Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about three million votes, a larger margin than Presidents Nixon and Kennedy had. She only lost the electoral college by roughly 100,000 votes (0.08 percent of the electorate) in three states. In a race that close, there is a long list of things that might have shifted the outcome of the presidential race.
I am sure that the Clinton campaign’s get out the vote (GOTV), data mining, advertising, debate zingers, primary election peace-making, voter suppression battling and many other things could have been better. Who knows, those improvements might have swung that relatively small number of votes. But if I had to name the top three things that swung the election, I wouldn’t name any of those more tactical issues. Instead, these are my nominees:
WORST POSSIBLE NOMINEE PROFILE FOR OUR ANTI-ESTABLISHMENT TIMES. I admire Hillary Clinton on many levels, and think she has been treated very unfairly in this campaign and throughout her career. But early on in the nomination cycle, it was extremely clear that general election voters were in a white hot anti-Washington establishment mood, and were looking for someone very different than a Hillary Clinton-type candidate.
Hillary Clinton was the ultimate Washington establishment candidate. Her resume, network, husband and demeanor absolutely screamed “Washington Insider.” Democrats could have run a less establishmenty candidate that was more sane than Trump –Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, others — but they chose to run a candidate who had the worst possible profile for the times.
This created two huge problems 1) It caused Hillary to lose change-oriented voters who supported change-oriented Obama in the past and 2) It caused much of the Obama coalition to sit out the race, or effectively throw their vote away by supporting a third party candidate.
President-elect Trump won a somewhat smaller vote total than Republicans have been winning in their past two presidential losses. Despite all of the post-election hype about the Trump political magic show, he didn’t perform that well, historically speaking. The difference wasn’t that Trump created a tsunami of support, it was that the cautious establishment-oriented Democratic candidate was unable to generate sufficient excitement among the Obama coalitions of 2008 and 2012, particularly millennials and people of color. This chart tells the story.
COMPLETE LACK OF ECONOMIC MESSAGE. In May, I made this argument:
The Clinton campaign needs to stick to a small number of lines of attack, even as the Trump vaudeville act continually tosses out new bait to lead the Clinton campaign down dozens of different messaging paths. Trump is clearly incapable of message discipline, but Clinton can’t allow his lack of discipline to destroy hers.
Swing voters are disgusted by establishment figures like Hillary and Congress, because they see them as part of a corrupt Washington culture that has rigged the economy for the wealthy few to the exclusion of the non-wealthy many. That is the central concern of many Trumpeters and Bern Feelers, and so that issue is the most important messaging ground for Clinton.
Therefore, Secretary Clinton should align a disciplined campaign messaging machine – ads, speech soundbites, policy announcements, surrogate messaging, etc. — around framing Mr. Trump as: Trump the self-serving economy rigger.
Why choose this framing over all of the other delicious options? First, it was proven effective against a billionaire candidate in 2012. There is message equity there. Why reinvent the wheel? Second, it goes to the core of what is bugging swing voters the most in 2016.
Needless to say, this never happened. The Clinton campaign reacted to pretty much everything that Trump did, and never stressed anything close to a bold agenda for addressing income inequality. She also failed to offer much of a critique of a Trump economic agenda that would badly aggravate income inequality for Trump’s base of voters.
For reasons I’ll never understand, the economic populist message and agenda that an unlikely candidate like Bernie Sanders used to light up the political world earlier in the election cycle was almost entirely ignored by Team Clinton. As a result, 59% of Americans are somewhat or very confident that the economy will improve under President-elect Trump. Given the truth about the devastation that will be caused by Trump policies, shame on Clinton for allowing that level of public delusion to develop.
CANDIDATE WITH WAY TOO MUCH BAGGAGE. The “controversies” swirling around Secretary Clinton were less a product of corruption than they were a product of three decades of relentless witch-hunting by conservatives in the Congress and at Fox TV, and gutless false equivalency reporting from the mainstream media. The FBI Director’s shameless manipulation of the email investigation and the New York Times’ ridiculous inflation of the email issue was especially damaging to Clinton.
But as unfair and maddening as most of the Hillary criticism was, Democrats knew full well that it was coming. They knew Clinton had three decades worth of earned and unearned skeletons in her family closet, but arrogantly chose her anyway.
If Democrats hope to win more Presidential elections, the days of always nominating the candidate with the longest political resume must end. In the current environment of non-stop congressional and media investigations, long political resumes now will always come with a long list of real and imagined “scandals.” Those alleged controversies will, quite unfairly, make veteran insiders increasingly unelectable, because confused, under-informed voters will always tend to conclude “if there is corruption smoke, there must be fire,” as so many did with Clinton.
If Democrats had run a candidate who didn’t have known “scandals” looming, and who had a background, demeanor, agenda and message that gave voters confidence that they were willing and able to do something about an economy rigged in favor of the 1%, Democrats wouldn’t have needed to look for a stray 100,000 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. They could have won in an electoral college landslide over the worst Republican presidential candidate of our times.