The Front-Runner’s Fall

Hillary Clinton’s campaign was undone by a clash of personalities more toxic than anyone imagined. E-mails and memos—published here for the first time—reveal the backstabbing and conflicting strategies that produced an epic meltdown.
January 2008: Collapse and Comeback

In the hours after she finished third in Iowa, on January 3, Clinton seized control of her campaign, even as her advisers continued fighting about whether to go negative. The next morning’s conference call began with awkward silence, and then Penn recapped the damage and mumbled something about how badly they’d been hurt by young voters.

Mustering enthusiasm, Clinton declared that the campaign was mistaken not to have competed harder for the youth vote and that—overruling her New Hampshire staff—she would take questions at town-hall meetings designed to draw comparative,” but not negative, contrasts with Obama. Hearing little response, Clinton began to grow angry, according to a participant’s notes. She complained of being outmaneuvered in Iowa and being painted as the establishment candidate. The race, she insisted, now had “three front-runners.” More silence ensued. “This has been a very instructive call, talking to myself,” she snapped, and hung up.

In the days leading up to her stunning New Hampshire comeback, on January 8, Clinton’s retail politicking, at last on full display, seemed to make the most difference. But any hope of renewal was short-lived. Not long after New Hampshire, in a senior-staff meeting that both Clintons attended at the campaign’s Arlington headquarters, Ickes announced to his stunned colleagues, “The cupboard is empty.” The campaign had burned through its money just getting past Iowa. And the news got worse: despite spending $100 million, it had somehow failed to establish ground operations in all but a handful of upcoming states. Now, urgently needing them, it lacked the money.

Clinton ended up agreeing to lend the campaign $5 million. But even this would enable it to compete in only some of the February 5 states. Though under heavy pressure to fire her campaign manager and chief strategist, Clinton wouldn’t drop the ax. She layered on still more advisers, including her former White House chief of staff, Maggie Williams, who settled uncomfortably alongside Solis Doyle.

On January 21, Guy Cecil, a veteran operative who had been brought aboard in September, circulated a memo laying out the game plan for February 5. Now fully alive to the challenge ahead, Cecil split the map into three categories: Obama base states, battleground states, and Clinton base states (of which there were four—Arkansas, California, New Jersey, and New York).

To maximize delegates cheaply, Cecil fell back on trying to drive up voter turnout in Clinton states. He also seems to have been the first person to spot the alarming possibility that blowout wins in weak Clinton districts could yield huge delegate gains for Obama. But here he was essentially flying blind. The Clinton campaign had long since ceased polling in unfriendly states, and now had to make do with guesswork. Cecil estimated that Clinton could net 58 delegates on February 5, significantly expanding her narrow lead.

February 2008: Chaos

On February 4, Ickes circulated a “framework” of the post–Super Tuesday strategy, stoically noting that “given the lack of polling information for post 5 Feb states, these projections are based on best estimates.” The campaign was collectively holding its breath. Ickes wrote:

Assuming HRC’s lead in super delegates holds and continue [sic] to increase even slowly, she will continue to lead BO in total delegates at every step. We are in for a real fight, but assuming she at least achieves the projections for Tuesday and given some breaks, it is a fight that she can win.

On Super Tuesday, however, Clinton fell well short of projections, and according to NBC News, Obama finished the day having netted about 10 delegates and narrowed the gap. The slow-motion collapse of Clinton’s candidacy began to accelerate.

On February 10, Clinton finally fired Solis Doyle and moved Williams in—but did not heed calls to fire Penn, enraging Solis Doyle’s many loyalists. At this crucial point, long-simmering feuds burst into the open. On February 11, Williams’s first day on the job, Phil Singer, Wolfson’s deputy and a man notorious for his tirades at reporters, blew up in Wolfson’s office and screamed obscenities at his boss before throwing open the door to direct his ire at the campaign’s policy director, Neera Tanden, an ally of Solis Doyle. “Fuck you and the whole fucking cabal!” he shouted, according to several Clinton staffers. In the end, he climbed onto a chair and screamed at the entire staff before storming out.

The same day, Philip Bennett, the managing editor of The Washington Post, sent Williams a letter formally complaining that Singer had maligned one of his reporters by spreading unfounded rumors about her (apparently in retaliation for an accurate—and prescient—story that had noted, long before anyone else, Clinton’s tendency to burn through money). Fearing for his deputy’s job, Wolfson intercepted the letter, though Bennett eventually got a copy to Williams. Singer disappeared and was presumed fired. But a week later, he made amends and rejoined the campaign. “When the house is on fire, it’s better to have a psychotic fireman than no fireman at all,” Wolfson explained to a colleague.

As the days wore on, morale deteriorated. In state after state, the staff watched helplessly as huge leads dwindled to nothing in the face of Obama’s massive outlays. Toward the end of a February 21 debate, amid what would prove to be a string of 12 straight losses, Clinton spoke of the race wistfully, as though resigned to losing. The press took this as a signal that the end was near—not at all what she meant.

On the call two days later, the candidate was furious, this time at a press corps she accused of purposely misreading her designs in an effort to force her from the race. “They’re taking out their revenge on Bill,” she fumed, according to a participant’s notes. Later that day at a press conference, Clinton left no doubts about her purpose, lighting into Obama. Penn’s star was ascendant.

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Joshua Green is an Atlantic senior editor.

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