mook, a young operative known for inspiring fierce loyalty among his staff, prided himself on thriftiness. Aides were ordered to take cramped buses instead of the train between New York and Washington. Donors used to attending catered events sometimes found themselves on their own for meals at finance gatherings. When the staff traveled to Las Vegas for the first Democratic debate, they had to share rooms at Circus Circus, an aging hotel on the strip that ran $29 per night.
“When that cost gets further reduced to $14.50 because you discover you’ll have a roommate, now that’s the sign of a madman,” Nick Merrill, Clinton’s traveling spokesman, joked about Mook.
Aides say Clinton was fixated on the campaign’s delegate operation, desperate to avoid one of the most glaring mistakes from 2008. While Clinton captured more votes that Barack Obama in that race, his operation mastered the complex delegate allocation process that ultimately gave him the edge.
So Clinton hired the man who built the system that defeated her, delegate guru Jeff Berman.
Last summer, Berman began locking down crucial superdelegates for Clinton. At the annual Democratic National Committee meeting in Minneapolis in August, Clinton backers were rewarded for their loyalty with invitations to private briefings from Clinton and top campaign officials.
Superdelegate supporters also got weekly newsletters updating them on the campaign strategy, part of an effort to keep them on the team.
By November, Clinton had public support from nearly half the superdelegates, according to an Associated Press count. Only eight supported Sanders. That gave her 15 percent of overall delegates she would need to win the nomination before voting even started.
To date, no superdelegates have switched from Clinton to Sanders, according to the AP tally.
Even with her campaign on more solid footing, nothing prepared Clinton for the challenge she would face from Sanders.
A rumpled 74-year-old from Vermont, Sanders was unknown to many voters when he entered the race. But he quickly began drawing massive crowds around the country and announcing eye-popping fundraising totals, with the money pouring in almost exclusively from small-dollar donors.
Sanders supporters appeared to be drawn as much to his populist economic message as his raw authenticity, which stood in sharp contrast to Clinton’s carefully scripted style.
Revelations that she’d exclusively used a private email account and server at the State Department saddled Clinton with new questions about her trustworthiness even before she officially launched her campaign. Her sudden pivot on issues such as trade seemed to underscore that she was willing to shift positions to match the political moment.
And, perhaps her biggest problem: Some voters simply didn’t like her.
In an effort to solve the likeability issue, Clinton’s campaign tried to put her in situations where she’d play to her strengths, maximizing one-on-one interactions in smaller settings and long, policy-heavy roundtables. And unlike in 2008, when she all-but-ignored her gender, Clinton owned her historic status, joking about hair dye and her famous pantsuits.
As Clinton closed in on the nomination, her efforts appeared to resonate with her supporters. In California this week, they chanted “deal me in” along with Clinton after she mentioned being accused of “playing the woman card.”
Karen Finney, a campaign spokeswoman, said Clinton “had a real vision about how she wanted to do the campaign and what works best for her.”
At times, that meant walking away from her husband’s legacy as president, including the 1994 crime bill that is blamed for mass incarcerations, particularly among minorities. Clinton went on to draw massive support from black primary voters.
But it wasn’t just the former president’s policies that were shelved. Bill Clinton found himself benched at the start of the campaign.
Campaign aides worried his presence early on could undermine their efforts to reintroduce his wife to voters. He developed a reputation in the 2008 campaign for being an undisciplined campaigner and quick to anger when he felt she was under attack.
To date, he’s spoken at only a handful of big rallies, largely keeping his travel to smaller events in places such as Puerto Rico and South Dakota.Clinton’s aides say she’s eager for a bruising, no-holds-barred battle against Trump and a Republican Party that has targeted her for decades.
It’s a fight she’s been girding for since her days in Arkansas and the Clintons’ early years in Washington. While Clinton may struggle with the softer side of politics, she’s at her best when pitted against a partisan opponent, particularly one she deems a policy lightweight.
But at least for a few moments Tuesday, Clinton stopped to relish in her milestone moment as the first woman to ever lead a major U.S. political party. As she took the stage in Brooklyn before a cheering crowd, she stretched her arms wide, grinning broadly as she soaked in the moment.
She spoke movingly of the women who blazed a trail for her, from those who convened the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in the 19th century to her own mother, who died in 2011 at the age of 92.
Then, seamlessly slipping back into the political fight to come, Clinton added: “Which it turns out was pretty good advice.”