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7 charts that explain why Hillary Clinton lost in 2008 — and why she's winning in 2016

Gabriel Bouys / AFP / Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Right now, Hillary Clinton is the frontrunner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. As you may recall, she was in a similar position eight years ago — and, after a long and bitter contest, she ended up losing.

There are several factors that, considered together, explain Clinton's 2008 primary defeat: Barack Obama's powerhouse fundraising, position on the Iraq war, appeal to black voters, and small-state organizing all helped him narrowly edge out a victory. Meanwhile, Clinton failed to dominate the fundraising or endorsement games, and she had long looked vulnerable in a key early state.

However, none of these factors that helped Obama appear to be present this time around. So, to understand why Clinton looks so extraordinarily dominant in the 2016 primaries, it's worth taking a look back why she went down to defeat. Such a review suggests she probably won't lose again.

1) Democrats hated the Iraq war

Iraq polling 2007

Hillary Clinton had a huge weakness going into the 2008 primary that was clear from the start — she had voted to authorize the Iraq war, and Democrats really, really hated the Iraq war.

This chart shows a poll from August 2007, in which a massive 81 percent Democratic voters said the war was a mistake. At this point, Clinton had also become critical of the war. But her main opponent, Barack Obama, had given a speech saying war with Iraq would be a "dumb" idea around the same time that she had voted to authorize it. And on the campaign trail, Clinton refused to characterize her own vote as a mistake or to apologize for it.

This provided a crucial contrast on an issue that was dominating politics at the time — giving Obama one very specific example he could use to to set himself apart from the frontrunner. Obama also capitalized on serious resentment from party activists against Clinton and other Democratic leaders who had authorized the war.

Some have suggested that the issue of economic inequality could similarly springboard a less-known Clinton challenger in 2016, but this doesn't appear likely. It's not really clear what would be the "Iraq war vote" of income inequality — a clear and galvanizing moment that puts Clinton on the wrong side of the issue, to her party's base. Indeed, Clinton has been arguing lately that inequality is a big problem, as has the rest of her party. Beyond that, polls have shown that Democrats don't actually want a nominee who's more liberal than Clinton.

2) Clinton didn't dominate in endorsements

Endorsements 2008

As frontrunner, Hillary Clinton won many more more endorsements than any of her rivals did in 2007. But her overall total wasn't so strong, historically.

This chart shows data on endorsements before the Iowa caucuses amassed by the political scientists who wrote The Party Decides. The authors collected all the endorsement information they could find — involving sitting governors, to former elected officials, to local officeholders and even celebrities — and weighted it by the importance each endorser seemed to hold in the party.

Their data shows that though Clinton topped Obama and Edwards in weighted endorsements, her total of 45 percent was rather low — in contrast to Al Gore's 82 percent in 2000, Bill Clinton's quite high 70 percent in the 1992 open contest, and even Walter Mondale's 56 percent in 1984. The party had not unanimously lined up behind Clinton — far from it. This left an opening for a challenger.

Now, in contrast, Clinton has been racking up endorsements from top Democrats, even though she's not yet officially running. And top Obama operatives like Jim Messina, Joel Benenson, and Jim Margolis are joining the Clinton fold rather than waiting for, say, Vice President Joe Biden to announce his plans.

3) Obama basically tied Clinton in fundraising

Dem Fundraising 2007

Many people remember the 2008 campaign as featuring Clinton as a clear frontrunner and dominant, expected victor, until Obama's shocking Iowa caucus win.

In fact, it was clear well before Iowa that Obama was a serious contender — because he was a powerhouse fundraiser who amassed nearly as much money as the purported frontrunner did throughout 2007.

Fundraising is a proxy for support and enthusiasm among members of the party — both from elites (who give big donations), and its base (many of whom give smaller donations, but vote). Obama performed very well with both — it turned out that many wealthy and non-wealthy liberals wanted to give him their money.

Obama's fundraising also let him have the money he needed to effectively capitalize on his early state wins in Iowa and South Carolina. There were 24 primaries and caucuses on Super Tuesday. If Obama had raised much less cash, he may not have been able to effectively compete in as many of them as he did.

This time around, it's obviously too early to say definitively if any challenger to Clinton would be able to compete with her in fundraising. But the only potential candidate with obvious star power and a recent record of massive fundraising success, Elizabeth Warren, isn't running.

4) Iowa looked really tough for Clinton all along

Iowa polls

Similarly, many people remember that Clinton was leading most of the final polls before the Iowa caucuses and that Obama's eight-point win there was somewhat of a surprise. Indeed, Clinton ended up coming in third, narrowly behind John Edwards.

But though Obama's rise in Iowa came late, Clinton's weakness in the state had been clear for a year. For the first half of 2007, the putative frontrunner trailed Edwards in the crucial early state. Indeed, the situation in Iowa looked so dire that Clinton's team even considered bypassing the caucuses. They ultimately opted against this drastic move.

Things improved somewhat when Clinton began to regularly lead Iowa polls in the second half of the year. But even then, she never topped 35 percent of the vote — that wasn't a secure lead.

This year is quite different. Clinton is, on average, a 46 percentage points ahead of a her nearest Iowa competitor, Bernie Sanders. It's possible that this margin will tighten a bit, but the early and obvious vulnerability Clinton had in 2007 in the state just isn't there now.

5) Obama won delegates in small states and caucuses

Obama Clinton delegates '08

Justin Sizemore, Sabato's Crystal Ball

After the first few contests in 2008, Clinton frequently won primaries in the most populous states — while Obama's team focused on amassing the delegates that would actually deliver him the nomination. They did so by organizing in small states and caucuses, to run up Obama's margin of victory there.

For instance, on Super Tuesday, Clinton won the biggest states, but Obama ended up with more delegates — for instance, he topped the 11 delegates Clinton netted from New Jersey by netting 12 in Idaho. A month later, in Texas, Clinton won the primary by 3 points, but Obama won a caucus responsible for one-third of the state's delegates by 12.5 points. Again, Obama ended up with a greater delegate haul overall.

Clinton ended up winning the popular vote in 7 of the 8 states with the biggest populations, with Obama's only victory coming in his home state of Illinois. But "between Idaho, Nebraska, Vermont, Maine, Mississippi, North Dakota, the District of Columbia, Hawaii and Alaska, Obama would amass 118 delegates to Clinton's 57," according to a Washington Post report. A Democratic rival to Clinton in 2016 would likely have to replicate this very impressive organizing success — and generate a great deal of enthusiasm among grassroots volunteers — to have any shot.

6) Obama won big among black voters

Obama 2008 results

Obama had an opening with his Iraq war opposition, he raised a lot of money, and he organized in caucus states. But none of this would have been enough to make him the nominee if he didn't win the strong support of black voters.

As this chart shows, Obama won every primary in the eight states where more than 20 percent of the population is black, and sometimes racked up huge margins in them. This dominance was because he won the votes of between 78 and 91 percent of black voters in each of these states, according to exit polls. He'd net over 100 delegates from these eight states — close to the margin of his pledged delegate lead when the primary season ended.

"It's when black Americans back a challenger that the establishment candidate falters," Jamelle Bouie writes at Slate. "If Hillary Clinton had kept a decent share of the black vote, she would have become the Democratic nominee." So unless a challenger to Clinton can manage to win big among black voters in 2016, her position looks strong.

7) Clinton didn't appear more electable than Obama

General election polling Feb - April 2008

Once Obama's narrow delegate advantage after Super Tuesday became evident, it was clear that Clinton was the underdog. She needed something that could shake up a race that was looking incredibly stable.

Obama was still a new face, and there were lingering fears among many Democrats that he might perform more weakly in the general election than Clinton. If there were some evidence to support this argument, Clinton might have been able to persuasively appeal to Democrats fearful of losing the White House three times in a row to nominate her instead.

Unfortunately for her, the polling data showed just the opposite. As you can see above, polling in the two months after Super Tuesday (early February to early April 2008) showed that in head-to-head matchups, Obama beat McCain more often than Clinton beat McCain. With that polling, there was no reason for Obama-supporting Democrats to doubt their choice.

This time around, Clinton consistently leads head-to-head polls against all her potential Republican rivals. Now, general election polls so many months in advance aren't very predictive, and frequently reflect name recognition.

But imagine what might be happening if Clinton was consistently losing these polls. Potential rivals would sense weakness, and some in the party might risk taking a chance on someone else. As it is now, though, Democrats seem happy with the candidate they've got.

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