To defeat Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary contests, Hillary Clinton executed a series of policy left turns—and when she tried to pivot back in the general election, found voters cool to her latest efforts at reinvention.
For instance, Clinton’s attacks on the Vermonter’s record on guns helped the former secretary of state win the New York Democratic primary in April. But they provided rich material for Republican attack ads that pushed up conservative turnout in Colorado and Nevada in November.
Hillary Clinton’s commitment to end Obama-era immigration enforcement and put illegal immigrants on a pathway to citizenship helped clinch the Florida primary in March. That same commitment pushed North Carolina, Nevada, and Ohio securely back into the Republican column eight months later.
Even after it was clear she’d sewn up the nomination in the spring, Clinton delayed tacking back to the center. She campaigned on costly commitments to universal access to pre-K and debt-free access to in-state public colleges. Clinton pledged important tax increases on high-income earners, including a new surtax atop the existing Obamacare surtaxes. For middle-income earners, she offered no tax relief at all.
More damaging than the policy course was the communications strategy. The Clinton campaign embraced a “base mobilization” strategy. It hit Trump hard for offering Americans the same-old Republican platform of the Reagan and Bush years.
The message backfired.
Whatever else Trump is, he’s obviously not an ideological extremist. Ironically, the only people impressed by attacks on Trump as the second coming of Barry Goldwater were conservative Republicans who had worried that Trump was not reliable on their issues. More middle-of-the-road voters simply did not believe that Trump—who’d promised to protect Social Security, Medicaid, and Planned Parenthood—was an ultra-conservative. Instead, soft Republicans and many Democrats rallied to Trump’s claim: “I’m a problem solver, folks. I’m a builder.” The result: Among college-educated voters, male and female, Trump ran exactly equal with Mitt Romney’s 2012 performance.
Among lower-income, less-educated whites, Trump ran ahead of Romney, thanks to his emphatic message against “bad trade deals” and illegal immigration. To that group, Trump effectively argued that it was the Democrats—not he—who were extreme.
The most surprising ballots of 2016, however, were those cast by nonwhite voters. The Clinton campaign had tried to appeal to soft Republicans, especially women, by depicting Trump as dangerous. Trump ads seized on the word “DANGEROUS” and made it their own slogan. They contrasted surging murder rates in some of the country’s largest cities with Hillary Clinton’s commitment to reducing prison populations. Pundits had expected Trump’s anti-China message to cost him Asian American votes. Hillary Clinton’s soft-on-crime message cut deeper, however. While this bloc again voted majority Democrat, Trump’s anti-crime message delivered the GOP its highest share of Asian American votes since George H.W. Bush’s 55 percent in 1992.