By now, you’ve been inundated by analyses, explanations, speculation and excuses as to why the outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election shocked so many observers. Although some people correctly predicted the outcome, most people, including within the Trump campaign, weren’t prepared for the result.
The examination of data, interviews, inside information and wild guesses will definitely go on for a while. There may never be a conclusion that draws universal acceptance but there are surely a number of most relevant factors. Whatever consensus is reached within the Democratic Party is of great consequence because it will impact the immediate response to the election as well as election strategies in the future.
For Democrats, the most dangerous path is to focus on Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, point to a handful of anomalous events and conclude that nothing much needs to change. The candidate gave support to this position by arguing that James Comey’s ill-considered and unprecedented intervention turned the tide against her. Comey’s letter to Congressional leaders suggesting a reexamination of Clinton emails certainly had an impact, but was it decisive all by itself? Moreover, was it an October surprise that could have, indeed should have, been overcome?
The electoral college backlash is fundamentally silly. Everyone knew the rules for selecting presidents. It’s easy to argue that her popular vote victory undercuts any claims that Trump has a “mandate” but, historically, mandates have turned out to be only whatever a president was able to make of them.
There are some more serious assertions to consider. One, which I certainly believe has a significant measure of truth to it, is that some portion of voters were unwilling to elect a woman to be president. A related notion is that Clinton carried, fairly and unfairly, a lot of baggage from her long career in public life. The rhetoric of the Trump campaign and the behavior of some of his supporters at rallies certainly provide support for both of these propositions.
It’s true, however, that both of these problems were known before the campaign began and should have been factored into the strategy for winning. The degree of resistance to a woman candidate may have been greater than anticipated but was certainly apparent during the campaign.
As anyone who read my blogs during the campaign knows, I strongly supported Clinton. I voted for her, contributed money and volunteered in her campaign. In other words, I was a voter who was enthusiastic about the prospect of electing a woman to be president and I wasn’t troubled by the various allegations against her.
Still, I know lots of Democrats who either supported her reluctantly or couldn’t bring themselves to vote for her. If that problem existed within the Democratic base, it sharply underscores the difficulty her candidacy had in attracting independents and Republicans.
My point is that the campaign needed to have done a better job taking account of her negatives and the ambivalence that her candidacy provoked. Instead, as best I could tell as an observer, the primary strategic focus was on turning out the base without providing compelling substantive arguments for why Clinton should be elected.
I know that the campaign produced lots of policy papers and that she frequently urged voters to read them at HillaryClinton.com. That’s not really an effective outreach program. Moreover, in the early post-mortems, she has been widely criticized for not powerfully promoting an effective economic message.
The numbers, though still not fully in, suggest that the Trump campaign was much more effective at turning out infrequent voters than was Clinton. He kept winning counties that had gone for Barack Obama in 2012.
In retrospect, almost everyone agrees that this was an election about change. Trump’s labelling Clinton a Washington insider turned out to be an effective tactic. Her supporters focused on the value of her experience and dismissed him as an unqualified neophyte. However, for enough voters to make the difference in the election outcome, the opportunity for change was more compelling than the argument for experience.
Somehow, her campaign never fully caught the mood of the country. Instead, it focused almost exclusively on demonizing Trump, which was music to the ears of committed Clinton supporters, but fell flat will most other groups.
There’s a lot of talk in the aftermath of the election about the extent to which this is a deeply divided country with everyone living in their own political and cultural bubble. Experienced political professionals in Clinton’s campaign needed to see and hear beyond the bubble but apparently failed to do that.
I’m one of many people currently reading JD Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” which describes the worldview and cultural environment of some of America’s white working class. Trump understood their concerns intuitively while Clinton never tried to either listen or speak to them. Whether she could have connected is a reasonable question but her base did not produce enough votes to win in swing states that had been blue in recent elections.
At one point in the campaign, Trump argued that African-Americans should support him because “they had nothing to lose.” My strong suspicion is that that assertion actually resonated quite effectively with white working class voters and may have been one of the keys to his victory.
In the last few weeks of the campaign, prior to Comey’s involvement, the Clinton campaign seemed to get so confident that it was on its way to an easy victory that it started reallocating resources in an attempt to win long-shot states. Thinking there might be a path to the electoral votes of states like Arizona, Georgia and Missouri, the campaign stopped paying attention to Michigan, Wisconsin and Virginia.
Clinton lost the first two and barely held on in Virginia despite the conventional wisdom that her running mate’s state was a slam dunk. In a similar blunder, Clinton did not make a single campaign visit to Wisconsin after the Democratic Convention.
We’ll never know for sure if different strategies might have produced a different outcome. Clinton entered the campaign trying to make history as the first woman president, had some pre-existing negatives, encountered surprises outside her control and bet that promising a “third” Obama Administration would be a winning argument. Not all of Obama’s voters went to the polls and the prospect backfired with many voters desperate for change.
Maybe the Trump phenomenon, a totally unconventional candidate running at a time of swirling national anxiety, would have prevailed no matter what. However, there’s a real case to be made that the campaign committed serious strategic and tactical blunders that took an election that could have been won and turned it into a debacle, albeit a relatively close one.
If this analysis is even partly correct, a status quo approach that tinkers at the margins will leave the Democratic Party falling farther and farther into minority status. Demographics have not yet turned out to be destiny. Groups of voters don’t fall neatly into line; they expect to be appealed to and wooed.
If the Democratic Party has any chance if being competitive in the next election cycles, addressing the reasons for its struggling fortunes and for a loss in a presidential election that most people expected to win needs to start immediately. The same old answers by the same old party leaders are unlikely to produce different results.