by James Oliphant
Managing expectations is an art. And sometimes art is ugly.
Anybody who has spoken with the Clinton campaign recently knows how relentlessly it has tried to portray itself as a February underdog to Barack Obama.
Last week, after news broke about the campaign’s financial issues, the campaign took on the look of not just an underdog, but a wounded one. It worked. Money began pouring in from donors who were alarmed to find out that Hillary Clinton was running out of money.
At the same time, campaign officials were clear that they expected Obama to do well in every state contest leading up to the key battles March 4 in Ohio and Texas, repeatedly talking about his inherent advantages in states like Louisiana, Washington and Virginia, about how he had out-spent Clinton in every state. The conventional wisdom, the press was told last week, was that Clinton would stay close, try to win as many delegates as she could, and then work toward a big victory a month from now.
Except that the strategy looks increasingly similar to the one employed by Rudy Giuliani, who kept investing in a later payoff that never came. What happened? The media’s need to consistently sum up the race in real time. Thus, Giuliani's stategy, which might have made sense in a mathematical context, was reduced to rubble as he acquired the patina of a flop-sweaty loser.
It’s one thing if each caucus and primary is simply viewed as one game in a long season (which would allow candidates to play them “one game at a time” as the saying goes), but the national press doesn’t function like that. To the campaign correspondents and (especially) the headline writers, the campaign is a horse race, described breathlessly with each stride.
Making it worse was the timing of the news that Clinton had replaced her campaign manager Patti Solis Doyle with longtime aide Maggie Williams. It made for sort of a twin killing (we won’t use the term “perfect storm”), basically rendering any time spent lowering expectations last week useless.
Instead, today, here were some of the headlines in leading news outlets Monday:
“New head for Clinton campaign; In wake of losses, Chicago native ousted as key aide” – Tribune
“Clinton Replaces Top Aide Amid Losses” – Washington Post
“Obama. . . concludes weekend sweep of Clinton.” – Boston Globe
“4th Victory in a Row” – NY Times
“After Big Defeats, Clinton Replaces Campaign Manager” – Wall Street Journal
“Hillary’s Lost Weekend” – CNN
“Clinton, sliding, orders a change” – LA Times
"Clinton is bracing for a last stand" -- NY Sun
Loss. Defeats. Sliding. Bracing. Last Stand. Not good words. Clinton and Obama are essentially tied today as far as delegates go, but you would never know that from scanning the headlines. Perception is reality. And sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you can't control perception.
For the Clinton campaign, things likely will get worse before they get better -- if they ever get better. Obama is expected to win all three contests in the “Potomac Primary” Tuesday, bringing Clinton's losing streak since last Tuesday to an unlucky seven.