By Brian Brinker:
It’s official—the Electoral College has all but assured Donald Trump of the presidency. The election of Trump will certainly go down as a major milestone in the history books. In hindsight, Trump’s victory shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, but in the days leading up to the election, just about every major publication and pundit predicted a Hillary Clinton victory. In the immediate aftermath of the vote, many pundits were quick to jump on claims that “sexism,” “racism,” and various other “isms” were responsible for Clinton’s loss and Trump’s victory. Yet now that the dust has settled, the many mistakes and faults of Clinton and her campaign are becoming all the more obvious. Here, I’ll go over five of them.
Whatever the experts thought, the American people wanted change and have grown wary of the Beltway insiders who run our country. On the campaign trail, Trump promised change and more, and while the jury is still out on whether or not he’ll actually be able to deliver that change, Trump’s message found wide appeal across the Rust Belt, allowing him to tear down the supposed “blue wall” that many pundits thought would ensure Clinton’s victory. This blue wall turned out to be a blue grave, burying Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
Reconstructing the Sexism Argument: Clinton Lost Because Democrat Voters Failed to Turn Out
Many believe that Trump’s victory was propelled by “sexism,” which is true only if you consider it in the narrowest of senses. Trump etched out close victories in Wisconsin, Michigan, and elsewhere, and admittedly, even small shifts in voting patterns could have resulted in a different outcome. While I firmly disagree with Clinton’s assessment that half of Trump’s supporters are “deplorables,” if even a small number of people voted against Clinton because of her gender, it may have shifted the election result.
Yet this argument misses the larger point—why was turnout for Clinton so abysmal in states that usually lean blue in presidential elections? If pundits and history were to be believed, Clinton should have easily won Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. But voter turnout in pro-Clinton areas was low. The same was true in North Carolina, Florida, and other supposed “battleground” states where she failed to drum up what was assumed to be solid support.
In the following sections, I am going to outline some very specific points, or “nails,” as I think of them. However, all five points are part of the same overarching theme: Clinton was an arrogant elitist who was deeply out of touch with the American people. Despite cursory efforts to address this, many voters saw through it, with some voting against her and many deciding simply to stay home. These five “nails” are also among many, many mistakes made by the campaign.
1. Clinton Choose the Worst Possible Vice President
Coming into the election, one of Trump’s biggest weaknesses was his lack of bona fide Christian credentials. Some of his derogatory remarks turned off many Christians, and compared to past Republican candidates, Trump played the God card far less. One of Trump’s most brilliant insights was addressing his lack of ties to the Conservative Christian wing of the Republican party by selecting Mike Pence as his running mate. Pence is a conservative Christian through and through and offers a lot of appeal to the Christian right.
Clinton faced a similar, perhaps even graver challenge within her own party. She didn’t appeal to progressives. Clinton’s third-way Centrism, speeches to Wall Street, support for trade deals, and numerous other factors meant that she had little appeal to the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. So what did Clinton do? She chose the worst possible running mate. Tim Kaine is an able party politician, but he offered little appeal to progressives.
Had Clinton chosen a true progressive—such as Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren—to be her running mate, she probably could have turned out much more of the progressive vote. Ironically, Sanders beat Clinton in Wisconsin and Michigan, foreshadowing the general election. Instead of recognizing the warning signs, Clinton assumed progressive voters would turn out for her regardless. Many didn’t.
On the other hand, Clinton could have gone the other direction and chosen a more conservative, blue-collar, “blue dog-style” democrat, which might have allowed her to steal votes from Trump. Instead, she chose a de facto doppelganger centrist that added literally nothing to her campaign.
2. Clinton Flipped and Flopped
Americans have grown sick of career politicians and the constant flip-flopping on policy issues. Often, it seems like many politicians will say anything to secure a vote. Americans have grown sick of broken promises and the constant watering down of beliefs and stances. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both took strong positions on controversial topics, while Clinton seemed willing to say whatever seemed the most neutral and the most likely to secure votes.
For example, Clinton was one of the chief architects of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was reviled by many of Trump’s supporters, as well as progressives. Once Clinton realized that sentiments were turning against the deal, she tried to convince voters that she no longer supported the deal “without modifications.”
Few bought into the sudden flip-flop. Then, one of Clinton’s closest political allies, Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, claimed that Clinton would support the deal once in office. This set off a firestorm and seemed to confirm what many people already suspected: Clinton would waffle on the TPP.
This issue would prove to be especially crucial in the blue-collar states that turned against Clinton, such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Not only did many voters get the impression that Clinton was dishonest, but in these key states, voters came to believe that Clinton wouldn’t represent their best interests.
3. Clinton Dismissed Younger Voters
Young voters were among the key groups to turn out for Barack Obama, especially in 2008 but also in 2012. Once again, Clinton assumed that these voters would turn out for her with little to no effort on her part. Not only did Clinton offer little to young voters besides perfunctory campaign promises, she rarely interacted with young people and even went as far as to openly insult them.
In leaked audio clips, Clinton argued that young people are “new” to politics and “live in their parents’ basements.” Most of the issues that younger voters care about, such as affordable tuition and health care, were also shrugged off by Clinton as idealistic. Ironically, during Clinton’s generation (and every generation that went to college before the mid ‘90s), tuition was actually quite affordable.
Clinton did make some efforts to reach out to millennials via social media and by hiring younger staffers. Yet by failing to craft policies that appealed to younger people, or even to treat them with genuine respect, her efforts were half-hearted at best and lacked appeal. Ultimately, Clinton secured only 55% of the millennial vote, compared to 60% for Obama. Furthermore, a bit less than 50% of millennials voted in 2016, while approximately 53% voted in 2008, with far more of those voters choosing third parties than ever before. Had Clinton enjoyed the same strong millennial support as Obama, she would have won the election by a comfortable margin.
Trump is believed to have secured approximately 37% of the under 30 vote, in line with Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign.
4. Clinton Focused on Dollars, Not Votes
In the days leading up to the election, the race was obviously tightening. So Clinton responded by taking her message to the people, right? Wrong. Even with the election bearing down upon her, Clinton scheduled more fundraisers rather than events with non-donating voters.
Unlike Barack Obama, Clinton kept most of these fundraisers closed off to the press and public. If you wanted to hear from the candidate, you’d have to shell up big bucks—sometimes $10,000 or more—to purchase a ticket. These closed events only reinforced the notion that Clinton was an out-of-touch elitist who cared more about the rich than Main Street America.
Clinton was operating under the old model of dollars being used to essentially buy votes. He (or in this case she) who raises the most dollars will be able to dominate the air waves and other media platforms, thus getting their message across. Problem is, in the age of the Internet and social media, people don’t need to rely on mainstream media and other traditional venues to obtain their information.
Trump, for his part, played the social media angle masterfully. To no surprise, he ended up spending about half of what Clinton did per vote.
5. Clinton’s Campaign Had Data but No Heart
Trump shot from the hip, often eschewing teleprompters and even ignoring advice offered by his key advisors. He openly aired disagreements with Pence and said things that perhaps no other candidate would ever get away with. By and large, Trump seemed to rely on his gut, successfully predicting the Brexit vote, and then his own victory, even as most of the experts and all their data disagreed with him.
For all of Trump’s seemingly erratic behavior, Clinton was the polar opposite. She ran one of the largest, best funded, and most well-organized (by traditional standards) campaigns in history. She hired a brilliant numbers guy by the name of Elan Kriegel to crunch her analytics, and her campaign manager Robbie Mook was (and is) famous for his reliance on data. Likewise, her campaign chairman John Podesta was a professional campaign guru and Washington insider.
Just about every decision made by the Clinton campaign was coldly driven by data and extensive professional insights. But that data and those insights were designed to work in the old election paradigm to battle traditional foes like Mitt Romney or John McCain.
Trump, meanwhile, didn’t take a path less traveled by—he abandoned the road altogether and hacked his way through the jungle, ignoring just about everyone and everything. Data? Overrated. Polls? They’re wrong. Media? Screw ‘em, they’re partisan. Republican National Committee? Already beat ‘em. Established Republicans who wouldn’t fall in line? Traitors. Concrete policies? Trump will figure it out as he goes along; just trust in him and he’ll make America great again.
For people sick to death of Washington, D.C. and its insular insider culture, Trump was a breath of fresh air. Clinton and her cold, calculating campaign simply represented more of the same—a politician who’d say anything, do anything, to secure the highest office. Hillary didn’t just represent the status quo, she was the status quo—the perfect embodiment of D.C. entitlement—and many voters, including those who sat out, had had enough.
Clinton played “not to lose” rather than playing to win. Safe decisions, words without convictions, data over instinct, a team filled to the brim with Washington insiders, and a war chest overflowing with special-interest monies. With the current mood in America, should we really be surprised that she lost the election, and especially the blue-collar and battleground states that sealed her defeat?
Brian Brinker is an OpsLens Contributor and political consultant. Brinker has an M.A in Global Affairs from American University.