Why did Hillary Clinton lose last week’s presidential election? The candidate herself believes James Comey, the FBI director who notified Congress in an October 28 letter that he was reopening the inquiry into her private emails, was to blame. Her campaign, meanwhile, has cited “a host of uncontrollable headwinds,” asserting that her team did all they could in an unforeseeably difficult environment.
Many Democrats, however, are less forgiving of the campaign and its strategy. It may be true that the Comey letter shaved a crucial few points off Clinton’s vote in the home stretch. But critics believe a better campaign would have left her less exposed to a last-minute surprise. If not for a series of miscalculations, these critics contend, the Comey letter wouldn’t have had the impact it did—and she might be president-elect today.
“I truly believe she was ahead two weeks out and had a catastrophic last two weeks,” a senior operative for an uncoordinated pro-Clinton effort, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me. “But that she was even in a position to have been able to lose in the last two weeks was the result of a lot of forces laid in place before that.”
Everything becomes clear in hindsight, of course, and the Clinton team was hardly alone in thinking it had the election in the bag—Trump’s campaign thought so, too. But devastated Democrats have settled on a handful of decisions that, in retrospect, might have sealed her fate.
First, they contend, Clinton need not have wholly ceded white working-class voters to Trump, who won them by a larger margin than Ronald Reagan in his 1984 landslide. Meanwhile, she failed to get young people and minorities—the too-aptly-named “Obama coalition”—excited about her candidacy. Both of those weaknesses, critics say, could be traced back to a message that emphasized social diversity over economic fairness. And the Clinton team’s overweening confidence blinded it to her weaknesses.
The postmortem debate over Clinton’s loss is more than just finger-pointing—it has important implications for how the Democratic Party moves forward. Some partisans side with her team in blaming external forces, from events like the Comey letter to the media’s coverage of the race. Others look at Clinton's lead going into the final weeks, in a nation where most voters view President Obama favorably, and conclude that she blew an eminently winnable race. (A Clinton campaign official disputed many of these critiques to me, but acknowledged that the widespread expectation she was going to win made it difficult for the campaign to see weaknesses. The official also conceded that Clinton’s campaign underestimated the electorate’s desire for change.)
How partisans decide to view Clinton’s loss—as a fluke, as a tactical shortcoming, or as the product of deeper issues—will determine how they attempt to rebuild. For a party that finds itself decimated and powerless at almost every level, those are consequential conclusions indeed.
Explanation No. 1: The white working class. Trump galvanized white voters without college degrees, particularly in the Rust Belt; Clinton’s team calculated that this bloc was a lost cause and could be ignored in favor of focusing on her base and trying to persuade white-collar voters she was the less risky choice. Bill Clinton reportedly agitated for the campaign to pay more attention to the “bubbas” that had once been his base, only to be rebuffed by a campaign staff that believed his worldview was out of date.
Were these voters gettable? As Alec MacGillis reported, many blue-collar men voted for Barack Obama against John McCain and Mitt Romney because they thought he better related to their struggles. They did not think the same of Clinton, who spent the last eight years becoming synonymous with the global elite. The result was that, while Obama won union households by 18 points nationally, Clinton won them by just 8 points, and fared far worse in the midwestern states that decided the election. She lost rural voters by a 2-to-1 margin, again worse than Obama.
Obama, at his press conference Monday, argued against the idea that Democrats can afford to write off any group or region of voters, saying, “We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grassroots level, something that's been a running thread in my career.” He won states like Iowa, the president argued, because he competed hard for their votes.
Clinton’s primary opponent echoed the theme: “I come from the white working class,” Bernie Sanders tweeted on Monday, “and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party cannot talk to the people where I came from.”
Meanwhile, Clinton’s single-minded focus on Republican-leaning college-educated white women meant she was reliant on soft support from a group that would rather, all things being equal, vote for the Republican candidate. When fresh doubts arose about Clinton, that group was all too ready to fly the coop. “One of Clinton’s strategies was to appeal to moderate Republican women by showing how disgusting Trump is,” Joe Dinkin of the Working Families Party, a left-wing party that endorsed Sanders in the primaries but worked for Clinton in the general election, told me. But, he said, “being a Republican voter means already having come to terms with voting for disgusting racists and sexists sometimes.”
Explanation No. 2: The “Obama coalition.” While Clinton’s campaign was focused on television advertising aimed at suburban swing voters, there were ample warning signs that African American and Millennial voters weren’t inspired by her candidacy. Polls and focus groups showed young people disliked both candidates; in interviews, black voters were unenthused. But Clinton’s campaign assumed they would show up for her simply because they were afraid of Trump.
Instead, many of them refused to fall in line. Eight percent of African American voters under 30 chose a third-party candidate, as did 5 percent of Latinos under 30, according to an analysis of the election results by the Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher. These “protest votes,” he argued, were enough to seal Clinton’s fate, even though this year’s electorate was just as diverse as 2012’s, and Trump did not do any better than Romney among young, minority voters.
Clinton, Belcher said, agreed with these voters on the issues they cared about, such as criminal justice and police brutality, but failed to reach them effectively. The campaign ignored warnings from Belcher and others, such as Florida Representative Alcee Hastings, that it wasn’t doing enough to reach out to black voters in particular.
The larger issue for the Democratic Party is that the coalition of voters that elected Obama has never come out to vote for Democrats when Obama wasn’t atop the ticket. “These younger black and brown voters who supported Obama were more his voters than Dem voters,” Belcher told me. “They had a stronger allegiance to him than a party, though clearly Dem in issue orientation.”
Explanation No. 3: The economic message. Bound up in both the above problems, critics contend, was a campaign message that focused more on social issues and embracing diversity—“stronger together,” “who we are”—than on themes of economic justice. “This [result] is the culmination of a long-term process that began quite a long time ago, of the Democratic Party walking away from working-class people and working-class issues over the years and becoming the party of the professional class,” Thomas Frank, author of Listen, Liberal!, said on a broadcast of NPR’s Diane Rehm Show on Monday. Frank’s book, which came out in March, urged the party to eschew corporatism and return to its economic-justice roots.
Clinton talked about taxing the rich, redistributing wealth, and creating various new benefits, like paid family leave. But she rarely talked about jobs—a message that would have resonated with the working class of all races. Her “America is already great” message didn’t carry far beyond the degree-rich elites who are indeed doing fine these days, particularly against Trump’s message of right-wing economic populism. (The Clinton official contended that she campaigned vigorously on the economy and noted that, according to exit polls, Clinton won the majority of voters who said the economy was the most important issue.)
Clinton also chose temperament as the main line of attack about Trump, painting him as erratic, unqualified, and bigoted—“unfit,” in her terms—rather than as an out-of-touch rich guy who couldn’t understand regular people’s struggles. In my own conversations with African American voters, they were often bothered less by Trump’s racism, which struck them as nothing new, than by his having inherited wealth and never having had to earn his position. Clinton might have thought she was too privileged herself to pull off an attack on Trump’s material circumstances, but she allowed Trump to cast himself as a workingman’s candidate virtually unopposed.
Explanation No. 4: The machine. Clinton’s campaign was run by the field-organizing guru Robby Mook, based on the Obama model of data-driven field organizing. The campaign hierarchy brushed off as “bedwetting” allies’ qualms about the paint-by-numbers strategy. As a DNC staffer told U.S. News & World Report, “They were too reliant on analytics and not enough on instinct and human intel from the ground.” Political consultants tend to overestimate the effect of campaign tactics, and a good “ground game” is no substitute for a movement’s organic zeal.
The Clinton machine’s supposedly precise targeting may not have been all it was cracked up to be: Two former Sanders advisers contended in the Huffington Post that Clinton was unwittingly turning out Trump supporters based on their demographic profiles. And her team’s focus on micro-messaging came at the expense of thematic unity. As another former Sanders adviser, Scott Goodstein, put it, “No amount of digital savvy will take you across the finish line if you don’t have a message that resonates.... The Clinton campaign too often chose gimmicks over real heartfelt messages.”
Explanation No. 5: Arrogance. In one of his weirder and more imaginary riffs on the stump, Trump claimed that when Clinton came off the trail to supposedly prepare for the debates, she was actually “sleeping,” insinuating without evidence that she was lazy and frail. She wasn’t either of those things, but it was true that, even late in the campaign, she kept a light schedule, holding fewer events than her rival. This worried senior Democrats, who told me she seemed to be taking winning for granted rather than fighting for it.
Clinton’s leisurely pace fed the perception that she thought she was marching to an inevitable coronation. Inevitability didn’t work out too well for Clinton in 2008, and it didn’t work this year, either.
This was not a resounding defeat for Clinton and the Democrats, of course—she won the popular vote, and Trump received a smaller percentage of the vote than Romney did four years ago. But it exposed a wellspring of brewing discontent in the Democratic ranks—issues that, in retrospect, Obama’s victories and Republican dysfunction papered over for years. Now the question is how Democrats pick up the pieces.