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Those are the percentages by which Hillary Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, respectively. Wisconsin—the state of my birth and childhood to age 12, and with which I maintain an affective attachment—ended up being the tipping state, sending Trump over 270 EVs and to victory. La honte. I am quite sure that not a single person anywhere predicted this one. A shift of 77,787 votes in the three states, properly distributed—amounting to 0.057% of the 136,489,372 cast nationally—and Hillary would have won the election with 278 EVs—and we would be spared the ongoing intra Dem party polemics over what a terrible candidate she supposedly was and how badly her campaign was run. Not to mention, of course, the four-year national nightmare that awaits us.
The intra Dem polemics and other recriminations have intensified with the popular vote count finally certified—which HRC won, as one knows, by 2,864,974 votes: 48.06% and a historic margin of 2.09% for a losing candidate—and the Electoral College inevitably confirming Trump’s victory. Bernie Sanders supporters have been having a field day on social media with their Hillary-bashing and we-told-you-so’s. A case in point is the column in the New York Daily News by Shaun King, “Obama and the Clintons still have no earthly idea why the Democratic Party lost the presidential election,” which has been making the rounds. Among other things, King asserts
Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate to run against Donald Trump. Of course the Obama and Clinton families will never say this, but she was. I honestly believe that she may have been the only leading Democrat that Donald Trump could’ve beaten. Next to him, she was among the least popular politicians to ever run for president. Her weaknesses and challenges counterbalanced those of Trump time after time after time. Trump is a rich, unethical liar with major character problems. To beat him, you run the opposite of that. Clinton, true or not, was not seen as the opposite, but the Democratic equivalent.
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or even Joe Biden or Cory Booker would’ve all matched up better against Trump and his weaknesses, but you couldn’t tell the Democratic Party that. They had it all figured out from the very beginning.
This is monnaie courante among the Bernie frères and sœurs. Even lucid, hard-headed analysts have said much the same, e.g. my dear friend Adam Shatz, who, in a post-election commentary in the LRB, asserted that “it was increasingly clear that Clinton should never have been the Democratic candidate.” Two things are in order here. First, Elizabeth Warren did not run for the nomination, nor did Joe Biden. They made the sovereign decision not to enter the race. That they would have been stronger candidates against Trump than was Hillary is unknowable and a waste of time to be speculating over (though personally, I’m dubious). It is neither here nor there. They didn’t run, that’s it. The only candidates who declared apart from Bernie were Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee, and Jim Webb, and we know how long they lasted.
Secondly, Bernie—who, pour mémoire, is not a Democrat—ran a spirited campaign against Hillary and lost. She received 16.9 million primary and caucus votes (55.2%) to his 13.2 million (43.1%). Hillary decisively defeated Bernie and with landslide numbers. And no absence of alleged favoritism or putative shenanigans on the part of Debbie Wasserman Schultz or other DNC operatives toward the former would have shifted any of those primary or caucus votes to the latter. Hillary won the nomination race fair and square. End of story.
But if, for the sake of argument, Bernie had been the nominee, would he have fared better against Trump, i.e. beat him? Il ne faut pas se leurrer: the well-oiled Republican attack machine, which was chomping at the bit to run against a self-proclaimed “socialist,” would have cut Bernie into little pieces. Bernie would have been shredded. The Grand Old Party would have chewed him up and spat him out. John Judis, in his “final thoughts on the 2016 election,” is fairly sure that Bernie’s proposals for free college tuition and single-payer health care would have gotten him tarred with the “tax and spend” label. As one knows, Americans like “free stuff” just so long as they don’t have to pay for it.
But that’s not all the Repubs would have hit Bernie with. As Newsweek’s Kurt Eichenwald wrote in a piece last month,”The myths Democrats swallowed that cost them the presidential election,” Sanders would have been framed as a 1960s communist hippie and weirdo to boot, an image that, believe me, would not have played in Canonsburg PA, Stevens Point WI, or elsewhere in l’Amérique profonde:
I have seen the opposition book assembled by Republicans for Sanders, and it was brutal. The Republicans would have torn him apart. And while Sanders supporters might delude themselves into believing that they could have defended him against all of this, there is a name for politicians who play defense all the time: losers.
Here are a few tastes of what was in store for Sanders, straight out of the Republican playbook: He thinks rape is A-OK. In 1972, when he was 31, Sanders wrote a fictitious essay in which he described a woman enjoying being raped by three men. Yes, there is an explanation for it—a long, complicated one, just like the one that would make clear why the Clinton emails story was nonsense. And we all know how well that worked out.
Then there’s the fact that Sanders was on unemployment until his mid-30s, and that he stole electricity from a neighbor after failing to pay his bills, and that he co-sponsored a bill to ship Vermont’s nuclear waste to a poor Hispanic community in Texas, where it could be dumped. You can just see the words “environmental racist” on Republican billboards. And if you can’t, I already did. They were in the Republican opposition research book as a proposal on how to frame the nuclear waste issue.
Also on the list: Sanders violated campaign finance laws, criticized Clinton for supporting the 1994 crime bill that he voted for, and he voted against the Amber Alert system. His pitch for universal health care would have been used against him too, since it was tried in his home state of Vermont and collapsed due to excessive costs. Worst of all, the Republicans also had video of Sanders at a 1985 rally thrown by the leftist Sandinista government in Nicaragua where half a million people chanted, “Here, there, everywhere/the Yankee will die,’’ while President Daniel Ortega condemned “state terrorism” by America. Sanders said, on camera, supporting the Sandinistas was “patriotic.”
The Republicans had at least four other damning Sanders videos (I don’t know what they showed), and the opposition research folder was almost 2-feet thick. (The section calling him a communist with connections to Castro alone would have cost him Florida.) In other words, the belief that Sanders would have walked into the White House based on polls taken before anyone really attacked him is a delusion built on a scaffolding of political ignorance.
On Hillary and her campaign, yes, they made mistakes and didn’t do things they should have, like pay more attention to Michigan and Wisconsin. And Hillary shooting off her mouth about the “deplorables” was certainly not helpful. We all know this—though one does want to ask if Bernie supporters and other millennials in the aforementioned states who didn’t bother to vote, or did so for Jill Stein, should not be held at least partly responsible for the debacle. But here’s the bottom line: had it not been for the Comey letter eleven days before the election, Hillary would have won. Period. Sam Wang has crunched the numbers and these are categorical: Hillary dropped four points in the polls in the wake of the letter’s release, and though she recovered two of the points before election day, the two that were lost made all the difference in PA, MI, and WI—also likely also in Florida, which she lost by 1.2%. It is now definitive that the letter caused undecided voters to break heavily for Trump. Had Hillary won the four aforementioned states, her EV total would have been 307. Moreover, the Dems would have probably picked up the PA Senate seat and possibly the WI one too (though I am informed by a political operative friend there that Russell Feingold ran a pathetically bad campaign), allowing for a razor-thin Senate majority with Tim Kaine the tie-breaker.
Minus Comey’s October Surprise and his gratuitous declarations before the House Oversight Committee last July 7th, plus the Vladimir Putin-Julian Assange dirty tricks—all of which were bigly damaging to HRC—and she wins the PV by five points, if not more, and racks up a veritable EC landslide, taking NC, AZ, and the NE 2nd CD, for a total of 334 EVs. And who knows, maybe she would have won GA too, pushing the EV count to 350. Hélas.
Ah yes, but she was such bad, awful candidate, so everyone says, ran such a miserable campaign, and failed to speak to the economic anxiety of the famous white working class. This has been repeated so many times ad infinitum—and not just by the usual suspect Hillary-bashers—that it almost goes without saying. But how was she bad? What was it about Hillary Clinton that made her an awful candidate? Now it is true that she is not a great stump speaker. She doesn’t fire up crowds. To which I say: so what? Since when does the ability to deliver barn-burning speeches become a prerequisite for winning election to high office? In point of fact, only a minority of US presidents in our era—Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama—have been objectively impressive public speakers and able to affectively connect with big audiences. Most politicians, including those in the top-tier, are not memorable public orators. E.g. Angela Merkel, who is now the titular leader of the Free World, is not superior to Hillary Clinton when it comes to public speaking, at least not so far as I have seen.
Hillary, in fact, reminds one of Michel Rocard, who disliked speaking to big crowds, much preferring smaller groups and with interaction with the audience. This is clearly Hillary’s preference as well and which she excels at—and that won her the New York senate race in 2000, her first-ever foray into electoral politics (at age 52, which is late to be starting any kind of new career). Something else about Hillary’s political skills: she is not known to have political enemies. She worked well with her colleagues in Congress and including Republicans, who appreciated her. And her staff—people who work under her authority—are fiercely loyal to her. This should speak well of her, no?
As for the Clinton campaign’s message—or supposed lack of one—and alleged inability to speak to the WWC, this is poppycock. Hillary talked about jobs, workers, and economy more than anything else, so Vox’s David Roberts informs us in a content analysis of her speeches. But one could be forgiven for having no idea of this, as all the media wanted to talk about was her emails. Those damn emails, dixit Bernie Sanders.
Seriously, WTF was Hillary Clinton supposed to do or say that she didn’t? And what could she have done about the broadcast media’s disinterest in anything she had to say about policy?
Conclusion: Hillary Clinton was a good candidate in view of what she was up against. This comment by reader Christina Wos Donnelly on the Mother Jones Facebook page a week ago gets it right:
…HRC was campaigned against by 3 Democrats, 1 Independent, all 19 Republicans, 1 Libertarian, 1 Green Partier, the RNC, 2 Russian spy agencies and a whole factory of paid trolls, Breitbart & the alt-right, Julian Assange & Wikileaks, a hostile media, a deluge of dark money, AND the FBI, all trying to take a piece out of her, and STILL she won the popular vote by millions. 3 million to date. Take out vote suppression all across the South, TX and the swing states, and you’ve got your double digit lead. Donald Trump won by a mere 80,000 votes spread across 3 states, that’s one half of one percent.
To which one could add the obsessive 25-year campaign by the right to tear her down and destroy her reputation—and with which many on the left were complicit.
The final election polls were not way off. The final RCP average had HRC at +3.2, a mere 1.1% difference from her actual score. That does not constitute a massive polling failure. As for the key swing state polls: the final ones in PA showed it very close; in MI, they had HRC up +5, though one had Trump at +2; in WI there was bizarrely no polling in the last week; and in FL the race was essentially tied. Also: it turns out that the USC/LA Times tracking poll had a marked Trump skew after all, with its final number showing him up by 3. Way off base.
Many 2012 Obama voters who went for Trump invoked the “change” theme. The “need for change” was a leitmotif among these voters. This is classic in elections in which the incumbent party has been in office for two terms.
Trump has been insisting that he could have won the popular vote if he had wanted to, that if the POTUS were elected by direct PV he would have campaigned in California, New York, and other blue states, augmenting his vote totals there. John Judis has made a similar assertion in this vein. But if this had been the case, HRC would have campaigned throughout the Deep South and Texas, where there are troves of potentially untapped Dem voters. Moreover, she would have campaigned in safe blue states as well, driving up her numbers among voters who, knowing their state was already in the bag, cast ballots for third candidates or didn’t bother to vote. So the final result would have likely been a wash—and with HRC maintaining her margin of victory.
There was finally no drop in turnout in this election. It was, in fact, higher than in 2012. Many prior abstainers clearly came out of the woodwork to vote for Trump, while some Dem voters—mainly Afro-Americans—stayed home. To increase black turnout in the future, the Democrats may need to systematically have a black on the ticket. Just as Trump putting Pence on his ticket brought in the evangelicals in force, had Hillary chosen Cory Booker instead of Tim Kaine—good man that he was—this may have done the trick in PA, MI, and WI. Just speculating.
UPDATE: The NYT’s number cruncher Nate Cohn has a must-read analysis (Dec. 23rd) on The Upshot page, “How the Obama coalition crumbled, leaving an opening for Trump.” It turns out that defections of WWC 2012 Obama voters to Trump in the Rust Belt states were more significant than thought, as were defections by educated urban Republican voters to Clinton (e.g. one learns that every precinct in Winnetka IL—an upscale Chicago North Shore suburb that I know fairly well—voted for Clinton, which I find amazing). Something I’ve been thinking: it is doubtful that Hillary—or any other Democrat—could have done anything to prevent those normally Democratic-leaning WWC voters from succumbing to Trump’s juggernaut. Trump was a once-in-a-generation phenomenon, a populist billionaire strongman with the ability to viscerally connect with WWC voters in the heartland—to appeal to their id on a range of issues (notably trade and globalization)—and provoke a cascade effect. No other Republican candidate could have attracted that portion of the WWC electorate in the way he did.
BTW, if one didn’t see it, New Yorker contributor Alex Ross had an excellent article, dated Dec. 5th, on how “the Frankfurt School knew Trump was coming.”
2nd UPDATE: The Atlantic’s Richard Brownstein had a premonitory article dated November 2nd, that I seemed to have missed at that time, on the danger to the Clinton firewall in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, “Is Donald Trump outflanking Hillary Clinton? The Democratic nominee faces the risk that she has overestimated her hold on the states most central to her strategy.”
3rd UPDATE: Le Monde’s Yves Eudes has had two very good reportages on 2012 Obama voters (or abstainers) who defected to Trump, one from Pennsylvania (Nov. 24th), the other from Michigan (Dec. 27th).
4th UPDATE: The Washington Post’s polling manager Scott Clement says (Dec. 30th) that “The 2016 national polls are looking less wrong after final election tallies.”
5th UPDATE: Justin Gest, who teaches public policy at George Mason University, has a new book, entitled The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. On the book’s website are links to the author’s numerous articles and interviews this year on the election, Trump, and the white working class.
6th UPDATE: Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight has an important, data-driven analysis (Jan. 5th 2017) on how “Registered voters who stayed home probably cost Clinton the election.”
7th UPDATE: Vox has posted a must-read piece (Jan. 11th 2017) by policy and election analysts Sean McElwee, Matt McDermott, and Will Jordan, “4 pieces of evidence showing FBI Director James Comey cost Clinton the election: And yes, it still matters.”
8th UPDATE: See the electoral analysis (Jan. 26th 2017), which has lots of data, by Rhodes Cook, senior columnist at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, “The 2016 presidential vote: A look down in the weeds.”
9th UPDATE: Jonathan Rodden, who teaches political science at Stanford University, has a two-part analysis (Feb. 14th 2017) in WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog,” ‘Red’ America is an illusion: Postindustrial towns go for Democrats,” and “This is why Democrats lose in ‘rural’ postindustrial America.” And the “why” is: lower turnout among Democratic voters.