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How Hillary Clinton Made History After Suffering 2008 Defeat


Hillary Clinton has emerged the winner of this year's Democratic presidential primary contest even though it turned out to be more competitive than expected. It is the second presidential campaign in which Clinton entered as the favorite to win the Democratic nomination. NPR's Tamara Keith looks at how Clinton turned her defeat in 2008 into victory eight years later.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: This is the moment when Hillary Clinton began putting the pieces in place for her 2016 run.


HILLARY CLINTON: Although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it.

KEITH: It was June 7, 2008, a few days after the last votes were cast in her bitter contest with Barack Obama. She threw her support behind him that day. In that gesture, Clinton proved herself to be a loyal Democrat. And the party establishment has been loyal to her this year. Clinton has the overwhelming support of the so-called superdelegates. Many consider her a friend, and it goes beyond the party elites.

Rank-and-file Democrats remember how Clinton handled defeat in 2008 and that has helped her preserve big parts of Obama's winning coalition. Paulette Roca saw Clinton speak at an event put on by the Reverend Al Sharpton in April.

PAULETTE ROCA: She's a fighter. She knew when to let go, and now she's going to be OK now. She has respect. When black women respect you, you've got respect.

KEITH: Black women have been a key part of Clinton's success. Two elections running, they've been the most reliable Democratic voters. And exit polls would indicate Bernie Sanders was just never able to break through. And here's another way Clinton's endorsement of Obama helped her 2016 campaign.


BARACK OBAMA: She possesses an extraordinary intelligence and a remarkable work ethic. I am proud that she will be our next secretary of state.

KEITH: In 2008, Clinton's foreign policy experience was based on her time as first lady and senator. But in 2016, the former secretary of state is able to talk about her travels to more than a hundred countries, meetings with foreign leaders and this...


CLINTON: I remember being in the situation room with President Obama debating the potential bin Laden operation.

KEITH: She was one of the people advising him to go for it, and, ultimately, it was successful. Politically and tactically, Clinton has also learned from her mistakes. In 2008, she was the supposedly inevitable candidate with big events that didn't work, infighting advisers and an operation that failed on the nitty-gritty details of delegates.

In 2016, Clinton's campaign kept the events small and emphasized listening.


CLINTON: I think I'll try (unintelligible). Is that OK?

KEITH: Her first campaign event was at a tiny coffee shop in Iowa. Compared to Sanders' big rallies, Clinton's small town halls and chats over tea and muffins have seemed puny and low energy. But it gave her an opportunity to connect with those who attended. She's even been able to do that at her rallies. Adrienne Press attended one in New York.

ADRIENNE PRESS: I think she works a room like this like nobody can. You know, I think that there's - like, you see the real Hillary in the situation, and that fires people up. It fires me up.

KEITH: In 2008, Clinton and her campaign missed the political phenomenon about to overtake her. This time, she was looking to her left flank before Bernie Sanders ever announced his candidacy.


CLINTON: I think it's fair to say that as you look across the country, the deck is still stacked in favor of those already at the top, and there's something wrong with that.

KEITH: Though at times, as Bernie Sanders has said, the inevitable candidate didn't look so inevitable. They essentially tied in the Iowa caucuses, and Sanders won the New Hampshire primary in a blowout. Clinton struggled to land on an inspirational message, and state after state lost young voters to Sanders.

And there was the question of her honesty. Throughout her campaign, Clinton has been dogged by questions about her exclusive use of a private email server for official business while secretary of state. But the email problem wasn't nearly as big a challenge for Clinton as it could've been because Sanders essentially took it off the table at the first Democratic debate sponsored by CNN back in October.


BERNIE SANDERS: The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails.

CLINTON: Thank you. Me too, me too (laughter).


SANDERS: You know?

KEITH: Sanders' larger point that the emails were a distraction from the important issues facing Americans was lost in the applause and laughter. He had just seemingly let her off the hook.

The next week, Clinton slayed another dragon when she sat through an 11-hour hearing of the House Select Committee on Benghazi and didn't break a sweat. Under intense questioning from Republicans on the panel, she was somber and measured.


CLINTON: I've lost more sleep than all of you put together. I have been racking my brain about what more could have been done or should have been done.

KEITH: But Clinton's campaign is far from over. These controversies and others will have new life in the general election. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.