How Hillary Did It
Theories on a turnabout…and what happens next.
By Jonathan Alter
Updated: 1:02 AM ET Jan 9, 2008
The results of the New Hampshire primary help explain why politics is so fascinating for those of us who cover it, even though we all look more than faintly ridiculous right now.
I don't have a clear explanation for how Hillary Clinton defied the polls and prognosticators to win, but amid our compromised credibility as analysts, let me humbly try. I do so with the help of my wife, Emily Lazar, whose own switching back and forth between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama may mirror some of what went on in the minds of ambivalent New Hampshire women, whose last-minute shift back to Clinton gave her the victory.
The gender gap that has characterized general elections in this country for a generation has now opened up within the Democratic Party, too. If men and women had voted in the Democratic primary in equal numbers, Obama would have won. But 57 percent were women. In that sense, the continued failure of the Democrats to attract male voters helped determine the outcome of this contest.
A more local factor may have been that many male independents figured that it made more sense to vote in the GOP primary for John McCain. If they were torn between McCain and Obama, as dozens I met were, the polls and pundits suggested that Obama didn't need their support. He was by all accounts comfortably ahead.
That left them free to help their sentimental favorite, McCain, slay former governor Mitt Romney of neighboring Massachusetts, whose policies are loathed by Granite State Democrats. (Judging by his loss, by Republicans too.) So they voted in the Republican primary.
But the big story was women voters. Why did so many switch to Hillary? Three pop-psych theories:
In 1968 Edmund Muskie famously lost the New Hampshire primary (he actually finished first, but by a disappointingly slender margin) after he cried standing on a platform in front of the Manchester Union Leader after the paper insulted his wife. (Muskie claimed it was snow on his cheeks, but the damage was done and he withdrew soon afterward.)
Whatever actually happened, the 2008 New Hampshire primary will be remembered for Hillary Clinton choking up when describing her everyday struggles. (The original question was about how she got through every morning when things were so tough.)
Even many of her harshest critics believed Hillary's emotions were authentic, which was a major advantage for her in closing the “likability gap” and erasing her image as too controlled and lacking in spontaneity.
THE REESE WITHERSPOON EFFECT
Once Obama won Iowa he was the certified cool and enormously popular kid in school. But as in any high-school election, the studious girls who show up to vote might harbor a few resentments about the boys. It's like the movie “Election,” in which Reese Witherspoon's character, Tracy Flick, is an ambitious and too-perfect high-school senior who has the election stolen from her after she was expected to win against a cool but inexperienced jock. By the end of the movie she ends up on top.
FIRST LADY OF THE HOUSE
When Obama and Edwards seemed to minimize Hillary's contributions as First Lady, it reminded many women of how their own contributions at home have been underappreciated in assessing their talents and experience. (While at first it may have seemed to help Obama, Edwards wound up helping Hillary in New Hampshire with his tone-deaf initial comment dissing Hillary's now-famous cry as lacking in presidential toughness.) And while her angry outburst in the ABC News debate made some men think of shrewish ex-wives, it seemed justified to many women, who thought she had reason to be peeved.
In a workplace context, Obama may have reminded women of underqualified hotshots who come along and get the big job with less experience because they're cooler and have more rapport with the boss and are, after all, men. They rallied to one of their own, just as the Clinton campaign hoped all along.
In terms of electability, this bodes ill for Hillary. Democrats don't need more women in November. They need men – a constituency that favors Obama.
The only consolation for people like me who blew it so badly is that the Clintons themselves were sure they were going to lose and hoped only to keep the loss to 5-7 points.
The race ahead will feature hand-to-hand combat across 22 states by Feb. 5. The variables – particularly the level of support for John Edwards – are practically infinite, which should keep people like me busy.
Imagine this scenario: if Hillary carries New York and New Jersey and Obama carries Illinois and California, the race could be decided on March 4. In, of all places, Ohio.