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How Hillary Clinton Locked Up The Democratic Nomination In 10 Steps

The Washington Post/Washington Post/Getty Images

The primary season isn't quite wrapped yet (six states hold Democratic contests Tuesday), but Hillary Clinton has now secured the number of delegates needed (2,383) to become the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee.

Speaking Monday night, Clinton said, "according to the news, we are on the brink of a historic, historic, unprecedented moment. But we still have work to do, don't we?"

It wasn't easy for Clinton to emerge from this campaign season victorious — she got there by applying lessons from her failed 2008 bid and forming strong alliances with Democrats, President Obama and voters of color. And by surviving an epic 11-hour congressional hearing.

Here's a look back at the Democratic primary and 10 steps Clinton took to climb to the nomination:

1. Cracks In The Glass Ceiling

On June 7, 2008, four days after the final votes were cast in the lengthy and contentious Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton gave quite possibly the best political speech of her career. She was bowing out of the race, conceding what news organizations had already called. Barack Obama had won more pledged delegates and had more so-called superdelegates lined up behind him. He was going to be the party's nominee.

Depending on how you counted, Clinton had won the popular vote and could have taken the fight all the way to the convention. But instead, she brought her supporters together at the Building Museum in Washington, D.C., to mourn what could have been and look ahead. Gone (at least visibly) was the bitterness of the campaign, replaced with a message about all they had accomplished.

"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," Clinton said to the roaring crowd. "And the light is shining through like never before, filling us all with the hope and the sure knowledge that the path will be a little easier next time."

And seemingly, it has been a little easier for her this time. Clinton appears more comfortable nodding to her chance at making history than she was in 2008, usually with a joke about her hair or as a rebuttal to the idea that she's too establishment. Her supporters frequently talk about it, saying things like "it's time." In dozens of interviews with Clinton backers, excitement about having a woman make it to the White House is almost always preceded or followed by mention of Clinton as the "most qualified" or "experienced" candidate in the race. And whatever you do, don't suggest they're just voting for her because she's a woman.

2. The Democratic Establishment

So-called superdelegates are a pretty good stand-in for the Democratic Party establishment. They are elected officials and party leaders, and they overwhelmingly support Hillary Clinton. Back in November, when NPR first looked at the declared allegiances of these superdelegates, Clinton had a 45 to 1 advantage over her most serious opponent, Bernie Sanders.

Clinton had the endorsement of all but one Democratic woman in the Senate, and Sanders won the endorsement of only one of his Senate colleagues, Jeff Merkley. Endorsements don't necessarily sway voters, but they do indicate institutional support and in this case a coalescing behind a single candidate.

Clinton's shadow loomed large over the Democratic field — so large that many big names in the party didn't even think about running in 2016. Elizabeth Warren didn't run. Joe Biden stayed out (though the death of his son likely had more to do with that than concern about taking on Clinton). The nation's most popular sitting Democratic governors sat out, too (Maryland's recently former Gov. Martin O'Malley did run, but his campaign never took off). That meant Clinton's biggest competition was a 74-year-old independent senator from Vermont who described himself as a Democratic socialist.

The Democratic National Committee and its chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have never admitted it, but many looked at the Democratic debate schedule and saw an advantage for Clinton. There were initially only a handful of debates scheduled, and the first one wasn't until October, meaning lesser-known candidates like O'Malley and Sanders weren't able to get a nationally televised audience for their message until a big part of the campaign (and even some voter registration deadlines) had passed.

Sanders was able to draw huge crowds, raise massive sums of money and win an impressive number of states. But the Democratic Party establishment never wavered in its support of Clinton.

3. Embracing President Obama

There was no love lost between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama during the primary in 2008. But when it was over, Clinton endorsed her opponent and even called for the end of the roll call vote at the convention, moving that Obama win the nomination by acclamation. She worked hard to make sure that her supporters, even those known as PUMAs ("party unity my a**"), came around to supporting Obama.

She and her husband, Bill, campaigned tirelessly for Obama through the fall. And then, when Obama asked, she agreed to join the Obama administration as secretary of state. She then worked tirelessly in that position, traveling to more than 100 countries promoting Obama's agenda.

Why does this matter? Because her loyalty didn't go unnoticed by voters who supported and continue to support Obama.

"She was a fighter, but she knew when to let go," said Paulette Roca, who saw Clinton speak at the National Action Network convention, organized by civil rights activist Al Sharpton. "And now? She's going to be OK now. She has respect. When black women respect you, you've got respect" (see No. 4 for more on this).

In the primary, Clinton was able to ride Obama's coattails, while at times (Wall Street regulation, campaign cash) using him as a human shield against attacks from Sanders.

4. Support Of Black Women

Black women love Hillary Clinton. At least that's what exit polls from state after state will tell you. In Alabama, 93 percent of black women voted for her. In Virginia, it was 85 percent. And this is no small thing because in 2008 and 2012, African-American women were the most reliable Democratic voters. This support was a critical part of Clinton's firewall against Sanders in the early voting states of Nevada and South Carolina, and made a big difference for her in the March 1 Super Tuesday states and beyond.

How did Clinton earn such overwhelming support? Years and years of relationships. One of Clinton's first jobs was working with Marian Wright Edelman at the Children's Defense Fund. And in more recent years, she has quietly reached out to the mothers of young African-Americans killed in gun violence or encounters with police.

"When you're openly grieving and the secretary of state steps to you, you'd better endorse her, because she's already endorsed you," said Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, a woman who died in her jail cell last year. Reed-Veal and other "mothers of the movement" were campaigning for Clinton.

Clinton had no surrogates more powerful than those mothers.

5. Learning From Her Mistakes

In 2008, Clinton was the candidate with town halls that were too big, infighting advisers, and an operation that didn't get into the nitty-gritty details of delegates and missed the political phenomenon about to overtake her. In 2016, Clinton's campaign purposely kept the events small and emphasized listening. She hired a no-drama campaign manager and brought on Obama's polling and delegate gurus. The campaign's mantra has been, "We're working for every vote and taking nothing for granted." Even if no one believed them at first, the 2016 Clinton campaign has always operated like it was expecting a tough primary (it got one from Sanders) and a challenging general election fight, too.

Compared with Sanders' big rallies, her small town halls and coffee chats have seemed puny and low on energy. But for those who attend, there's a real connection.

"I think she works the room like this like nobody can," said Adrienne Press, a supporter who attended a small Clinton rally in Manhattan. Afterward, Clinton worked the rope line for a long time, shaking hands and taking selfies. "You see the real Hillary in this situation, and that fires people up. It fires me up."

The campaign has played to Clinton's strengths (her wonk flag flies at town hall-style events) and emphasized winning the most delegates possible in every contest, helping her build up a massive lead Sanders was never able to substantially dent.

6. Tacking Left, Even Before Bernie Sanders

Clinton and her team knew from the start that economic populism was running strong through the Democratic electorate. In the very first remarks of her campaign, Clinton called for a constitutional amendment to reverse the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision on campaign finance, and she decried the growing separation between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else.

"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," Clinton said at a campaign stop in Iowa. "And there's something wrong with that."

This didn't stop Sanders from getting into the race a month later. Now, more than a year later, she is pitching herself to Sanders supporters, saying their differences really aren't all that great.

7. All Those Plans

Clinton has a mountain of policy papers and more on the way. They cover everything from opioid addiction and mass incarceration to paid family leave and Alzheimer's. If there's an issue Clinton has heard about on the campaign trail, she likely has a plan to address it.

It's something she says people mock her for (though it's not clear who).

"Some people have commented like, 'Enough with the plans, Hillary. We don't want to hear anymore plans,' " she said with a smile at a rally in April.

But she argued that the plans were a critical part of her campaign, of letting voters know what they are signing up for.

"It is easy to diagnose the problems facing America," she said to cheers. "We need solutions that we work together to achieve."

This praise of plans may not sound all that inspiring, but spend a little time talking to Clinton supporters, and it seems like each one cites a different plan as something that really hits home for them and motivated them to volunteer for the campaign. All those plans also allowed Clinton to deliver her message to people in places where they wouldn't necessarily find politics, like a Facebook group for families of children with autism.

8. Benghazi Hearing Zen

Sanders had been gaining steam throughout the summer, but the campaign hit a wall in October 2015. That's when Clinton turned in a strong debate performance and then a week later made it through an epic 11-hour hearing of the House special committee investigating the attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans including the ambassador to Libya. The Benghazi attack was one of the darkest moments of Clinton's time as secretary of state and has been a weight on her ever since, through multiple congressional investigations and a raft of conspiracy theories about what really happened.

The hearing also focused on Clinton's exclusive use of a private email server for official business while she was secretary of state. When the hearing was over, the reviews were nearly unanimous: Clinton had performed well under pressure, and the committee's Republicans failed to find any smoking guns. The committee has still not released its investigative report and has largely been quiet since the hearing.

9. Sanders Let Her Off The Hook

It was perhaps Sanders' most memorable line of the entire campaign. It came in the first Democratic debate of 2015, and it largely neutralized one of Clinton's largest liabilities, at least for the primary.

"The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails," Sanders said to applause.

Clinton responded saying: "Thank you. Me too, me too." She let out a big laugh.

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

Now, the email issue is far from over. The inspector general for the State Department recently released a highly critical report saying Clinton hadn't followed department protocol and that she and her team didn't cooperate with his investigation. And the FBI has an ongoing investigation into her use of a private server for official business.

But, thanks in part to Sanders, Clinton's email problem was more of a nuisance than a deal breaker in the Democratic primary.

10. Doing The Hard Work

There were the photo lines with volunteers before and after public events, the calls to superdelegates, the trips to states she had no chance of winning, with the hope of narrowing the margin and securing a few more delegates. That's what Clinton did.

Her campaign's volunteers and staff held house parties, they knocked on doors in snowstorms (people are extra friendly then) and spent hours making phone calls.

Organizing isn't glamorous. It's the grunt work of campaigning. But her campaign credits that hard work with her narrowest-of-margins win in the Iowa caucuses. The demographics of the state favored Sanders, but she was able to pull out a win. Barely.

In short, Hillary Clinton and her campaign never took it easy.

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.
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