Heilemann: Clinton to Bring the Hammer Down After Her Wisconsin Drubbing

Hillary Obama Wisconsin
Photo: Photo Illustration: Everett Bogue; Photos: Getty Images

The cheeseheads have spoken. And the message they delivered in the Democratic primary in Wisconsin was loud and unequivocal. There are fancier (or gentler) ways of interpreting it, but what the hearty souls who braved the subfreezing temperatures to cast their votes from Milwaukee to Menomonie announced was this: Virginia and Maryland weren’t anomalies; Barack Obama has the Big Mo; and Hillary Clinton is close to being forced from the stage by another lady — the fat one who likes to sing.

The Clinton campaign is laboring mightily to stuff a sock down that corpulent old dame’s throat. In the week before the vote on Tuesday, Hillary’s minions argued insistently and repeatedly (though not for attribution) that she didn’t really have a hope in hell of winning in Wisconsin. Because it was an open primary with same-day registration, the event would be a magnet for Obama-loving independents. There were too many students. Too many mushy-minded reformers. They said that her impending loss would be, as it was, a double-digit affair. They tell me tonight that, a week ago, their internal polls had Clinton down by more than twenty points — and that a last-minute flurry of organizing on the ground (led by legendary field marshal Teresa Vilmain, finally up off the couch after the crushing blow administered to her in Iowa) and negative messaging brought the margin down to … 58-41.

It’s hard enough, as the above makes clear, to spin a seventeen-point loss, especially in a state that, judging by all salient metrics, should have been the site of a close-run contest. Wisconsin, after all, is a place where the Democratic electorate is dominated by working-class whites, one of the three pillars of the Clinton coalition (the others being women and Hispanics). But Obama beat Hillary among whites, 54-45. Although she squeaked by among white women, 57-42, he tied with her overall among female voters. He beat her among every age cohort except for those 65 and older, and among all whites except those over 60. He beat her among regular and irregular churchgoers, and among those who never set foot inside a house of worship. He beat her among voters at every level of education, in every region of the state. He beat her among urbanites, suburbanites, and country bumpkins. He beat her among the working class (including union members), the middle class, and the rich. He beat her among marrieds and unmarrieds (though Clinton tied him among unmarried women); among Democrats, Independents, and Republicans; among liberals, moderates, and conservatives. All of which raises a pressing question: What Clinton coalition?

A trouncing of this scope and scale has a number of implications. The first is that Hillary is in big trouble in Ohio, where internal Obama polling put him within seven points, even before last night. The second is that she has also has significant problems in Texas, where the most recent public polls put Clinton and Obama in a statistical dead heat. The Clintonites believe that Hispanics will save her in the Lone Star State, but the weird-ass system in place there — part primary, part caucus — will work to her disadvantage. Just as her husband’s association with NAFTA will hurt in the Buckeye State. And unless Hillary wins both of them, it’s sayonara to the nomination.

The second set of implications revolves around money. On a conference call Tuesday, the Clinton folks reported that they have pulled in a million bucks a day on the Internet since Hillary’s $5 million loan to herself became public two weeks back. But to finance the rest of the race adequately, the campaign is counting on a series of fund-raising events scheduled over the next two weeks. Clinton's buck-rakers expected her to lose Wisconsin. But they believed that their side's efforts in the final days would close the gap to fewer than seventeen points — and so I'd bet that, right now, the fear of God is in them over how those events will go.

The final array of implications involves the tenor of the campaign that Clinton will wage between now and the Ohio and Texas primaries on March 4. Over the past few days, her operation has begun to sharpen the “contrasts” between HRC and BHO. Rightly or wrongly, her people simply do not believe they can do much now to change her fundamental message on the positive side: that she’s readier than Obama to assume the presidency on day one; that she’s a fighter for kids and families and for the beleaguered middle class; that she’s someone with a deep knowledge of public policy and that she can deliver. Instead, her people see their main chance as driving home a series of negative messages about Obama: the accusations of rhetorical plagiarism, of his inconsistency between talk and action, of his vacuousness and hypocrisy. One way of looking at Wisconsin, where these messages failed to move the needle much, is that they fell flat. Another way to see things is that the Clintonites started hammering too late and too soft.

Trust me when I tell you that the latter is the view in Clintonland. That they have more arrows in their quiver to fire at Obama, charges they believe will cast doubt on the hopemonger, raising the specter (terrifying to many Democrats) that John McCain and the Republican machine will make mincemeat of him. Trust me when I tell you that you ain't seen nothing yet. —John Heilemann

For a complete guide to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and now John McCain — from First Love to Most Embarrassing Gaffe — read the 2008 Electopedia.