In her new memoir of the 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton offers this analysis on why she lost:
“I think it’s fair to say that I didn’t realize how quickly the ground was shifting under all our feet… I was running a traditional presidential campaign with carefully thought-out policies and painstakingly built coalitions, while Trump was running a reality TV show that expertly and relentlessly stoked Americans’ anger and resentment.”
Which is true.
She ran a campaign larded with policy papers, with serious thoughts about serious things, with poll-tested stump speech lines designed to give some to everyone but all to no one.
Trump just, well, said stuff. His policies were virtually non-existent. The policies he did have – build a wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it, for example – were impractical. His campaign was entirely tonal; it was all about tone. He said things forcefully! He was tough! He was going to make America great again!
But, Clinton’s analysis – while broadly accurate – misses (or takes for granted) a few things that should not be missed or taken for granted.
Let’s start with her denunciation of Trump running a campaign designed to appeal to Americans’ “anger and resentment.”
There’s NO question that that’s what Trump did. He cast America as a dark and scary place that was rapidly losing what once made it great – and portrayed himself as the only person who could fix it. The stakes Trump set in the election were, basically, these: Vote for me or everything bad you’ve ever worried about will come to pass.
Clinton clearly views Trump’s “heart” appeal as beneath contempt. While she spent time on “carefully thought-out policies” and “painstakingly built coalitions,” he was just throwing red meat to people starving for it.
But, here’s the thing: Campaigns – especially those for president – are rarely won and lost on “carefully thought-out policies.” They are almost always won on emotions – positive ones or negatives ones. It’s a lesson Clinton should have learned when she lost the Democratic presidential primary back in 2008.
What specific policy proposal boosted Barack Obama into the White House? “Hope” and “change” are not exactly “carefully thought-out policies.” What policy did George W. Bush win on? “Compassionate conservatism” is a feeling after all, not an emotion. Go all the way back to Bill Clinton – another campaign that Hillary Clinton was intimately familiar with. Clinton won as a fresh-faced son of the South, not on any specific policies.
Hillary Clinton should have known better than to think that a stack of policy papers was the way to the White House. It never has been, and likely never will be. While some voters – particularly hard partisans – vote based on a single issue (or a set of issues) most independent voters and loose partisans are far more swayed by their impressions of the candidates.
In this race, Trump felt to them like the change candidate and Clinton felt like more of the same. Four in 10 voters in the 2016 exit poll said the most important thing in deciding their vote was a candidate who could bring about change in Washington; Trump won that group by 68 points. That’s the election.
There’s another thing that Clinton should have known: That running a “traditional presidential campaign” was unlikely to work against Trump.
Why else should she have known? Because Trump spent more than a year crushing more than a dozen Republican primary challengers – the vast majority of whom tried to run the very same “traditional” political campaign that Clinton did.
If “traditional” campaigns worked against Trump, then Jeb Bush would have been the GOP nominee. Or Marco Rubio. Or Ted Cruz. Or, literally, almost any of the other candidates not named Ben Carson. (Sorry Dr. Ben!)
The ONLY lesson of the Republican primary was that Trump wasn’t subject to the same political rules of gravity as everyone else. That voters held different expectations for him – and that conventional political warfare wouldn’t work against such an asymmetric threat.
If the definition of insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing and expecting a different result, then that’s exactly what Clinton was doing in this campaign. There was zero evidence from the Republican primary that a traditional campaign would work against Trump. But she ran one anyway. Why?
The broader point here is that while Clinton’s diagnosis of why she lost is accurate, it’s not the full picture.
She had every reason to understand how powerful Trump’s emotional appeals to anger and resentment were – and to find ways to match them with emotions of her own. Instead, she ran a campaign that felt largely emotionless. (Clinton acknowledges in the book that she was never able to fully express her feelings and emotions during the campaign.)
And Clinton should have also known that simply running the conventional campaign playbook against Trump would never do. The assumption that what didn’t work against Trump in a Republican primary would suddenly work in a general election was not only misguided but obviously so. The message voters were sending – in the Republican and Democratic primaries – was that they wanted change and that the old ways of doing things wouldn’t cut it. To conclude anything other than that Trump was a totally unique candidate who required a totally unique approach to beat ran directly contrary to all available evidence.
Clinton should have known all of that. That she didn’t speaks to why she lost as much as does the campaign Trump ran.