Judging by the advance chatter, Hillary Clinton’s new book identifies a full roster of culprits behind her stunning loss to Donald Trump:
- Bernie Sanders
- , who promised everyone a pony and turned young voters against her.
- Jim Comey,
- who dropped a bomb on her campaign in the final 10 days before the election.
- Anthony Weiner,
- who couldn’t keep his camera out of his pants.
- Vladimir Putin,
- whose bromance with “The Donald” led to Russian sabotage.
- Barack Obama,
- who didn’t have enough fight left in him to let the public know the FBI was investigating the Trump campaign for collusion with the Russian government.
- Donald Trump,
- who broke every rule in the game but still ended up winning it.
- Hillary Clinton herself,
- for not being “likable enough” after all.
The guilty cast will grow, no doubt, when Clinton’s book, “What Happened,” is released today. But by focusing on the actors, she misses the play. The explanation for her loss is really much simpler.
The Clinton team conducted the near-perfect execution of the wrong electoral strategy. At a time of unprecedented ideological polarization, she shaped her campaign strategy around persuading right-leaning independents and disaffected Republicans to vote for her (or at least against Trump) and largely ignored signs of significant unrest in an influential Democratic Party constituency: progressive voters. This strategic mistake cost her the Electoral College by less than 78,000 votes and ended her chance to become America’s first female president.
The Clinton campaign faced an unlikely scenario heading into the 2016 general election. Although Clinton herself was widely unpopular, the nomination of Donald Trump by the Republican Party presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the Democrat to attract Republican voters by capitalizing on the Never Trump movement. Not only would Clinton win the presidency, but she would do so with a bipartisan coalition of voters and sweep her party back to control in the Senate along the way. The only thing the Clinton team needed to do was “let Trump be Trump.”
Or so they thought.
Right up until Election Day their strategy appeared to be working by every metric. Not only had Clinton won all three presidential debates and almost every major newspaper endorsement, but her campaign was vastly superior, out-raising and out-spending the Trump campaign almost 2 to 1. In a first for a Democratic Party nominee, Clinton also dominated the outside money game. On Election Day, FiveThirtyEight’s forecasting model predicted Clinton had a 71 percent chance of winning the White House.
But danger lurked. The famously insular Clinton Bubble left the campaign blind to a brewing rebellion among left-wing progressives who were still “Feeling the Bern.” After promising to “take the fight to the convention floor,” Sanders found himself unable to rein in the deep mistrust many of his supporters held for Clinton. Yet the Clinton team felt sure that the specter of a Trump presidency would be more than enough to bring reluctant Sanders supporters back. Clinton and her campaign managers decided to gear their strategy to the middle of the electorate, rather than energizing their own base.
The strategy was solidified with the selection of Tim Kaine for vice president. Kaine, a senator from the critical swing state of Virginia, was the quintessential persuasion pick. Mild-mannered and moderate, Kaine was on the ticket to give independents and Never Trump Republicans permission to defect. But that pick embodied the campaign’s fatal calculation. It played to the middle, but it also reinforced the suspicion many progressives had that Clinton was at heart a centrist who would preserve the status quo.
The 2016 election produced one of the highest rates of major party defection in the modern era. Exit polling reveals that voters under the age of 40 were twice as likely to defect from the major party nominees and support a third-party candidate or write-in. The critical states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania were decided by 1 percent or less, but experienced defection rates up to five times higher than average. In Wisconsin, just over 187,000 voters defected from Clinton and Trump. Clinton would have needed the votes of fewer than half of them to win that state. Ultimately, defection by progressive voters far outweighed any gains Clinton made with independents and moderate Republicans. States carried by Sanders in the primary had significantly higher rates of defection. Asked if a progressive running mate would have enticed them to support Clinton, nearly half of Sanders supporters who defected said yes — more than enough in key states to turn the election in her favor.
The 2016 election shows that if the persuasion campaign strategy isn’t dead, it’s certainly on life support. In this polarized era, elections now are all about the base.
Rachel Bitecofer is a political science professor and assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, and a regular contributor on CBC Radio. Her book “The Unprecedented 2016 Presidential Election” will be released by Palgrave Macmillan on Oct. 5. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.