Donald Trump’s stunning victory is less surprising when we remember a simple fact: Hillary Clinton is a deeply unpopular politician. She won a hotly contested primary victory against a uniquely popular candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders. In her place, could he have beaten Trump?
That Clinton has unusually high unfavorables has been true for decades. Indeed, it has been a steady fact of her political life. She has annually ranked among the least-liked politicians on the national stage since she was the first lady. In recent years, her low favorability rating was matched only by that of her opponent, animated hate Muppet Donald Trump. In contrast, Sanders enjoys very high popularity, ranking as the most popular senator for two years in a row. Nationally, his favorability rating is more than 10 points higher than Clinton’s, and his unfavorability rating is more than 15 points lower. This popularity would have been a real asset on the campaign trail.
Clinton’s inability to ever capture the approval of most Americans hurt her in a number of ways. Consider her performance in predominantly black, working-class counties in Michigan. These are precisely the kinds of areas that she was supposed to count on in the Rust Belt, the “blue wall” that would supposedly secure her victory even if she lost out in Florida and North Carolina. And she did earn the majority of their votes, easily winning among black voters in the states, as she did with black voters nationwide. That Democrats remain the party of the black working class is a credit to the party and their candidate.
But turnout matters in a close election, and here she suffered significantly compared with President Obama in both 2008 and 2012. In Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties in Michigan, the heart of Detroit’s black voting bloc, Clinton won 55 percent of the vote — compared with 69 percent for Obama in 2012. Meanwhile, it was in Michigan that Sanders won his most shocking primary victory, probably through the same forces that hurt Clinton on Election Day: Her agenda did not seem to offer much hope to those hurt by deindustrialization and outsourcing. We can only guess how much better he might have performed there, or in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Wisconsin (which he also won in a surprising primary upset) had he been the nominee. But there is little doubt now that his success in the Rust Belt was a canary in the coal mine for the Clinton campaign, a now-obvious sign that she was in trouble.
Indeed, turnout overall was a major problem for the Clinton campaign; though not all votes are yet counted, it’s clear that Clinton received millions fewer votes than Obama in several states, while Trump frequently received more than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Nor did Clinton enjoy the benefits of party crossovers. There was much talk of “Clinton Republicans” who would, in the spirit of the Reagan Democrats, cross party lines to oppose Trump. But according to the exit polling of the New York Times, more Democrats crossed over and voted for Trump than Republicans crossed over and voted for Clinton. Sanders, notably, never had trouble drawing crowds, and in the Democratic primary campaign, turnout rebounded from 2012 lows. Whether that rebound was a result of voters’ enthusiasm for Sanders or the opposite is hard to say; what’s clear is that Clinton wasn’t able to get out the vote herself and that she lost both Democrats and independents to Trump, while Sanders had notorious luck with independent voters.
You might well say that sexism plays a large role in Clinton’s low popularity. That’s true: She has been the victim of terrible sexism during her entire career. But it is also irrelevant to the question that confronted us in the Democratic primary: Which candidate was most likely to secure the election? Critics of Sanders were quick to poke holes in his high favorability ratings, arguing that he had never been through the bruising Republican attacks that Clinton had and that attack ads spotlighting his self-professed socialism would surely erode his advantage in favorability. Perhaps this was true: Trump surely would’ve pointed out that Sanders identified as a socialist, that he seemed at times radical, and so on. But it fundamentally meant placing a hypothetical above the direct evidence that Sanders was simply a far more popular politician. And the injustice that sexism harms Clinton doesn’t change the fact of it. We knew Clinton was unpopular for a variety of reasons going in, and mainly ignored it.
Even beyond his advantages in popularity, Sanders would have offered the Democrats advantages in the kind of race he could have run. The Clinton campaign was an incredibly smooth operation in a period of immense public distrust for smooth operators. Clinton’s campaign was defined by its slick Internet presentation and its celebrity endorsements. But neither of these things probably helped her play in the most essential parts of the country, where impeccable web design and Hollywood glamor don’t go as far. Her Twitter account was often masterful, pulling in likes and retweets by the hundreds of thousands — but it turns out retweets aren’t votes. She appeared on the buzzworthy Comedy Central television show “Broad City,” delighting the show’s influential and connected fan base — but it turns out only a couple million people regularly watch that show. She won loud support from celebrities such as the actress and writer Lena Dunham and the musician Beyoncé — but it turns out that wealthy celebrities are not equipped to garner votes in an election defined by populist anger. Clinton’s campaign seemed fixated on appealing to precisely the educated liberal urbanites who were never going to vote for Trump in any scenario.
If Clinton’s campaign seemed bizarrely pitched toward the interests of those who were always going to vote for her anyway, Sanders was uniquely positioned to reach voters with a different sensibility. In contrast to the millionaire polish of the Clinton camp, Sanders has a somewhat shambolic, grandfatherly presence that conveys an unpretentious and approachable character. Clinton struggled to use Trump’s wealth against him, in large measure because she herself is an immensely wealthy woman. (In fact, she frequently suggested that Trump wasn’t really all that rich, a ludicrous line of attack from a primary in which Sanders’s play for Nordic-style egalitarian policies won him favor in battleground states such as Pennsylvania.) Sanders would have been able to contrast Trump’s ostentatious wealth with his own shabby aesthetic. The message writes itself: Trump talks a good game about economic anxiety, but why would you trust this New York billionaire to put your interests first?
By the end of the evening, Clinton’s biggest problem was clear: She needed to win suburban white voters in the Rust Belt, and she could not. Younger voters might not realize that these areas were once Democratic strongholds, thanks to high union rates and traditional support for the party among those working in manufacturing. But years of assaults on union rights by Republicans — often barely opposed by Democratic lawmakers who have seemingly lost interest in organized labor — and severe contractions in manufacturing as an employment base have turned that strength into a weakness. Democrats must now ask themselves: Who would have been a better representative for the party in that region? The millionaire from New York with an entourage of celebrities and the backing of the Democratic money machine? Or a small-city New Deal granddad from Vermont who has spent his political life working with unions and appealing to economic justice and populism?
There will be years of recriminations in our future. Many Democrats will, as is their habit, conclude that the fault lies with the left wing of the party — that progressive party activists did not sufficiently support the candidate or that leftward attacks weakened Clinton. But that notion hides a simple fact: In an election of immense importance, Democratic leadership and voters rejected a hugely popular candidate in favor of a deeply unpopular one and are now paying the price. Some of us will be asking why for years to come.