President Donald Trump isn’t the only one obsessed with the 2016 election. He’s spent months drawing attention back to Hillary Clinton (and, in case anyone forgets, to his defeat of her last November).
But Democrats, at the nadir of their power in Washington, will forever be wondering what might have been if Clinton had won. Or if someone else had faced Trump.
That lingering wound was ripped open again when Donna Brazile alleged in Politico (as she tries to sell a new book) that Clinton had executed a “secret takeover” of the Democratic National Committee while the 2016 primary race was in its infancy.
Brazile’s allegation is reminiscent of a talking point in Bernie Sanders circles in 2015 and 2016, and it left his supporters frustrated and angry anew. But does it suggest the result could have been any different?
Asked about the allegations on CNN Thursday, Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who had held out endorsing Clinton until after she secured the nomination in June of 2016, said she agreed that the system was “rigged” for Clinton.
Trump, who has tried repeatedly to draw attention back to Clinton — or “Crooked Hillary,” per his tweets – as his own presidency faces difficulties, seemed to relish the opportunity to stoke the Democratic divide Friday morning. He took a dig at Warren, calling her Pocahontas again. He suggested the FBI look into the situation. He also said Sanders could have won.
Both Sanders and Warren responded to Trump on Twitter Friday, arguing his tweets were an attempt to change the subject and saying they wouldn’t let him distract them from keeping the focus on his own policies.
But let’s examine Trump’s claim that Sanders could have won.
Brazile, who acknowledges nothing illegal was done by the Clinton campaign, wrote the article from the perspective of her effort to right the DNC after previous chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was pushed out. Brazile, though, has her own spotty recent record in Democratic primary politics; hacked emails show her trying to pass questions, leaked to her by Roland Martin of TV One, to the Clinton campaign before a CNN Democratic town hall in Ohio. Brazile is no longer a commentator for CNN.
Still, she roasted Wasserman Schultz in the article and describes the difficult phone conversation she had with Sanders, the Vermont independent who ran for President in 2016 as a Democrat.
Brazile says financial mismanagement at the DNC led to a party on the verge of financial collapse, saved only by an agreement with Clinton in which the campaign would raise money for the DNC in exchange for control over its decisions. Sanders’ campaign also signed a fundraising agreement with the party, but did not raise money in the same way for the DNC during the primary. He accused her campaign of running a “money laundering scheme” during a debate.
All of this raises the very big, important and totally unanswerable question: Would Bernie have won the primary?
What if the DNC hadn’t been in debt? What if President Barack Obama had raised more money after 2012? What if the Sanders people hadn’t ignored their fundraising agreement with the DNC as Brazile says they did? What if the DNC hadn’t agreed to run everything by the Clinton campaign?
While this is obviously a rabbit hole, leading nowhere, it does signal a marked end to an era of Clinton dominance.
The Democrats lining up, quietly for now, to run in 2020 are taking their cues on policy and messaging more from Sanders and his progressive idealism (some would say he’s an ideologue) than Clinton and her political pragmatism (could you trust her?).
Those are thoughts for later. Right now the question is whether the Clinton campaign’s dominance over the DNC (which was alleged at the time, too) helped her win and whether, without it, Sanders would have been the one on the ballot against Trump in November.
The numbers would suggest the answer is still no. Plus, as Brazile notes in her article, Sanders’ entire strategy was to run from the outside, drawing the party to him and not benefiting from the its largesse.
While Clinton did not clinch the nomination until the second-to-last day of the primaries, she had a strong lead in delegates for the majority of the process. One reason it took her so long to lock it down was that California’s race, with its treasure trove of delegates, was not until June. Still smarting over its limited influence, California is looking to play in the primaries much earlier in 2020.)
Clinton won three of the first four contests. She won the entire South. The whole thing. She won most of the Northeast. (Sanders’ performed best in the upper Midwest and in states with caucuses, which are a better measure of the intensity of a candidate’s support than its breadth.) And she won the Democratic coalition of minorities and women – the people Democrats thought then and still believe they need to show up to win in November.
The other way Clinton dominated the race in 2016 was through her accrual of “superdelegates,” the party elders from each state that also get a say in the nominee. Partly because of the 2016 race, Democrats are already looking, through a “unity commission,” at scrapping that system going forward. (Don’t count on it.) Clinton had 602 superdelegates to Sanders’ 47, by the way. If 426 of those superdelegates had sided with Sanders, he could have won. But she still had a clear advantage in pledged delegates.
In hindsight, there were many many many alarm bells for Democrats.
Sanders ran strong and beat Clinton in states like Michigan and Wisconsin, parts of the Democratic wall she would go on to lose in November.
He trounced her among young Democratic voters, who did not show up for her the same way they did for Obama.
None of this is to say that Democrats shouldn’t have treated the process differently, but it doesn’t change the fact Clinton dominated the process from start to end. Or that Sanders, surprised by his own success, didn’t have the infrastructure to win a long campaign.
There’s also the simple fact that Sanders ran in the primary of a party to which he was proudly not technically a member.
Sanders ran a strong race, to be sure, and surprised every Democrat in the country. That’s beyond doubt. But so is the fact that, despite her flaws, Clinton didn’t need the DNC to win the nomination.