Why Hillary Won

Why did Hillary win, and win so big?

She won because she chose to run in a state that has two million more registered Democrats than Republicans, a state with a strong liberal infrastructure, a state in which her husband is adored. She won because the Democratic nominee for president beat the Republican in New York by 25 points—60% to 35%. Al Gore’s rising tide lifted Hillary Clinton’s boat, and capsized Rick Lazio. The Lazio campaign thought his candidacy would survive a Gore win of 15% or less, which is where the numbers were a week before the voting; over 15% would probably not be survivable. (This underscored the wisdom of Mrs. Clinton’s choice of New York. If she had gone back home to Arkansas, she would have drowned in the George W. Bush tide.)

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Mrs. Clinton won because she ran a better campaign than her rival—more insistent, more focused, more disciplined. She won because she was a good candidate—hardworking, tough, unwavering.

She won because she pounded the state almost every day for 18 months, a lifetime in politics. She used that time to make the impression she wanted to make, to shake every hand and tour every precinct, to memorize the state bird and dazzle her fans with her knowledge.

Mr. Lazio had none of these things. He came in late, unknown and 20 points behind. Libby Pataki, the governor’s wife, said some already famous words about why; she later apologized but shouldn’t have. She said that Rudolph Giuliani spent the first nine months of 2000 “jerking everybody around” as he pondered his existential realities. In that time Mrs. Clinton put a dynamic campaign in place.

Having been a great New York mayor, Mr. Giuliani succumbed to Great Man Disease: “This is all about me.” It wasn’t about him, but the people of New York, who were forgotten in his calculations.

Those New Yorkers who say Mr. Giuliani could have beaten Mrs. Clinton are probably wrong. He would have suffered from the same dynamics as Mr. Lazio, and in addition would have brought to the race his reputation as insensitive and divisive. Mr. Lazio was the best candidate available.

The Clintons energized Hillary’s base with their celebrity and cemented their advantage with intense minority outreach and, apparently, record minority turnout. There is anecdotal evidence of brilliant organization: The last weekend of the election, members of New York’s minority communities were getting four taped phone calls each, from Bill Clinton, from Bill and Hillary together, from Jesse Jackson and from former Rep. Floyd Flake.

The unions were also disciplined; members showed up in record numbers.

Early exit data suggest professional women who are Democrats, and who had throughout the campaign resisted Mrs. Clinton, came home. The last commercial of Hillary’s campaign, broadcast the weekend before the election, reached out to them. A tough blond Long Island woman, a breast-cancer survivor, speaking in perfect New York pitch, said Mr. Lazio had failed the community. She said she knew some women had doubts but said, “I tell them, get over it. I know her. She’ll be there for us.” It was the best commercial of the campaign.

Early numbers continue to be interesting. It appears that Mrs. Clinton did better than Mr. Lazio at pulling out her base. How could this be? The Lazio campaign tried so hard to reach beyond its base that it forgot its base. It didn’t hit hard on Mrs. Clinton’s record—her statements and speeches showing a lifelong leftism that would encourage higher taxes, higher spending, more regulation, more government, less freedom. It thought the Republican base knew Hillary, and thought that would be enough to get them out.

By the end I thought Mrs. Clinton would lose in part because I thought Mr. Bush would lose New York by a dozen points, and in part because she lacks a New York style. New Yorkers like their leaders to have either class, grace and intellect (the Daniel Patrick Moynihan model) or a leavening New Yorkishness, a one-of-usness, like Al D’Amato and Mr. Giuliani. Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy was marked by a lack of grace and graciousness, a charmlessness and cynicism—on the Puerto Rican terrorist group FALN, on Jerusalem, on the United Nations vote—that managed even in this time and place to dazzle.

But powerfully countering that was class’s best substitute: the appearance of class. The look of it. Mrs. Clinton was glamorous, surrounded by limos, agents, an entourage, Hollywood stars; she looked like one of the most famous women in the world. She was sleek, professional, a glamorous blond CEO in a shiny silk suit. She was attractive; she attracted.

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In the end, though, Mrs. Clinton won because Mr. Bush collapsed.

We are all so busy looking at Florida and wondering how it will play out that we have paid little attention to what appears to have been a stunning Bush collapse in the final week of the campaign. Pollster John Zogby was right—it was in the final days, and particularly the last weekend, that Mr. Bush’s numbers went down and Mr. Gore surged. Mr. Bush indulged himself. As a man who loves him and supports him said, “He hasn’t been in politics long enough to know to be scared. What was he doing in California, where he wasn’t going to win? What was he doing in New Jersey and Maine? He’s a good man but this was the arrogance of the naive, of those who think they’re lucky.”

Mr. Gore fought tooth and nail, and he knew exactly where to go—sweating in the dark at rallies and going scrambling for every vote with Ben Affleck in star-loving Miami.

Mr. Bush was home, sleeping, as last-minute undecideds appear to have broken for Mr. Gore, all of them in opposition to the tradition that last-minute undecideds go for the challenger.

Mr. Bush is awake now, though.

The biggest lesson for conservatives on Mrs. Clinton: We know who she is and long ago made our decisions about her. But our understanding of Mrs. Clinton is not shared by moderates and liberals. They do not share our aversion, or, sharing it to some degree, have made their bargains with it and have put it aside for other reasons and calculations. This is an important lesson to learn, and will have future applications.

Mrs. Clinton will be modest in the Senate at first, and collegial; she will make friends. In my book on Mrs. Clinton, I spoke of Orrin Hatch talking to reporters one year into her Senate term and telling them how delightful she is. I was interested to see that Mrs. Clinton got one call from a Republican senator the night she won. It was Mr. Hatch.

It is absurd to think that Mrs. Clinton will be one voice of 100 in the Senate. She will be the great Democratic star of national politics, the voice of the Democratic Party. She will come to represent more than she does now and more than anyone ever has.

Her long-term future is being decided now not in Schenectady or Utica but in Florida. If Mr. Gore wins, she will not run for president until 2008. If Mr. Bush wins, we will hear stirrings of a presidential candidacy by early 2003.

She said the day after the election that she will serve out her term. But that’s what her husband said in 1990, when he was running for re-election in Arkansas. He swore he wouldn’t run for president in ‘92. Then he talked to the people of Arkansas and announced they were begging him to run. He called it a listening tour. When it was over he said he would have to bow to their wishes.