The discussion over who is to blame for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 loss to Donald Trump has suddenly flared up again. A New York Times report this weekend reveals new details about FBI director James Comey’s decision to reveal newly discovered emails that ultimately proved irrelevant — yet had a large impact on the election’s outcome.
The Times report makes Comey’s intervention look even more suspect, particularly in light of his refusal to divulge anything about the ongoing investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russian efforts to tip the election to Trump. The chatter about the Clinton campaign’s failures has also escalated with the publication of “Shattered,” a new book about the election.
I tried to parse out some of what happened, and who is to blame for it, in a piece I wrote for a new collection of essays about Campaign 2016. A slightly-edited excerpt from the essay is below.
Most people agree on one thing about the 2016 election: That the simplest way to describe what happened is that demographics did not deliver for Democrats. The party and the Clinton campaign had good reason to be confident that the vaunted “Obama coalition” — the nonwhites, young voters, single women, and college-educated whites who powered majority victories in the two previous national elections — would come through one more time, as Republicans had shown no signs of even trying to evolve culturally in sync with the preoccupations of those groups. But demographic destiny fell short of swamping Trump’s margins among blue-collar and middle-income whites.
Some critics now argue that this was the result of a crucial mistake on Clinton’s part. Clinton, goes this argument, failed to connect with the economic anxieties of these white voters precisely because overconfidence in her demographic advantage led her campaign to get lost amid micro-targeted cultural appeals to various groups in the Obama coalition, thus neglecting a broader economic and reform message. The oft heard refrain is that Clinton’s initial economic push — for shared prosperity and an economy that works for all — got overtaken by “identity politics,” which is to say, by the Clinton team’s decision to spend a great deal of time and resources on attacking Trump’s racially charged campaign, rather than on beating him in the argument over the economy and the need for political reform.
There may be some truth to the notion that Clinton de-emphasized her economic message in a damaging way. Although Clinton’s convention speech was heavily laden with a programmatic economic agenda, political scientist Lynn Vavreck conducted a post-election analysis of the TV advertising by both campaigns and concluded that more than three-quarters of the appeals in Clinton’s ads were about character traits. Only 9 percent were about jobs or the economy. In contrast, more than one-third of the appeals in Trump’s ads were focused on economic issues, such as jobs, taxes, and trade. And some Democratic operatives have groused that the Clinton camp was overly confident of victory in reliably Democratic Rust Belt states like Wisconsin and Michigan — meaning, perhaps, that Trump’s economic message had even more resonance in them than the Clinton team had anticipated.
But Comey did matter.
Yes, Comey mattered — a lot
It’s strange that people are even debating this point. After all, just after the election, it was widely established that top officials in both the Clinton and Trump campaigns saw Comey’s announcement of newly-discovered emails as a “game changer.” For instance, see this piece from Politico’s Glenn Thrush, which reported that to be the case. Thrush noted that Clinton’s chief data analytics guru saw her numbers tank among a crucial demographic: educated white voters who had been alienated by Trump’s videotaped boasts of lewd groping and subsequent allegations of unwanted advances.
Meanwhile, elections analyst Nate Silver concluded that without Comey and the Russia hacking, states like Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — which Trump won by excruciatingly tight margins — might have tipped to Clinton. “Comey had a large, measurable impact on the race,” Silver said.
In other words, if Comey had never taken that step, we might currently be discussing the staying power of the Obama coalition and the success of the Clinton strategy — in particular, the emphasis on attacking Trump’s dangerously unhinged temperament, and his campaign of racism, hate, and abuse directed at Mexican immigrants and women — in driving college-educated whites into the Democratic camp.
It is often argued that Comey is not responsible for Clinton’s loss, because he did not force her to set up a private server, or de-emphasize her economic message, or neglect the Rust Belt. But this argument is weak. It can be true that Clinton was a very flawed candidate who made mistakes, even as it is also true that Comey’s letter had a major impact on the outcome — and potentially a decisive one — without which the Clinton strategy might have prevailed. Given that the Comey revelations ended up amounting to nothing in substantive terms, the fact that his decision did have such a large impact reveals his handling of the whole mess to be indefensible and reflects terribly on our political process. Clinton’s real failings should not be permitted to minimize the significance of that.
It was not unreasonable for the Clinton team to conclude that the strategy of casting Trump as temperamentally unfit to handle national security — and too hateful and divisive to lead our diverse country — was going to succeed. Polls indicated for months that Clinton was on track to become the first Democrat to win a majority of college-educated whites in over half a century. Many analysts across the spectrum had concluded that such an outcome would probably cripple Trump’s ability to prevail by running up enormous margins among white voters.
And whatever the Clinton team’s motives in making a big issue out of Trump’s race-tinged campaign, it was the right thing to do. For all the talk about Clinton playing “identity politics,” the candidate who played “identity politics” to a far greater extent was Donald Trump. His campaign — which fused the relentless scapegoating of Muslims and undocumented immigrants with revanchist appeals to “Make America Great Again” — was all about encouraging and playing to a sense that white identity and white America were under siege. It was important for the country that Clinton call out Trump’s white nationalist appeals for what they were — and that she defend the minority groups that he had targeted for vilification. Not doing so would have been an abdication.
None of this, however, should absolve the Clinton campaign and the Democratic establishment figures who rallied to her side from facing a reckoning over the ways in which they are responsible for the outcome.
Here’s where Clinton, her campaign and Democratic officials failed
One of the Clinton campaign’s official public explanations for her loss is that she ultimately came to be seen as a creature of the establishment at a moment when the electorate craved change. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook has described this as a “head wind” that could not be overcome.
Of course, if that is true, then Clinton herself — and Democratic establishment figures — are partially complicit in creating that perception. In retrospect, the early decision to limit the number of debates — a decision, as I reported at the time, that the Democratic National Committee made in part out of deference to the Clinton campaign, which apparently wanted to limit her exposure — may have been an early signal of an unhealthy establishment faith in Clinton’s chances. So too was the lack of more primary challengers, which appeared premised on the sense that she could not be beaten precisely because she was the pick of so many party leaders.
To be sure, it was reasonable for many leading Democrats to suspect that Clinton — with her deep knowledge and experience — gave the party a very good shot at winning the White House. Whether this assumption was subjected to rigorous enough scrutiny — and whether a failure in that regard represented a more systemic problem with the party establishment, such as overconfidence in its ability to win national elections — should be topics of debate in coming months.
Another question that must be settled is whether the Clinton campaign — and establishment Democrats — reckoned seriously enough with polling that revealed abysmal public perceptions of her on trust and honesty, and widespread concern with her handling of her emails and the Clinton Foundation. Taken together, all of this amounted to a red flag — a warning that Clinton might not be seen as a credible messenger if the campaign became a battle over who would shake up our corrupt political system, as Trump sought to turn it into. Clinton rolled out a detailed political reform agenda, but it’s not clear whether she conveyed a gut sense that she really wanted to shake things up. As one Democrat sighed to me in August: I wish Clinton would show more discomfort with our political system and with how business is done in Washington.
This possibility — that Clinton did not show a gut level of discomfort with our current arrangements — is worth mulling. Trump’s numbers were even worse than Clinton’s on honesty, and his promises to bust up the system were crude and laughably absurd — he actually argued that he was well qualified to reform our corrupt system because he had milked it himself from the inside to great effect. But it’s worth asking whether he somehow conveyed a visceral disdain for the way business is done in Washington that Clinton simply did not.
Of course, even if one accepts that Clinton failed to marshal effective enough messages on the economy and political reform, it’s hard to know how much that mattered. The polling evidence is mixed on whether Clinton’s economic message even failed — exit polls showed she won among voters most concerned about the economy in many swing states. Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, and her extremely close losses in multiple states might not have happened if turnout had shaped up differently even on the margins.
Some of the post-election debate has been framed around a false choice
Beyond this, if the party is going to work to sharpen up its economic and reform message — to working-class white voters in particular — the crucial challenge is how to do this without backing off of its commitment to being the party that fully embraces cultural and demographic change. Much of the post-election debate is on some basic level framed around a false choice — one pitting the need to minister to the Obama coalition versus the need for economic appeals to working-class whites. But these things needn’t be in conflict with one another. The challenges faced by the nonwhites, young voters, and women who make up the Obama coalition are also in many respects economic ones. Debates over systemic racism, over how to create more opportunity and mobility for minorities and young people, over how to integrate undocumented immigrants who have been contributing to American life for years but remain consigned to the shadows, and over how to foster economic equality for women — all of these are, at bottom, about the need for reforms that make the economy fairer and render prosperity more inclusive, for everyone.
Most early indications are that senior Democrats are not falling into the trap that this false choice debate presents. Most of the chatter among Democrats is how to refocus the party’s message on economic fairness in ways that have appeal across diverse constituencies. That will likely continue.
The Democratic Party is a diverse party. It should not weaken its commitment to defending minority rights, particularly in an age of resurgent Trump Era white backlash. The party must not back off of its defense of undocumented immigrants — both for substantive and strategic reasons. If Trump makes good on his promises, the plight of undocumented immigrants could worsen into a genuine humanitarian crisis, one that Democrats must resist. The GOP will continue alienating the fast growing demographic of Latino voters, potentially hastening Democratic gains in Sun Belt states, which, over time, could reconfigure the map in advantageous ways in future national elections.
This time around, demographic destiny did not materialize for Democrats. But demographic change marches on. While that is by no means alone a guarantee of future success, the party’s big challenge going forward will be to work to maintain its position on the right side of it — while also speaking more effectively to the anxieties of those who feel it is leaving them behind.
Excerpted from “Trumped: The Election that Broke All the Rules” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017). All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without further permission in writing from the publisher.