A few days ago, it all seemed so clear. Senator Barack Obama, fresh from his brilliant opening night at the Iowa caucuses, would carry his rollicking national tour into New Hampshire with the wind of America’s awakened youth at his back. Having vanquished doubts surrounding his electability in rural Iowa, he thought his unique brand of hopeful eloquence would successfully draw undecided New Hampshire voters to his now-crowded corner, leading to another commanding victory over Hillary Clinton.
This didn’t happen. Like most relatively sensible predictions and emerging plotlines leading up to the votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, this one now appears irrational and outdated. On Tuesday night, Senator Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary, escaping disaster and proving that she is still a very formidable candidate.
Just when the Clinton political machine’s gears appeared to be headed to a grinding, messy halt — amid supporters’ fears of Obama’s momentum, rumors of turmoil with the Clinton campaign staff, and media speculation surrounding the candidate’s emotional state — Hillary staged a stunning turnaround, trumping Obama by a margin of three percentage points.
Crucial to her success on Tuesday night was her overwhelming support from New Hampshire’s female voters. Considering that Senator Obama received more female votes than Clinton in Iowa, such backing was in no way a given, and is partly the result of a conscious shift in her public persona.
Much has been said about Senator Clinton’s recent show of emotion at a New Hampshire campaign stop, when she nearly burst into tears speaking to a small coffee shop audience. In light of Tuesday’s primary results, this seems less like a spontaneous, genuine moment of vulnerability than the expert political stagecraft that it is.
With just one instant of soft candor, Clinton seems to have finally become “woman” enough for New Hampshire’s female voters. In this clip, the Clintons want us to see a woman fighting tears out of her concern for America, out of her fear that Obama’s naivete and inexperience could make us “fall backward.”
If we look closely enough at Hillary’s recent performance, another post-Iowa Clinton campaign adjustment reveals itself. In addition to winning back the female vote, Clinton’s humanizing display continues to transform what has been the dominant narrative of this year’s primary elections.
In both Democratic and Republican races, candidates are being divided in the national media and in voters’ minds as either dynamic agents of change for their party and American politics, or experienced and cautious upholders of the status quo. Hillary Clinton lost in Iowa in large part because she was on the wrong side of this “change vs. experience” storyline. In an era where disillusionment with American leadership has become nearly inescapable for both Democratic and Republican candidates, Clinton’s familiarity with Washington’s levers of power are often more of a campaign liability than an asset.
This being the case, the Clinton campaign is currently attempting to revive itself by starting a slightly different conversation: one that splits itself not along the lines of change and experience but rather that of fantasy and reality. Since last week’s defeat, the Clinton campaign has tried to frame Obama as the candidate of smoke and mirrors, of groundless idealism. Following his wife’s emotional plea to be wary of Obama-induced false hopes, Bill Clinton even used the phrase “fairy tale” to describe the senator’s unwarranted rise.
Clinton’s sudden shift in personal image and political message following a loss in Iowa brought her victory in a state she was expected to lose. While this Democratic primary race has proven impossible to predict, one thing is certain: Hillary Clinton’s campaign adapts well to almost any day’s given political moods, and she will not be out of this race any time soon.