Why Hillary Clinton Lost
Six months after the election, the postmortems of the Clinton campaign all seem to have one thing in common, they all point at things other than the candidate and her campaign as being the reason she lost.
There’s an old saying reported to have originated with the Roman Senator and historian Tacitus that ‘success has a hundred fathers, while failure is an orphan.’ If there is any modern arena where this old aphorism is true, it’s politics and the way that people react to a winning campaign versus a losing campaign. When a candidate for office wins, the number of people who try to claim some responsibility for the win often ends up exceeding the number of people who worked on the campaign in a significant enough manner to impact decision-making. This is especially true when a campaign exceeds expectations either by winning despite predictions of failure going down to the wire or when a campaign does worse than expected or just loses in general. In the first case, you’ll find countless numbers of people claiming responsibility for the win. In the second you’ll generally find everyone involved in the losing campaign either pointing their fingers at advice given by other campaign advisers, pointing their fingers at factors outside the campaign, or arguing that advice they gave that wasn’t properly followed, The same is true of the election pundits, who generally spend the time after a given election either touting the fact that the were right, or blaming some unknown factor for why their confident prediction of an imminent and inevitable victory by one candidate over the other turned out to be so very wrong.
Most recently, of course, this phenomenon has been on display with regard to the 2016 Presidential election, and as we hit the six month anniversary of Donald Trump’s stunning and surprising Electoral College win, the effort to determine why Trump won and, perhaps more interestingly, why Hillary Clinton lost has been ramping up and is only likely to continue. This has become especially true in the past week with the released of Shattered, a book by political reporters Jonathan Allen and Annie Parnes that tells the inside story of what was going on inside the Clinton campaign, especially in the final weeks leading up to Election Day. While I have not read the book itself, reviews and summaries that have been released it seems clear that the Clinton campaign was far less organized and far more ridden by internal divisions than it seemed from the outside. This release has caused many pundits and analysts to break out their favorite theories about what went wrong.
James Joyner highlighted one of those theories in his post about Kevin Drum’s two posts over the weekend — here and here — regarding the impact that James Comey had on the outcome of the election. Drum’s hypothesis, of course, rests on the proposition that the late-October letter that the FBI Director sent to Congress advising them that the Bureau had reopened the closed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server due to the fact that it had discovered emails that appeared to originate from that server during the course of an unrelated investigation. It has been speculated, but not confirmed, that this unrelated investigation involves Huma Abedin’s estranged husband former Congressman Anthony Weiner and his sexually explicit conversations with an underage girl in another state that ended up being the apparent final straw in the Abedin-Weiner marriage. According to the hypothesis advanced by Drum and others, including apparently Hillary Clinton herself, the letter that Comey sent to Congress in late October ended up spelling the death knell for Clinton’s campaign. The people advancing this theory also tend to assert, incorrectly, that there was something improper about his letter. As James noted in his post, and as I note in a comment to that post, Comey had an impossible choice to make under the circumstances and did the best he could:
[I]t’s worth noting what happened between the July press conference and the late-October release of the letter regarding the reopened investigation. It was just about a week after the press conference that Comey testified under oath to Congress regarding the investigation and the conclusions he announced at that press conference. Among other things, he had testified under oath that the Bureau had examined all of the emails connected to Clinton’s server it was aware of before reaching the conclusion he announced. Once these additional emails were found — apparently as part of a separate investigation of Huma Abidin’s estranged husband Anthony Weiner — he was under a legal obligation to supplement his sworn testimony. Had he not done so, he would have been potentially subject to legal sanctions. To the Bureau and Comey’s credit, they were able to conclude their investigation in a short period of time and a second letter was sent to Congress indicating that there were no new emails found among those mentioned the week before.
As you say, Comey was put in an impossible situation. If he didn’t inform Congress, he’d have broken a promise and thus endangered his own and the FBI’s credibility with Congress and the public and he would have potentially been subject to legal sanctions. If he did, he’d be accused of trying to influence the election. In the end, I think he made the right choice.
(hyperlinks added for purposes of this post)
This isn’t to argue that Comey’s letter had no impact at all, of course. Like every other event that happens during a campaign, there were any number of reasons why Hillary Clinton lost and Donald Trump won. At the top of the list, of course, one has to place the candidates and their respective campaigns.
At the top of the list, of course, one has to place the candidates and their respective campaigns. Donald Trump ran a far from flawless campaign, of course, especially during the General Election. While he managed to get out of the Republican National Convention relatively successfully notwithstanding major fractures in the party over his candidacy, it’s worth remembering that he spent much of the summer floundering and shooting himself in the foot via actions such as attacking a sitting Federal Judge over the Trump University lawsuit and attacking a Gold Star family who appeared at the Democratic National Convention. In October, his campaign was rocked by revelations from a tape from the mid-2000s where he made sexually explicit, demeaning comments about women that caused many top Republicans to seemingly abandon his campaign and his poll numbers to drop. Had those events happened closer to Election Day, it’s probable that his campaign would not have recovered.
Of course, while Donald Trump was flawed as a candidate in almost every respect, Hillary Clinton was far from an ideal candidate herself notwithstanding her popularity inside the Democratic Party. Her favorable/unfavorable numbers were nearly as bad as Trump’s throughout the course of the campaign, for example, and continued questions about things such as the Clinton Foundation and her use of a private email server while Secretary of State. Additionally, as Shattered and other reporting from the inside of the Clinton campaign have revealed, in many cases the Clinton campaign made questionable strategic and tactical choices that ultimately may have cost her the election. As I have pointed out several times since Election Day, Clinton arguably lost the Electoral College vote by the rather small margin of just 77,744 votes (.0.60% of the vote) in three states — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania — and that had she won those states she would have won a narrow Electoral College victory. All three of these states had been voting Democratic since at least the Election of 1992 and were expected to go for Clinton last year. Why they didn’t will be the subject of speculation for years, but one thing that is undeniable is that the Clinton campaign chose at a crucial time during the closing weeks of the campaign to divert resources from these crucial Midwestern states and move them toward trying to steal a state from the Republicans, with particular efforts focused on Arizona and Georgia where some polling had shown Clinton performing better than expected. In the end, Trump ended up winning both of those states easily, meaning the Clinton camp had essentially been baited into moving its forces in much the same way that Patton’s shadow army kept convincing the Nazis that the “real” D-Day invasion would come at Calais rather than Normandy.
One final factor that many Clinton supporters and Democrats have cited as a reason for Clinton’s loss are the alleged Russian efforts to intervene in the election and alleged ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Again, like the Comey letter, it’s likely that the revelations that came from whoever hacked into DNC computer system and leaked emails that ultimately proved embarrassing to the Clinton campaign had at least some impact on the outcome of the election. At the same time, though, it’s worth remembering that the contents of these emails, which detailed the extent to which the DNC worked to manipulate the primary and debate schedule to benefit Clinton and keep challengers such as Berne Sanders from gaining momentum were the truth, not disinformation or so-called “fake news.” Additionally, other events during the campaign, such as the questionable way that the Clinton campaign handled questions regarding her health in the wake of that fainting incident on the anniversary of the September 11th attacks, likely also influenced the outcome of the election.
In other words, pointing to a single component to try to explain what is perhaps the most historically unusual election result in recent American history is largely a waste of time. Just as there were many reasons that Donald Trump won the Electoral College, there are many reasons that Clinton, the seemingly inevitable victor for more than a year, ended up falling short notwithstanding the fact that she received so many more popular votes than Trump did. Clinton’s problem, of course, came from the fact that much of her popular vote margin came from running up votes in states she was going to win anyway such as California and New York while falling short in states that she should have one, such as the three Midwestern states I mention above. In this case, rather than being an orphan the failure of the Clinton campaign has many, many fathers and many explanations that political analysts and historians will no doubt be exploring in the coming years.
Update: Greg Sargent reaches similar conclusions.