Hillary Clinton blew the most winnable election in modern American history. And it’s her own fault.
It’s been nearly a month since Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election to an opponent that every knowledgeable political operative, strategist, and analyst considered the weakest major party candidate in modern American history. The time has come for Democrats to start taking responsibility for the loss.
I’m not talking about recriminations over the Big Picture direction of the party. We’ve had some of those, we’re bound to see more, and they’re welcome (no matter how much some would like to avoid them) — because political coalitions and policy platforms need regular self-examination to stay vital and competitive, and because the Democrats have suffered some dramatic losses over the past few years at all levels of government. Those losses need to be explained and responded to.
I’m talking about this year’s presidential race specifically — and even more specifically, about the Clinton campaign’s responsibility for flubbing an election that it should have won in a landslide. I don’t care if the “fundamentals” favored the GOP. Trump was a fundamentals-defying opponent who should have landed flat on his face regardless of the baseline assumptions. I don’t care if Clinton racks up a nearly 3 million vote lead in the popular tally by grabbing up gobs of electorally superfluous ballots in California. She lost the election because she failed to win where she needed to win and where Democrats had a long record of winning — the upper Midwest — as well as where they win when they’re doing their jobs well (Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina). That’s a sign of a campaign screw-up of monumental proportions.
Most of all, I don’t want to hear about how unfairly Clinton was treated by the media. In comparison to whom? All the other candidates who’ve run for president while under criminal investigation by the FBI? (Maybe that substantial handicap should have overridden the party’s presumption that she was owed the nomination because it was “her turn.”) Or do you mean, instead, that she was treated badly in comparison to her opponent? Really? You mean the one whose 24/7 media coverage was overwhelmingly, relentlessly negative in tone and content? Either way, a halfway competent campaign should have been able to take advantage of the great good fortune of running against Donald J. Trump and left him bleeding in the ditch.
Why didn’t it happen?
Let’s start with the truly inexplicable (and underreported) way Clinton spent the crucial month of August. She’d just come off a highly successful Democratic convention and acceptance speech that produced a significant bounce in the polls. Instead of building on that momentum, she … disappeared, taking an enormous amount of time off the campaign trail less than three months from Election Day. Oh sure, she held frequent fundraisers to small groups of wealthy Democrats, where she placed large numbers of voters in a “basket of deplorables” and ultimately raked in the enormous one-month sum of $143 million.
But large campaign rallies? Not so much. And this lost month was of course followed in mid-September by pneumoniagate, which added to her down time. The result? From the end of July up until the eve of the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, just six weeks from the election, the Democratic nominee was largely out of the public eye.
But at least Clinton had all that money! Surely she and her Democratic allies used it wisely for strategic, devastating ad buys against her opponent. Right?
Wrong. As Simon Dumenco argued in Ad Age on the day after Clinton’s defeat, the Democrat’s approach to advertising was all wrong — and predictably so. Ad after ad “was simply a variation on the theme that Donald Trump is a big jerk,” very much including the spot I saw more than any other in the Philadelphia suburbs during the final two weeks of the campaign: innocent kids listening to outrageous Trump comments followed by the tag line, “Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?” That might have worked if voters weren’t already well aware of Trump’s behavior by that point — and if the message wasn’t more than a little condescending, as if Clinton was telling voters that all Trump supporters are bad parents.
But even if Trump’s vile statements and behavior had been less widely known and the condescension could have been dialed back, focusing so lopsidedly on Trump’s character (while saying so little about policy and the future of the country) was both foolhardy and sharply divergent from past norms of campaigning. As an analysis by The Upshot‘s Lynn Vavreck has shown, “More than three-quarters of the appeals in Mrs. Clinton’s advertisements … were about traits, characteristics, or dispositions…. Since the start of presidential campaign television advertising in 1952, no campaign has made 76 percent of its television ad appeals about any single topic. On average, traits typically garner about 22 percent of the appeals. The economy typically generates about 28 percent of the appeals. There’s usually much more balance.”
And not only in ads. Nearly the entire vice presidential debate was an awkward, repetitive exercise in Democrat Tim Kaine attempting to pin Trump’s most offensive statements on his running mate Mike Pence. Do it once. Do it half a dozen times. But over and over again for 90 minutes straight? Clinton did much the same thing in her three debates with Trump, deflecting policy questions whenever possible, avoiding broad appeals to the country as a whole, and pivoting as often as she could to the myriad glaring defects of her opponent.
To those who scoff at the suggestion that Clinton would have benefited from talking at greater length about policy, I’d point out that the idea isn’t that she needed to plunge into greater specifics. On the contrary, an over-abundance of specificity on small-ball proposals that micro-targeted the panoply of groups in the Democratic Party’s identity-politics-based electoral coalition was precisely the problem.
Where was the overarching vision for the country and its future? The closest Clinton came to articulating one was in the leaked transcript of a speech to a private audience of bankers, in which she dreamed of a hemisphere-wide free-trade and open-border zone. That clashed with the populist mood of the moment, but a full-throated defense of that dream — or a passionate repudiation of it — would have been better than what Clinton did instead, which was attempt to coast to victory on an air of inevitability and an undertow of Trump hatred.
Clinton narrowly lost, but she should have massively won. It’s in the interest of the Democrats to figure out precisely where things went so wrong — so they can make sure that it never happens again.