How Hillary Lost: The Big Factors That Cost Her the Election
Hillary Clinton’s tragic 2016 campaign faced withering criticism in the press, social media, and now, in Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes’s inside account, Shattered. From my vantage point as lead pollster for the Democratic nominees in 1992 and 2000, part of the closing clutch of pollsters in 2004, and invited noodge in 2016, I have little quarrel with the harshest of these criticisms. Malpractice and arrogance contributed mightily to the election of Donald Trump and its profound threat to our democracy. So did the handling of the email server, paid Wall Street speeches, and the “deplorables” comment. And her unwillingness to challenge the excesses of big money and corporate influence left her exposed to attacks first by Bernie Sanders and then by Donald Trump and unable to offer credible promise of change.
Yet the accounts of Hillary Clinton are very incomplete, miss the reasons for her ambivalence, and miss most of the big structural forces at work that made it hard for her to commit to a different path. That is where we learn the most about the progressive debate ahead.
The Trump presidency concentrates the mind on the malpractice that helped put him in office. For me, the most glaring examples include the Clinton campaign’s over-dependence on technical analytics; its failure to run campaigns to win the battleground states; the decision to focus on the rainbow base and identity politics at the expense of the working class; and the failure to address the candidate’s growing “trust problem” or to learn from events and reposition.
Clinton’s own campaign memoir, What Happened, came out the day I was finalizing this article. She acknowledged possible errors in her handling of the economy, but not these areas of malpractice.
The campaign relied far too heavily on something that campaign technicians call “data analytics.” This refers to the use of models built from a database of the country’s 200 million voters, including turnout history and demographic and consumer information, updated daily by an automated poll asking for vote preference to project the election result. But when campaign developments overtake the model’s assumptions, you get surprised by the voters—and this happened repeatedly.
Astonishingly, the 2016 Clinton campaign conducted no state polls in the final three weeks of the general election and relied primarily on data analytics to project turnout and the state vote. They paid little attention to qualitative focus groups or feedback from the field, and their brief daily poll didn’t measure which candidate was defining the election or getting people engaged.
The models from the data analytics team led by Elan Kriegel got the Iowa and Michigan primaries badly wrong, with huge consequences for the race. Why were they not then fired?
Campaign manager Robby Mook and the analytics team argued, according to Shattered, that the Sanders vote grew “organically”—turnout was unexpectedly high and new registrants broke against Clinton. Why was that a surprise?
Campaign chair John Podesta wanted to fire Mook, but Clinton stood by him. She rightly admired previous campaigns in which big data and technology were big winners, yet in 2008 it was the candidate and his appeal more than the technical wizardry that pushed Obama over the top. David Axelrod told me that analytics adds a “great field-goal kicker”—no substitute for a strategy and compelling message.
For Clinton, however, giving up the analytics team was like giving up consultant Dick Morris at earlier tough moments—a man who was thought to bring unconventional powers to play. That Mook didn’t share his results with others in the campaign reinforced his mystique as a data wizard. But that lack of transparency was malpractice. Standard practice is immediately sharing national, battleground, and state polls, as well as automated canvassing and other metrics with the senior campaign team at the very least, usually with the war room, and sometimes the whole headquarters. That is how a nimble campaign operates.
The malpractice grows exponentially with their failure to focus like a laser on winning each target primary or battleground state. Rather than shifting resources and media buys across states based on the analytics’ projection of cost per delegate or voter, they needed to focus on how to win each must-win, winner-take-all state. That meant more distinct state strategies, focus groups, and state tracking polls right to the end.
The campaign’s approach senselessly and increasingly drove up Trump’s margin in white working-class communities, tipping Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida. The analytics model built around these assumptions was so simple-minded it portended disaster. Despite overwhelming evidence that the Democratic base wasn’t consolidated or excited, the campaign believed Trump’s tasteless attacks and Clinton’s identification with every group in the rainbow coalition would produce near universal support. Thus, they stopped trying to persuade voters and measured only the probability of support for Hillary. The campaign’s task was turning out those Clinton voters, and they fell frustratingly short.
Base and Identity at the Expense of Class
Clinton and the campaign acted as if “demographics is destiny” and a “rainbow coalition” was bound to govern. Yes, there is a growing “Rising American Electorate,” but as Page Gardner and I wrote at the outset of this election, you must give people a compelling reason to vote. I have demonstrated for my entire career that a candidate must target white working-class voters, too.
Not surprisingly, Clinton took her biggest hit in Michigan, where she failed to campaign in Macomb County, the archetypal white working-class county. That was the opposite of her husband’s approach. Bill Clinton visibly campaigned in Macomb, the black community in Detroit, and elsewhere.
The fatal conclusion the Clinton team made after the Michigan primary debacle was that she could not win white working-class voters, and that the “rising electorate” would make up the difference. She finished her campaign with rallies in inner cities and university towns. Macomb got the message. “When you leave the two-thirds of Americans without college degrees out of your vision of the good life, they notice,” Joan Williams writes sharply in White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America.
Additionally, Sanders campaigned against bad trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP to show he’d battle for working people. NAFTA was the work of Bill Clinton and the TPP was a signature initiative of Obama. Hillary Clinton needed some distance. My wife, Representative Rosa DeLauro, headed up the anti-TPP forces in Congress, but despite her incessant lobbying of Podesta, Clinton offered only a muddled opposition.
Not Addressing the “Trust Problem”
Clinton’s “trust problem” grew as the campaign progressed. Large numbers of voters didn’t trust her. But her campaign was reluctant or frozen in addressing it. Why? Bill Clinton, after all, faced cascading controversies in 1992 around Gennifer Flowers, his draft avoidance, and marijuana, with large majorities thinking he didn’t have the character to be president. The right had marshaled attack squads, and other Democratic candidates were pummeling him for telling voters whatever they wanted to hear in the primaries.
Shattered suggests that Obama advisers inside and outside the campaign, including David Axelrod and David Plouffe, believed Hillary Clinton herself was the principal obstacle and doubted the campaign could course-correct. Mook and team believed that identity politics, demographic trends, and Trump’s temperament would be enough to win, so they could avoid confronting the “trust problem.”
What might have happened if Clinton had attended a focus group herself, as Nelson Mandela did in 1993 when our research showed that his African National Congress was seen as “out of touch” and taking too long to bring change? What might have happened if she had watched people expressing their exasperation and desperation with the economy and politicians—and talking about her ties to Wall Street, her perceived lack of truthfulness, or their knowing nothing of her economic ideas? But the Clinton campaign never facilitated that kind of redirection.
America’s Progress and Pain
Hillary Clinton fully identified with President Obama’s vision on identity, opportunity, honest government, inequality, the economy, and America’s upward direction, viewing his campaign and governance as successful. She stocked her campaign with his consultants and those who had worked in his White House.
She believed, and still believes, that America is dynamic, growing, and progressing, and now needs an economy that truly leaves no one behind. Inequality has worsened, but the answer is “building ladders of opportunity,” as Obama described in his State of the Union before his re-election, in his campaign speeches for Clinton, and in his private handwritten letter to President Trump.
Obama’s America was not a country in pain, but one where those left behind were looking for a seasoned leader to make progress. Obama and Clinton lived in a cosmopolitan and professional America that wasn’t very angry about the state of the country, even if many of the groups in the Clinton coalition were struggling and angry. Clinton decided only reluctantly to qualify that narrative in favor of one more sensitive to those who were left behind.
Obama’s refrain was severely out of touch with what was happening to most Americans and the working class more broadly. In our research, “ladders of opportunity” fell far short of what real people were looking for. Incomes sagged after the financial crisis, pensions lost value, and many lost their housing wealth, while people faced dramatically rising costs for things that mattered—health care, education, housing, and child care. People faced vanishing geographic, economic, and social mobility, as Edward Luce writes so forcefully. At the same time, billionaires spent massively to influence politicians and parked their money in the big cities whose dynamism drew in the best talent from the smaller towns and rural areas.
Clinton’s default position was Obama’s refrain about America
Clinton’s default position was Obama’s refrain about America, but she did invite real discussion of these issues and got close to embracing a change posture during some economic speeches and her convention address, and in the debates. But when the campaign got rocked, she reverted to the Obama narrative.
And in her book What Happened, she acknowledges “Stan’s” argument that “heralding economic progress and the bailout of the irresponsible elites” while the working class struggled financially alienated the working class from Democrats. She says, “That’s another reminder that, despite the heroic work” of Obama, many “didn’t feel the recovery in their own lives.”
Change Requires Calling Out Big-Money Special Interests
My comments draw on my takeaways after reading Shattered, but they also draw on my personal experience with the campaign, which included regular meetings and exchanges with John Podesta. Early on, he pressed me for help on pushing back against Sanders’s Wall Street attack and asked for my reactions to Clinton’s emerging stump speech. After I worked directly with Clinton on how to close the primary, I was asked to react to the economic and convention speeches as well. Podesta asked me to email Robby Mook directly when he could not get Mook to change course at the campaign’s close.
From 2015 on, when Sanders was gaining on Clinton, I pushed Podesta, the other principals, and Clinton directly to show discontent with the state of the economy and politics and to put forward bold economic policies, like those proposed by Joseph Stiglitz and the Roosevelt Institute. On that, she often accepted that advice, though her default strategy was to “build on the progress.” And from the beginning, I called on her to decry the special-interest and big-money influence that was keeping government from working for the middle class. But on that, I got nowhere.
Early on, I chided the campaign privately for starting every economic talk with dutiful praise for Obama’s handling of the economy, and later told them not to keep saying, “America is already great.” The new American majority, I wrote, “is looking for a president who will address the building problems”—and “not a third term of Obama.”
Podesta invited me to critique her comments at an Iowa town hall that he thought was “getting there,” but I was dumbfounded. “What is your core message?” I asked in an email. Clinton had said during a primary debate that Republicans will “rip away the progress and turn us backwards,” but, as I said in my email, “I think the overall message is tone [deaf] on what is happening in the country,” and that Clinton “has left the change voters to Sanders.”
I warned that Sanders was gaining by embracing our “level the playing field” message, which said that “families and small businesses are struggling, yet CEOs and billionaires are using their lobbyists to rewrite the rules so government works for them, not you.” Sanders gained on economic change by committing to “stop any new trade deals that undermine American jobs and income.”
Sanders’s surprising strength and the damage to Clinton from his attacks on big money and Wall Street led Podesta to confer with me on how she could find her footing on reform. Clinton’s instinctive response was to go silent on the issue and attack Sanders on guns and health care. I warned in my note to Podesta, reporting a survey for Every Voice, that “billionaires, corporations and special interests buying their government is a voting issue.”
Right before the Connecticut primary, I watched Clinton and my wife, Representative DeLauro, host a cafÃ© discussion with working women. Beforehand, she greeted me warmly, and afterward Rosa and I hung back in the holding area to let Clinton and me speak alone and frankly. She was really moved and disturbed by what she had heard on the campaign trail, recounting the similar stories from women in suburban Philadelphia, Tampa, and Brooklyn. “They’re in such pain. People are at their wits’ end. They feel hopeless.”
I said, yes, that is exactly what’s happening in the country, which she acknowledged, but then said, “How do I talk about their pain without sounding like I’m criticizing President Obama and his economy? I just can’t do that.”
I said, I think you can manage a different balance, and said, “Why not use your own learning from listening to these folks as a way to talk about the economy? You are about to lock up an unassailable number of delegates, why not make that learning about the economy central to this new chapter?” I promised her a note, and worked feverishly to write it overnight.
Later, when I congratulated her on her Pennsylvania primary victory speech, via Huma Abedin, she wrote back, “Well you better. You inspired it!”
Embracing Pocketbook Pain—But Not Enough
After that, I was asked to look at drafts of Clinton’s economic speeches before and after the convention, as well as drafts of her convention acceptance speech. Podesta had me share my emails with Jake Sullivan and Dan Schwerin and later asked me to write a short text in her voice that uses “stronger together” but also hit my “level the playing field” points. I was asked to brief Mandy Grunwald, who was managing the debate prep.
I proposed a first point where “stronger together” means “everyone who works hard has an equal shot at America’s promise, an equal shot at joining the middle class and a better life.” But then I took my best populist shot:
We are stronger together, yet so many of our corporate and political leaders seem content to pursue their own goals, while so many hardworking people are struggling and don’t have an equal shot at a better life.
The campaign’s response was completely schizophrenic.
The campaign’s response was completely schizophrenic. After Clinton delivered her economic speech in Columbus, I wrote to Podesta: “President Obama could have delivered this speech. It is still a build on the progress speech with some cheerleading for America,” and did not have “much populism or critique of how things went wrong or any culprits to be vanished.”
The next day, I prepared for the worst when the warm-up speakers in North Carolina delivered the same cheerleading message. But then she delivered a speech, full of reforms, that I rushed to embrace. I wrote to Clinton, “Madame Secretary, I loved the North Carolina speech.”
The Roosevelt Institute had me test these two very different economic speeches, and the results were unsurprising. I met with Podesta in New York and emailed Clinton: “Your economic message that you delivered in North Carolina flat out defeats” Trump’s economic nationalist message. “But when you are speaking about build[ing] on the progress, none of that happens.”
I was then asked to react to a working draft of Clinton’s convention speech, and it included a lot of cheerleading of the economy, though progressive drafts got much better. I also wrote on July 23: “The missing piece is any frustration with politicians, special interests, corporate influence that distorts government and any desire to change the role of money in politics. I think that is dangerous and allows Trump to look like the guy who wants to [get] rid of crony capitalism.”
On July 29, I wrote to the campaign team: “I think the economic speech was done deftly—acknowledging Obama’s progress, but not good enough. A lot of story telling about people’s pain. There is a lot about corporate responsibility and paying their fair share.” But I then added, “What’s missing is any critique or discomfort with politicians too moved by special interest money to work for change.”
After Clinton and Senator Tim Kaine headed out on their post-convention economic tour, I wrote to Podesta: “Yesterday, I’m sorry, could not have been worse on the economy. I just can’t understand why you feel the need to run on progress. You are the past and Trump is change and a better life. You sound clueless in blue collar America.”
But then they made a big turn that impacted the election. The draft economic speech, unveiled August 10, included this core choice: “We have a vision for an economy and country that works for everyone, not just those at the top. Donald Trump has a vision for America that works for him and his family at the expense of everyone else.” That hit a chord. Clinton could not have been more on-message during the three debates, and she made her biggest gains in the first and third debates on who would be better for the middle class and who would do a better job handling the economy, reaching parity with Trump on that critical last point. I shared the dial-meter findings that we had conducted for Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund, and wrote her an email October 6, more than a month before the election: “I want to congratulate you on the debate, the campaign and economic message!”
But that was the last America heard from Hillary Clinton on the economy.
Complications, Distractions, and the Campaign Off-Message
The Russian-hacked emails and FBI Director James Comey’s re-opened investigation put the Democrats at growing risk, particularly with Clinton largely silent on the economy. Bill Clinton told Carville that the campaign, maddeningly, believed Hillary “couldn’t win the economy,” and Podesta told me, “Mook believes we got nothing for all that time on the economy.” When I told him that Clinton was performing relatively well with white working-class women well into October, he said their data didn’t support that. I now realize this conclusion was based on Mook’s flawed analytics, not real polling. At Podesta’s urging, I wrote to Mook on November 1:
Comey has … raised the stakes in our turnout [of] our broad base. Trump will now consolidate more Republicans, and our consolidation of Democrats will stall. And that is our biggest, measurable problem: millennials … are weak in the early vote, as you know, and our national polls show us getting only 79 percent of Sanders voters.
But I think there is an effective solution available to you.
The tough economic message that HRC delivered in the 1st and 3rd debate produced big gains on the economy, middle class, fighting special interests and trust. … They are desperate to know you can bring change.
On November 3, I wrote to Mook, “Disqualifying not enough.” I got no response.
President Obama campaigned for Clinton in the closing weekends, and with a big megaphone said the country could elect a president “who will build on our progress. Who will finish the job.” She is “as well-prepared as anyone who ever ran” to solve the problems we have. For those “still in need of a good job or a raise” or the child who needs “a sturdier ladder out of poverty,” she was their choice.
That view of the world would put many voters out of reach.
In her book, Clinton recalls she “had planned to close with aggressive advertising reminding working families of my plans to change our country and their lives for the better.” She gave that up, but now asks, “Was that a mistake?” She concludes with what I believe to be a major rethinking: “Maybe.”
The Structural Forces: The Politics of Identity
Hillary Clinton devoted a lifetime to battling and winning rights for groups that are at the heart of the liberal project, and she speaks for herself and a lot of progressives when she says that this is America’s unfinished work. So when she got slaughtered in New Hampshire by Sanders, who hammered economic inequality and political corruption, she won strong applause when she declared:
I believe so strongly that we have to keep up with every fiber of our being the argument for … human rights. Human rights as women’s rights, human rights as gay rights, human rights as worker rights, human rights as voting rights, human rights across the board for every single American. Now that is who I am.
She spoke explicitly about her campaign to “shatter the glass ceiling” for women and the unacceptability of the gender pay gap. And she un-self-consciously shouted out in all her speeches the different groups that would benefit from her policies. Her campaign website and that of the Democratic National Committee, Mark Lilla points out, identified distinct groups and policies that would benefit them.
The campaign settled on “breaking barriers” as her authentic history and what she would do, and prioritized women and people of color over all other groups. They were explicitly privileging race and gender over class. And they championed policies that expanded opportunity in the way advanced by Obama.
I don’t know whether they tested this strategy in research, but they put it to a quick test with voters. She flew to Flint, Michigan, to affirm these priorities in the most powerful way. She aired her breakthrough ad in Nevada in which she hugged a Dreamer. She had no ad with an autoworker’s daughter.
She went there out of a liberal conviction, not out of malice or malpractice—and came up short.
Had Hillary Clinton won the presidency, the debate around these stark questions would probably have been put off, but they can’t be put off now.
The progressive debate must now address: What is the role of the working class and white working class? How do you build on anger toward an economy that fails the middle class, but still align with professionals, innovators, and metropolitan areas? How do you credibly battle corporate influence and corrupted politics? Can you simultaneously advance identity and class politics?