On Friday, Donald J. Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. Some attribute Trump’s victory to Russian interference in the election. Certainly, Russian hacking and other Hillary Clinton external problems can be blamed for her loss and should be reviewed.
However, the reasons why Clinton lost the election are internal. As former Speaker of the House of Rep. Thomas (Tip) O’Neill said “all politics is local.” He meant that local factors determine election outcomes. So it was in the 2016 presidential elections. Hillary Clinton made the election a national referendum on Donald Trump. She won the referendum and popular vote.
However, the election was to be determined by the outcome in 11 closely contested battleground states (New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado, and Nevada).
The other 39 states were clearly either Republican or Democratic. Clinton failed to address localized state concerns, mainly economic, in battleground states deeply impacted by deindustrialization (North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio). Race to the bottom globalization, unfair trade practices, and outsourcing had cost millions their livable wage jobs. Many in the working class found employment in the low wage, low benefit, part-time and gig (contract work) economy. They had to depend on government safety net programs to feed their families and pay their bills.
Clinton did not actively articulate or stress an economic message in these states. Her website positions papers on economic issues and her five point plan for job creation did not resonate. Her poorly defined “Stronger Together” social inclusion message and attacks on Trump’s undesirability as a president were lost among those who had suffered or feared suffering economic job loss or decline. Clinton lost these states and the Electoral College vote.
Many mistakenly believe that media focused events caused her defeat and they cite FBI Director James Comey’s last minute announcement of an investigation of newly discovered Clinton emails, embarrassing emails from Clinton campaign staffers hacked by Russia and leaked to the media by Wiki Leaks, white working class bigotry, and ongoing negative fake and Breitbart news (often one in the same).
It is much simpler to take this popular and less analytical path of blaming forces outside of the candidate and her campaign strategists. A careful reading of election results lead to another conclusion: Clinton was a flawed candidate and her campaign leadership made fatal campaign misjudgments in crucial battleground states.
Clinton’s campaign staff believed Trump’s offensive behavior would turn voters away and into the Clinton camp. However, this did not occur. The voters they hoped for, in key battleground states, did not show up on Election Day or they voted for one of the third party candidates. Clinton received I.8 million less minority votes than President Obama did in 2012 and one million less young and millennial votes than Obama in 2012.
She also underperformed Obama’s 2012 vote, in counties in battleground states and with small town and rural working class populations. If these mainly white voters were bigoted why would they have voted for President Obama?
Almost everyone, with the exception of the Clinton campaign staff, recognized that Clinton had a serious weakness with working class, young, and millennial voters. Bernie Sanders was registering 75 percent support with the young and millennial cohort, won primaries in Wisconsin and Michigan, and tied Clinton in Iowa. The handwriting was on the wall.
Clinton campaign staffers believed that an Obama-like coalition would emerge for Clinton – young and millennial voters, minority voters, women voters, voters who prospered from the digital economy, affluent and well educated voters. It worked in California and New York, but failed in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin where working class concerns were basically ignored.
The Clinton campaign team—young, affluent, well-educated—built faulty voter support and turnout models in battleground states like Michigan that reflected their perspective of Michigan voters. Their perspectives proved to be badly misguided. Clinton, despite her primary losses to Sanders, did not actively campaign in Wisconsin or Michigan.
The result of the 2016 election is that the Democratic Party, in the states and nationally, is in poor shape – the worst it has been in since the pre-depression 1920’s. The party has largely lost working class voters and their hoped for coalition has not yet emerged.
It is time for Clinton and party leaders to seriously reassess. Their first step is to stop blaming outsiders for their losses.
Joshua Sandman is a professor of political science at the University of New Haven where he studies the American presidency.
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