Steven Ginsberg is the senior politics editor for The Washington Post.
Around 7:45 on election night, when Hillary Clinton and her aides still thought they were headed to the White House, troubling news emerged from Florida. Steve Schale, the best vote-counter the Democrats had in the state, told campaign officials they were going to lose the biggest battleground in the country. Yes, Clinton was doing well in some places, but Donald Trump’s numbers in Republican areas were inconceivably big.
“You’re going to come up short,” Schale said, stunning aides in Brooklyn who were, until that moment, comfortably cradled in the security of their own faulty analytics.
The call with Schale marks the beginning of a riveting account of the final, dreadful hours of Clinton’s long pursuit of the presidency, as told by reporters Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes in their insidery new book, “Shattered.”
As fear gave over to dread in the Peninsula Hotel, the Clinton campaign reacted as you might expect: Bill became furious, Hillary turned stoic, and their cocksure aides started to blame one another. It wasn’t long into the night before Bill Clinton called his old pal, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and told him not to bother coming to New York. There would be no victory to celebrate.
Shortly after 11:00 p.m., after Wisconsin was called by Fox News, Allen and Parnes report that the campaign fielded a series of calls from the White House pushing Hillary Clinton to concede, even though the margins in many states were extraordinarily close. President Barack Obama thought it was over and did not want a messy recount.
First came a call from White House political director David Simas to Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook. “POTUS doesn’t think it’s wise to drag this out,” Simas said.
But Clinton was dragging it out.
So then she got a call from POTUS. “You need to concede,” urged Obama, who repeated the message in a follow-up call to Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
At last, Clinton said, “Give me the phone.” And then the first woman who was going to be president got her opponent on the line and said two words she never expected to say: “Congratulations, Donald.”
Moments later, Obama was back on the phone, this time making a consolation call. “Mr. President,” Clinton said softly. “I’m sorry.”
The dire scene in the Peninsula unearths a bit of history that was mostly left unreported in the madness that followed that night, as the country and the world focused almost entirely on the emerging reality of Trump’s victory. Thanks to Allen and Parnes, we now know how Clinton reacted, at the moment she was supposed to become the first female president. And we know how the Clintons responded, at the moment when the country told them: No more.
But as revealing as those moments are, they inexplicably come in the book’s final pages and largely stand apart from the rest, which is mostly a dutiful recitation of every to and fro of the so-very-long, joyless, ugh-filled Clinton campaign. Who wants to relive the Democratic primary debates? Or read 20 pages each about the Iowa caucuses (she won, barely) and the New Hampshire primary (she lost, bigly)?
“Shattered” is essentially a sequel to “HRC,” a 2014 book by Allen and Parnes that chronicled Clinton’s time at the State Department. It’s also the first offering of what will surely be many books about what really happened inside the 2016 campaigns. Going first has its advantages — perhaps in sales and attention — but in this case the quick-fire version proves too limiting.
Does it really matter who was pissy at whom in Brooklyn when we still don’t know what role the Russians played in the election or why FBI Director James Comey publicly announced a reopening of the email investigation in late October? Those questions are largely left unexplored here, other than as targets of Clinton’s post-election ire.
Staying inside Clinton’s inner circle also keeps the story oddly away from Trump, who is absent from much of the book even though he was the dominant force throughout the election. By contrast, Clinton’s primary fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont consumes much of the first half of the book. The authors provide plenty of details, but their takeaway is familiar: Sanders was unexpectedly popular; Clinton could never quite figure him out but nonetheless managed to outlast him.
As we dive into the Clinton apparatus in Brooklyn, we discover a somewhat different picture of Mook, who was largely portrayed as an affable, modern-age data whiz during the campaign. In “Shattered,” he is depicted as a “professional political assassin” who pushes aside anyone who threatens his control-freak grip on power. He fights with Podesta. There’s tension with chief strategist Joel Benenson (who appears to have been almost completely sidelined months before Election Day). Mook has little regard for communications director Jennifer Palmieri. He thinks the old-style politics of Bill Clinton are relics of a bygone time.
Some of the criticism of Mook rings true — his celebrated voter modeling, for instance, turned out to be catastrophically off — but his portrait also carries the stench of bitter co-workers conveniently tossing after-the-fact blame his way.
“Shattered” leaves open the question of how Clinton lost. She and her campaign are convinced that Comey was the pivotal factor — and there is evidence to support that view. But the Comey episode doesn’t address why the race in the reliably blue Rust Belt was so close to begin with or what Clinton could have done to alter it.
Much of the post-election analysis has criticized Clinton and her campaign for focusing on “reach” states such as North Carolina instead of putting more resources in the upper Midwest. That view is both echoed and called into question in “Shattered,” which depicts a vexing Goldilocks-style problem for Clinton across the region.
In Wisconsin, she didn’t show up enough. In Michigan, local organizers thought it was best that she stayed away. In Pennsylvania, she campaigned as aggressively as anywhere in the nation. In all three, she lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. So what should she have done?
The answer often comes back to Mook’s model, which, we are reminded again and again, was wrong. But let’s say he had the right model — would Clinton have had a winning strategy, or would she have known she was going to lose? We’re never told.
What we do know is that Clinton based her entire campaign on the notion that Trump was socially unacceptable and dangerously unqualified. We also know that that strategy proved to be insufficient, but we gain little insight into how it came to be or whether any alternative was discussed. Also left uninvestigated is the extent to which Clinton’s “deplorable” remark, which became a rallying cry for her opponents, hurt her among white working-class voters.
The world does not often clamor for a book about the losing presidential candidate, though Clinton may be the exception, given her celebrity and all the weighty questions for Democrats that still shroud her devastating loss. Those who have been fascinated with Hillary Clinton for the past quarter-century may want to add “Shattered” to their libraries. But those looking for some of those answers will want to look elsewhere.
By Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
Crown. 464 pp. $28