Confidence in victory hastened Clinton’s defeat, experts say
Speaking to a gathering of Democratic donors on Thursday night, Hillary Clinton placed blame for her election loss on two people, FBI Director James Comey and Russian President Vladimir Putin, but her critics say Democrats should spend more time looking inward, as well.
“Putin publicly blamed me for the outpouring of outrage by his own people, and that is the direct line between what he said back then and what he did in this election,” Clinton said.
The campaign and its allies have been very direct about their belief that Comey’s letter to members of Congress 11 days before the election about the FBI investigation of her email server cost her the White House, but they have increasingly turned their eyes to Russia in recent days.
As media reports reveal more about the intelligence community’s assessment that Russia was responsible for the cyberattacks that led to the release of emails from the accounts of Democratic National Committee officials and campaign chairman John Podesta, a consensus is forming among some Democrats that a foreign power tilted the election toward Donald Trump.
It is impossible to quantify what impact the WikiLeaks dumps and Comey’s letter had. They saturated media coverage and handed Trump fresh talking points that helped him avoid costly missteps at a pivotal time. Had they not occurred, the entire narrative of the last month of the race would be different.
Even granting that these outside events contributed to Clinton’s loss, though, other newly-revealed details about the campaign’s failures point right back at Clinton, her top aides, and the White House.
President Obama has faced bipartisan criticism for not responding more forcefully to Russia’s alleged attempts to interfere with the election. While the intelligence community did release a statement accusing Russia and Obama confronted Putin privately about it, the White House feared that taking a firmer public stand on the matter would look like an attempt to help Clinton by politicizing intelligence.
“I wanted to make sure that everybody understood we were playing this thing straight, that we weren't trying to advantage one side or another,” Obama said at a press conference Friday.
According to NBC News, the Obama administration made a calculation that it was not worth starting a cyberwar before the election because they believed Clinton’s victory was inevitable.
“They thought she was going to win, so they were willing to kick the can down the road,” one official told NBC.
In retrospect, that was an error, said Democratic strategist Matt McDermott.
“At the time, it seems the Obama administration felt there was merit to giving a muted response to the mounting evidence that Russia was interfering in the election with a coordinated cyberattack effort,” he said. “In hindsight, it's clear there should have been a more vocal repudiation of these attacks, and more transparency from the intelligence community about what had happened, who was involved, and what if any coordination had been taking place.”
It is unclear that a more aggressive response would have made any difference.
“In this climate of political polarity, I think a lot of voters would have dismissed Obama's words as partisan maneuvering,” said Miles Howard, author of “The Early Voters: Millennials, In Their Own Words, On the Eve of an Historic Election.” “Even in victory, the Trump transition team is accusing Obama of trying to delegitimize Trump.”
Politico’s deep dive into the myriad miscalculations that let Michigan slip from Clinton’s grasp reflects a similar degree of confidence in victory that may have seemed justified at the time but clearly was not.
“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” a DNC consultant told Politico.
Campaign headquarters was reportedly so fixated on data showing a healthy 5-point lead in Michigan that warnings from officials and volunteers in the state that more needed to be done were not heeded. At one point, union volunteers heading from Iowa to Michigan were sent back because the campaign was more concerned with putting Trump on defense in Iowa than playing offense in Michigan.
Chasing the prospect of an electoral landslide, Clinton expended resources in longshot states while campaign workers in Michigan were struggling to get any attention from headquarters at all.
“They were just an over-confident bunch in every way,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell.
The threat of Trump losing and claiming the election was rigged against him appears to have led Democrats astray at times. The DNC decided late in the race to devote funds to racking up votes in Chicago and New Orleans. The reasoning, according to Politico, was that they feared Clinton would win the electoral vote and Trump would win the popular vote, then complain that her victory was illegitimate.
“There was a lot of thinking about January 21 and beyond,” Democratic strategist Scott Ferson said.
The certainty in Clinton’s victory spread far beyond her campaign staff. Media outlets, experts, and analysts predicted Trump would have little chance to reach 270 electoral votes, and they had the polling data to support that.
“Who thought she was going to lose?” Ferson said. “Every indicator was for a pretty comfortable win.”
In the last week of the race, FiveThirtyEight.com’s Nate Silver was fending off criticism for only giving Clinton a 65 percent chance of winning. Even Trump staffers have admitted that they were surprised by the outcome when the results started rolling in.
“Heading into the final week of the election,” McDermott said, “Democrats and Republicans alike thought Hillary Clinton was going to be the next president... It's wrong to pretend the Trump campaign thought they were running a winning campaign.”
O’Connell saw signs of trouble for Clinton, though.
“What the Clinton campaign missed, one of the biggest weaknesses, was overall, particularly with the Rust Belt, she didn’t have a strong message, and essentially she was nearly tone deaf with those folks,” he said.
Democrats scoffed at Trump’s promises to bring jobs back, but his message on trade resonated while Clinton’s support for free trade landed with a thud.
“At least he was selling those voters something.”
Howard, who interviewed young voters across the country for his book, saw a similar data-driven blindness to the facts on the ground in Midwestern swing states.
“The Clinton campaign severely underestimated how abandoned most Americans feel and how fed up with our political system they've become,” he said. “This frustration is a bipartisan sentiment and it's still palpable throughout the United States: red states, blue states, cities, towns, the countryside, you name it.”
By the time it was clear to Clinton’s staff that the data was wrong, it was too late.
“I've felt for a while that data has become too much of a sacred cow in politics,” Howard said. “There are sentiments that cannot be quantified, and the way to draw out those sentiments is to engage with voters the old fashioned way: meeting them and talking with them.”
Perhaps the campaign should have known sooner that the numbers were not infallible. Data had also wrongly convinced them Clinton would win the Michigan primary, and she lost the Wisconsin primary by a wide margin.
Looking back, Ferson said, those were obvious warning signs, but Clinton’s campaign never changed her behavior, even when they should have known she was not connecting with voters.
“When you’re on the bridge of an aircraft carrier, it’s impossible to know the skiffs you’re overturning in your wake,” he said.
O’Connell also questioned Clinton’s confidence, given how strong of a showing Sen. Bernie Sanders had in the Rust Belt state primaries.
“Sanders was the one who told you… He was connecting with the very people in the Democratic Party who were pissed off,” he said.
Closer to the general election, Trump’s support in states like Ohio and Iowa where similar economic issues are in play should have set off alarms that Michigan was closer than it looked. However, O’Connell said the Clinton team failed to grasp the most obvious lesson of the Republican primaries: that Trump can win.
“They just didn’t think that Donald Trump could win and they figured that essentially if they slimed him with his own words, the job would be done for them,” he said.
That failure of imagination may cause far-reaching aftershocks.
“The Democrats do not appear to have stockpiled a Plan B for the unlikely event of Trump winning the election,” Howard said. “That astounds me… Democrats' lack of leadership for the past month suggests that for all the lip service they gave to the potentially disastrous consequences of a Trump victory, they never really took those consequences seriously.”
Ferson fears the focus on the hacks and the dearth of introspection about what the Clinton campaign did wrong dooms Democrats to repeat their failures in 2018 and 2020. It may be true that Clinton would have won if not for interference by the Russians or Comey, but mistakes were indubitably made and debating those outside reasons obscures the factors that the party can change and improve for future elections.
“We’re not even acknowledging that it was her loss… It apparently is all Vladimir Putin’s fault, which it may be, but that does nothing for how we correct things for 2020,” he said.
At his end-of-the-year news conference Friday, President Obama conveyed a similar sentiment, urging Democrats to zero in on those voters who they overlooked in 2016.
“How do we make sure that we're showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they're not being heard?” he asked. “And where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, you know, politically correct, out-of-touch folks, we have to be in those communities. And I've seen that, when we are in those communities, it makes a difference.”