Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton knew when she launched her campaign in March 2015 that she would be attacked as an out of touch elitist. To combat this, the Clinton campaign launched a tour of Iowa in what was affectionately termed the, “Mystery Bus.”
In a sign of how voters viewed her candidacy when she walked into diner for a bite the kids and teenagers did not even know who she was. The older voters shrugged and went about their day. The only people who cared were the media. One could say this is the epitome of why Clinton lost.
From day one Clinton has had a tough time relating to the average voter. She was scripted, stuck to Obama’s talking points, and followed the familiar Democratic attacks on Republicans/Trump for their extreme social conservatism.
Nowhere could this be seen better than a comparison between the events of Obama, Trump, and Clinton. Whereas Obama events in 2012 drew raucous crowds and he could fire up his supporters Clinton’s events were small, scripted and familiar. The same theme was repeated over and over (that only gets you so far, just ask Marco Rubio). Trump’s events were truly a sight to behold. Massive rallies of thousands and Trump was unique in each of them. Hitting on different themes at each.
But, of course Clinton being out of touch with the average voter is not the only reason she lost. Indeed, one of her greatest strengths, her connection to Wall-Street donors, painted her as an elitist insider beholden to the establishment, PC orientated, culture of big cities.
Worse, over the course of the entire campaign little things compounded the problem. Wikileaks drip, drip, drip of emails about how she and her team viewed Bernie supporters. Her continuous email scandal. Her big money support driving voters away from trusting her to change a system she was already deeply entrenched in and benefiting from.
These problems were compounded by several strategic blunders that built upon themselves. First, Clinton made the campaign entirely about Trump. That works to an extent, but not at the expense of a compelling message for your candidacy. Indeed, Clinton’s camp alternated between elevating her being the first women elected to the Presidency to her being most qualified to her being a unifying candidate to, well, you get the picture.
It might have made sense to follow this pattern if the campaign did not already have a dozen warning signs their lack of a a unifying theme was not working.
The first and ongoing sign was Bernie Sander’s insurgent campaign. Not only did she barely win Iowa but she was crushed in blue-collar New Hampshire. If not for the primary process running through the South and minority voters she might have been unseated by a spunky, 70 plus year old socialist. This spunky socialist captured the hearts and minds of young and old, particularly in the Midwest, with a message focused around disappearing jobs and a shrinking middle class. Clinton’s campaign kept throwing out red meat to her base on equal rights, abortion and bathrooms for all.
Even after a hard fought primary the Clinton campaign did not change course. Instead of defining their candidate the campaign decided to go all in on attacking Trump. The thinking was that even a flawed candidate could defeat a more flawed opponent.
But, as David Axelrod said, “you can’t manufacture enthusiasm. There was an assumption that antipathy toward Trump would be enough to mobilize the base . . . a certain lethargy that sets in when you’ve had the White House for eight years. Your troops are just not as hungry.”
This was particularly true in the region that decided the election, the Midwest. To the bafflement of many campaign staffers, she and her campaign team decided to air ads in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan late in the game that did not mirror the messaging of local unions.
The ads attacked Trump for comments he had made about women, minorities, people with disabilities, and his lack of fitness for the Presidency. The ads polled well but as soon as an attack ad from a 3rd party group talked about Clinton’s emails voters responded even more strongly.
Some things can poll strongly but not necessarily move people to vote. It is clear the ads drove up Trump’s unfavorable ratings but they did not discourage swing voters from picking him. And it does not look like it mobilized Clinton’s base to turn out in the states that decided the election.
We can see this by comparing turnout between Hillary and Obama in Milwaukee, Philly, and Detroit. In all three places, Clinton received fewer votes than Obama. Her margin in Philly was 40,000 fewer votes than Obama in a state she lost by 37,000 votes. In Detroit, Clinton garnered almost 70,000 fewer votes than Obama even as Trump won 15,000 more votes than Romney. He won the state by fewer than 12,000 votes.
By the time the Clinton campaign realized their blunder (SuperPac polls showed Michigan and Wisconsin trending to Trump) it was too late. A late visit by Obama was scheduled for Ann Arbor instead of Detroit. Clinton never physically visited Wisconsin even when internal polls showed the race tied. Instead, her wait out the clock theme had her sending surrogates in her place.
In retrospect, the Clinton campaign’s idea of hiding their candidate whenever she jumped ahead of Trump was a bad idea. Every time she moved ahead of Trump in the polls it was because Trump said or did something stupid but it was never because she was surging on her own merits. Soon after, the polls would return to a minor edge for her campaign.
The bottom dropped out for her campaign with less than two weeks before the election with James Comey’s announcement he had found a trove of emails related to her tenure as Secretary of State. According to the campaign’s internals, her numbers dropped among college educated white women and men.
But, her campaign could have dealt with the email issue a year ago by apologizing and promising to work with the FBI and administration to ensure no classified information was shared, according to several former campaign staffers. Instead, the campaign went into prevent defense and protected their candidate voraciously even as the scandal continued to drip, drip, drip.
But even worse than her campaign’s handling of the emails and schedule was her GOTV efforts and attempts to woo GOP voters. In early October, the campaign wrestled with whether to visit and pour money into traditionally red states such as Arizona and Indiana. She did not need them to win the election. In the end, millions were spent on ads and several trips were made to states where she was unlikely to win but she could possibly boost down-ballot candidates (Indiana and Arizona Senate candidates).
Such efforts probably took attention away from the campaign’s efforts to get liberals to go out and vote. But, intriguing enough, her GOTV efforts might have benefited Trump in the Rustbelt.
Trump’s campaign lacked the cash and infrastructure to run a modern, professional campaign and relied on the RNC and individual Senate candidates campaigns. Clinton’s team was obsessed with data and used voter records and data purchased from voter archives to target likely and registered Democrats. The problem was that in many rural, downscale, majority white communities many registered Democrats were voting Republican and simply not telling pollsters it. The result raises the distinct possibility her campaign spent millions on turning out closet Trump voters.
The are a myriad of reasons for why Clinton lost. She was a victim of the political environment, was not seen as a change candidate, was part of the political establishment key voters loathed, and her campaign made strategic decisions that in hindsight have baffled left and right. Ultimately, it allowed the most divisive and heterodoxical GOP candidate in several decades to exploit her flaws and win the White House.