Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Why Hillary Lost: An Exhaustive Look

The purpose of this analysis is to provide an overall explanation for why Hillary Clinton lost the election.  Complex questions usually are best answered by the phrase “all of the above.”  Given that reality, we will cover a range of factors including, of course, analytics around the voting.  We will examine four general categories:

 1)     History, which was not on her side 
 2)     The numbers: voting by state and by demographic, especially compared to 2012
 3)     The campaigns:  how they were run and the impact of late-breaking surprises
 4)   The Russians, because everyone is talking about them


Donald Trump’s candidacy obliterated much conventional Presidential campaign wisdom, yet some basic historical patterns that many thought would be upended remained intact.

First, it was going to be tough sledding for the Dems regardless of the match-up.  Only once since FDR – a full 71 years – has a party remained in power for a third term, in 1988 when George H.W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan.  Whether after four dismal years or eight reasonably good ones, American voters are never completely satisfied and want to give the other party a shot.  Any Democratic candidate would have faced this central truth.  Strike one.

Second, since Watergate and the Nixon resignation, a seismic shock of shoddy government ethics that changed us forever, six of the seven Presidents we have elected have been “outsiders” who ran, essentially, on anti-Washington platforms.  Carter, Reagan, Bush 43 and Clinton were all governors who never worked a day in Washington, DC prior to their Presidency (although Bush 43 was an informal advisor to his father).  Barack Obama, though a one-term Senator and therefore technically a product of the Beltway, was, by virtue of his race, name, background and positioning, was clearly viewed as an external change agent.  And Trump is Trump.  Of the seven, only Bush 41 spent a career that was closely aligned with the Washington establishment, again the only exception to this rule.

There is no question that Hillary Clinton is the ultimate insider, having spent the last 24 years of her professional life deeply embedded in Washington as First Lady, Senator and Obama’s Secretary of State.  She embraced Obama and virtually all of his policies in the campaign.  (For those of you who think Joe Biden might have been successful alternative to Clinton, read these last paragraphs again.)  Strike two.

And finally, American voters have long been attracted to the more “outgoing” personality in selecting their President.  From the charismatic FDR over his succession of GOP contenders to the telegenic Obama over John McCain, America will always take the colorful over the wonk.  There was plain-spoken Harry Truman over stuffy Tom Dewey and the commanding Ike versus egghead Adlai Stevenson.   The Television Age and the birth of televised debates accentuated this trend, with the cool, composed and smiling JFK edging dour, grumpy and sweaty Dick Nixon, larger-than-life LBJ over the alarming Barry Goldwater, golden-voiced Ronald Reagan over the pained Jimmy Carter and the not-exactly-scintillating Walter Mondale, Bubba Clinton over preppy George H.W. Bush and mean Bob Dole, tough-talking Texan George W. Bush over policy mannequins Al Gore and John Kerry, and the genuine rock star Barack Obama over quasi-maverick John McCain and the patrician Mitt Romney.   Even George H.W. Bush looked positively charming next to the Least Charismatic Candidate of All Time, Mike Dukakis.  (Nixon over Humphrey in 1968 and Carter over Ford in 1976 are the exceptions, but Humphrey, the sitting VP, was hopelessly tied to LBJ and Vietnam, as was Ford to Nixon and Watergate after Ford’s quick pardon of his disgraced predecessor.) 

Hillary Clinton, as capable as she is, had no chance in a personality contest with Donald Trump.  She is the ultimate straight-A student, the master of policy, the Wonder of Wonk.  And Trump, of course, is a creation of the media, a made-for-television maestro.  It simply does not matter to America who knows what about governing and policy.  Strike three.

This is all in hindsight, and we, of course, head the list of those who conveniently ignored these simple truths in real time, assuming that Donald Trump being Donald Trump rendered them all inoperable.  But these central tenets held up, and in this manner the 2016 race for the presidency was more of a “typical” election than we thought.

The Numbers

The numbers support the “typical election” theory as well.  A total of 35 states (plus D.C.) voted for the same party in 2016 as they did in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.  An additional 9 states went the same way as in 2012.  Only six states switched, and that was enough to flip the election to the GOP. 

And those six states – Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida and Wisconsin – have all been hotly contested in this century.  Each party had won Ohio, North Carolina and Iowa in that 2000-2012 span.  And while the other three, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, had been Blue states in each of those past four elections, George W. Bush lost Wisconsin by less than a point twice; Pennsylvania’s margin was five points or less in three of those elections; and the same was true for Michigan twice.  America’s political face did not get a complete makeover in 2016, but rather underwent small, subtle changes that made a huge difference.  The polarized America of the 21st century dances on a thin line these days in its politics, and the Trump win, like Bush’s in 2000, was far from a revolution. 

You don’t need to be a cartographer to see that those changes occurred almost exclusively in one geographic region of the United States, the Midwest, the industrial heartland that has not reaped the economic benefits others have enjoyed in the Obama recovery.

Click the map to create your own at

Thus it is no surprise to see that, demographically, via the exit polls, Clinton was hurt most among working class whites who dominate those Midwestern states.  That is the main story by the numbers in this election, along with Trump’s surprisingly strong showing (relative to Romney) among non-whites.

The most straightforward way to understand Clinton’s loss, analytically, is to compare the 2012 and 2016 elections, and pose the question, what differed enough to push Trump beyond Clinton where Romney fell short?

Interestingly, Clinton achieved almost exactly the same number of absolute votes as Obama in 2012, let’s round it to 66 million each.  Trump received about 2 million more votes than Romney, 63 million versus 61 million.  Overall turnout was up 8 million, from 129 million to 137 million; the other incremental 6 million went to other candidates (in 2016 that means largely Gary Johnson and Jill Stein).

In Millions
Total Votes

I did this analysis two ways, first showing where Clinton and Trump picked up and lost votes versus Obama and Romney (to answer the question, where did Trump get his +2 million versus Romney?), and then comparing the voting percentages among these same segments.  The answers are quite clear.

Voter Segments
Clinton vs Obama (millions)
Trump vs Romney (millions)

Obama/    Romney    %
Clinton/     Trump       %
Percentage Point Change

-4 / +1

-1 / -2


-2 / -1

-8 / +3

Under age 45

-3 / -2
Age 45+

-2 / +1

High school or less

-6 / +3
College or more

-1 / -2

Income < $50K

-8 / +3
Income $50K +

+2 / -4

White Non-College

-8 / +6
White College +

+3 / -7

Clinton did MUCH worse than Obama among all Non-White voters, a drop of 8 points, some of whom, shockingly, went to Trump (3 points) and more of whom (5 points) went to Johnson/Stein.  When you drill down, Trump actually did better among Latinos – a group he directly insulted (at least Mexicans) – than Romney.

But the main group Clinton lost directly to Trump were those White/Non-College voters, where she also dropped 8 points but Trump picked up 6, a swing of some 3 million voters.  Clearly this was the difference in those razor thin margins in the industrial Midwest, home to many in that particularly demographic.  And the blue votes in those large urban pockets of Wayne County in Michigan, Dane County in Wisconsin and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania did not come in quite enough to bail out Clinton.

The Campaign

Hillary Clinton ran a strong campaign tactically but a weak one strategically.

Clinton campaigned hard, largely focused on the right places, put together an incredible ground game state-by-state, and raised money galore.  The campaign was well-organized and strife free.  They were generally wise when Trump stumbled, staying out of the media cycle to let Trump have the spotlight in his pain.

But there were seven – count ‘em, seven -- factors that Clinton could not overcome, some self-inflicted, some not.

·        Message. There can be little doubt that Trump won the message war.  Trump nailed his message from the start by focusing on immigration and trade, two issues that were easy to connect (however misleadingly) to the economic pain that many working class whites were feeling.  His vow to build a wall and rip apart NAFTA and other trade deals were an (empty) promise to restore industrial jobs.  Clinton’s economic program was simply too subtle to make much of an impact.

And, of course, the economy was not even Clinton’s primary message; her main thrust was more about, frankly, Trump than about Clinton.  Clinton assumed that Trump was so hideously vile that simply focusing on him was the right strategy.  Bill Clinton thought otherwise – he begged the campaign early and often to stop neglecting working class whites, to no avail.  When it all shook out, not enough people cared about Trump’s obvious faults, and too many people actually reveled in them, believing his crassness and lack of political correctness was just what Washington needed.

Trump even won the slogan war.  “Make American Great Again” is a wonderful slogan, both at face value, and in its coded appeal to return to a time when White America ruled, before, so a certain sub-segment of America thinks, all those darn minorities started getting all the jobs and government largess.  Who remembers Clinton’s slogan(s)?  There was “Stronger Together” which is a sweet but na├»ve reprise of “Hope and Change” (which failed to Make America Bi-Partisan Again).  Then there was “I’m With Her” – which sounds kind of self-reverential.  Wouldn’t “She’s For You” been better, instead?

It is so ironic that the Clintons, of all people, forgot that “it’s the economy, stupid.”  James Carville, of course, uttered that memorable line continually in the 1992 campaign.  But only Bill Clinton never forgot it.

·        Her Unpopularity.  Why is Hillary Clinton so darned unpopular?  Clearly, the GOP’s decades-long efforts to demonize her have paid off (for them).  Ever since she moved into an office in the West Wing and took on the health care project, ushering in her modern interpretation of First Ladydom, she has been vilified.  From Whitewater to Benghazi, through all of her husband’s infidelities, Hillary Clinton has been cast as shifty, sneaky, unprincipled, overly-ambitious, out for herself, ruthless, you name it, unabated for 24 years now.  And she has reinforced this with, no doubt, a preference to protect herself through some degree of secrecy and an instinct against transparency.  You might do the same if you had undergone decades of being dragged through the mud.  But it hurt her.

·        Bernie.  Bernie Sanders devastated the Clinton candidacy, even in defeat.  He found and exploited the single most powerful issue of this election cycle – income inequality – and framed it in such a way that Clinton could never co-opt it in the general election.  He made it clear she was part of the problem and, quite stupidly, she opened the door for it herself, by agreeing to take enormous speaking fees from Goldman Sachs and others. 

·        Those Damn Emails!   Yes, the emails crushed her.  Her unwillingness or inability (see:  above, lack of transparency) to offer a complete, coherent explanation of the whole fiasco hung over her like a thundercloud, hurling bolts of lightning at her now and again and again and again.  The emails, like every gaffe, hurt her because they reinforced her major perceived negative: that she was secretive, untrustworthy and lacked integrity. 

·        Jill Stein.  If everyone who voted for Jill Stein in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin had voted for Hillary Clinton, Clinton would have won.  It’s that simple.

·        Comey, Comey, Comey.   FBI Director James Comey was Clinton’s worst nightmare.  Not once, not twice, but three times, he emerged with an unexpected blockbuster – not just an October surprise but a November one as well.  Just look at this chart, which chronicles the polls by their inflection points.  Every shift in Trump’s direction save one was due to Comey.

6/1 to 7/5: Post-Primary Period
7/6 to 7/21: Post-Comey Announcement
7/28 to 9/9: Post-Convention: Kahn Family Flap
9/10 to 9/26: Post-Deplorables/Pneumonia Flap (9/9, 9/11)
9/26 to 10/7:  Post Debate #1 (9/26)
10/7 to 10/28:  Post Trump Sex Talk Tape (10/7)
10/29 to 11/3:  Post First Comey Letter (10/28)
11/3 to 11/7:  Final Days, Including Second Comey Letter (11/6)

       In July, of course, he could have issued the standard (protocol) statement simply announcing that the FBI was closing its investigation of the emails because no indictable offense was uncovered.  But no, he went on and on and on about how “careless” she and her staff had been.  Then, in October, the infamous First Comey Letter that announced the potential reopening of the case due to the discovery of other emails on, of all places, Anthony Weiner’s server!  Anthony Weiner, there’s a brand association to avoid.  Comey, of course, had not examined the emails in question, nor had anyone at the FBI, but that did not stop him.  Finally, the Second Comey letter that, while affirming the July conclusion, all but ensured that the final conversation among undecided voters before Election Day would be about – those damn emails.  Of all the factors cited above, James Comey tops the list.
The Russians

Clinton might have even won the election anyway, despite Comey, if not for the WikiLeaks’s leak of John Podesta emails, which were conveniently hacked into by the Russians.  It is hard to ascribe polling changes to these leaks because of their drib drab nature, but an article a day on new revelations throughout October and early November had to make a difference, even if a marginal one.  And in an election decided, essentially, by 40,000 votes, the standard for “marginal” is mighty small.  Everything mattered, and thus so did a rather significant inside look at normal campaign chatter, warts and all.


I think that about covers it.  Hillary Clinton lost because she could not overcome the weight of history, a bad message, her own weaknesses (one of which was marvelously exploited by Bernie Sanders), the emails, Jill Stein, the Russians and James Comey.  Because of these factors she lost just enough Rust Belt voters to lose a handful of swing states and thus the Electoral College, even though she managed, despite it all, to win nearly 3 million votes than Donald Trump nationally.  And so the glass ceiling goes unbroken, an experienced leader has been sidelined, and America will experiment with a largely foolish television star as the leader of the free world for the next four years, or until death or impeachment intercede.


About books....two recommendations.

The very best campaign book of all time was neither in the seminal Theodore White “Making of the President” series nor the recent “Game Change” entries by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin – rather, it is What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, a phenomenal piece of work on that 1988 campaign, focusing on the four main characters, Bush and Bob Dole  on the GOP side, and Dukakis and Gary Hart on the Dems, with others prominently in the mix, including Joe Biden’s first unsuccessful run.

Another book I would recommend to all is the new biography of George W. Bush, Bush by Jean Edward Smith.  Smith takes an unsparingly tough view of those eight years, and delivers a stunning indictment that took even my jaundiced breath away.  For those of you who assume that Dick Cheney was running the joint, it is fascinating to discover in what ways this statement is true, and in what ways it is false (and it is not simply a first-term, second-term thing).  And while it was no surprise that Bush and Colin Powell had many differences, I was surprised at how much Donald Rumsfeld and Bush differed, particularly with respect to how to manage Iraq post-"Mission Accomplished".  If Bush had simply continued with the original vision to be a "liberator" and not an "occupier," it might have actually worked out.  But Bush decided – on his own, and after Baghdad fell – to try to turn Iraq into a democracy, thus turning our designed short-term stay into a slog. This decision led -- in a straight line -- to replacing Jay Garner with Paul Bremer, the abrupt dismissal of the Baathists from the government and the dissolution of the Iraqi army, and thus to all hell breaking loose in the form of the insurgency.

Reading about all this on the verge of the era of Trump is unnerving.  Trump appears to have all of Bush’s worst tendencies and more – the appetite for decisiveness.  The complete disinterest in the thoughtfulness that usually precedes those decisions.  The disdain for nuance.  The utter inability to focus.  The love of macho.  The hazy knowledge of history and the Constitution.  The personalized view of power.  #sad #scary

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting article and kept my attention until you got to the Russian, which you claim was hacked by the Russians and exposed by Wikileaks. The politicians are unable to substantiate that the Russians did this, so please look at the facts again or perhaps just state that it was hacked by unknown individuals. Assange said that it was not the Russians that provided him with the leaks/


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