It’s (still) the economy, stupid

How Macomb County Created and Killed the Clinton Machine

Famed Bill Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg said Hillary Clinton’s lack of economic message drove Reagan Democrats back to their roots.

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Stan Greenberg was still fuming 15 days after the election.

He used words like “political malpractice” and “incompetent” to express his puzzlement at the outcome.

“How could they lose Michigan with 10,000 votes!” he exclaimed in an interview, and Wisconsin too, he added, where the Clinton campaign—though flush with money—put in very little advertising.

For Greenberg, the Democratic pollster who helped engineer Bill Clinton’s presidential victory in 1992, Hillary Clinton’s loss in these Rust Belt states took him full circle back to Macomb County, Michigan, where his groundbreaking research on voters dubbed Reagan Democrats set the stage for Clinton’s White House win after 16 years of Republican rule.

Greenberg was so obsessed with Macomb County as the key to winning nationally that Bill Clinton would tease him asking, “How many electoral votes does Macomb County have?”

Clinton almost won Macomb in ’92, and carried it in ’96. Barack Obama won it in 2012 by 4 points. Hillary Clinton lost Macomb County by 12 points, a stinging rebuke by this most studied group of voters.

The swing back to the GOP echoes what happened in 1984 when the blue-collar, unionized, mostly Democratic voters in the Macomb County suburbs that had voted for John F. Kennedy in a landslide broke for President Reagan. “When Reagan won, that was shattering,” says Greenberg, who was commissioned by the Michigan Democratic Party and the UAW (United Auto Workers) to figure out why the Democratic nominee, Vice President Walter Mondale, had lost so badly.

Greenberg’s focus groups and surveys of Macomb County voters caught Bill Clinton’s attention. “I came up with compelling findings how angry they were—but that they weren’t lost to the Democrats,” Greenberg told The Daily Beast. “They wanted to know ‘Why aren’t we central to your agenda?’ And they expressed themselves in very graphic and colorful language.”

Asked if “graphic and colorful” meant racially explicit language, Greenberg said yes, and for some Democrats seeking to rebuild their party, that was a deal-breaker. “Some Democrats said because of these voters’ illegitimate views, we shouldn’t incorporate them in our coalition. Bill Clinton, having grown up in Arkansas, understood these are voters Democrats could appeal to—and he also had legitimacy finding issues they wanted to address.”

The most famous incident was with Sister Souljah, a young black hip-hop artist, whose racially charged lyrics Clinton denounced at a meeting of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in June of ’92. Clinton’s willingness to repudiate the singer at Jackson’s event signaled to white working-class voters that the party had heard their concerns and was not beholden to any one interest group at their expense.

“It’s not a trade-off—you can win them both,” says Greenberg, citing Bill Clinton’s ease and comfort with black Americans, and his civil-rights activism as a young man, and as governor, for his success in winning over white voters without alienating his support in the black community.

The New York Times and Politico reported that Clinton had “pleaded” with his wife’s campaign to redouble their efforts among downscale white voters in key battleground states, but was told that wasn’t the target group, and that victory was in hand.

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“I think she would have won the election but for (FBI Director) Comey, but things happen in campaigns, the issue is how you respond to it. It was all attacking Trump—his temperament, how he was offending different groups. They went totally silent on the economy and any future plan that would be helpful to people,” says Greenberg.

He gives Clinton high marks for her speech at the Convention, where she demanded corporate responsibility and called for large-scale investments that would build an economy for many, not the few, a phrase she repeated multiple times. At the three debates, she had a consistent message pushing for economic change while she assailed Trump on taxes and “Trumped up trickle down.”

In the dial groups that Greenberg did, Clinton had her biggest shifts on who is better for the economy and who stands up against special interests. “How could you not close on that subject?” he exclaims, recalling her declaration in the last 60 seconds of the final debate, “The mission is to make the economy work for all, not just a few.”

Greenberg was elated, but not for long.

“That’s the last we ever heard of it,” he says of Clinton’s economic message.

The news cycles took over. The Clinton Foundation leaks focused on personal enrichment, feeding into the narrative that the Clintons were self-serving, and then FBI Director James Comey dropped his bomb, focusing renewed attention on Clinton’s emails.

He calls Clinton’s final two-minute ad “a mishmash” that focused on divisiveness and unity and opportunity with just one sentence on the economy, “which was the number one issue, which we knew going in and from our exits.”

In ’92, Bill Clinton’s final 30-second ad scrolled down a list of names, business people and economists endorsing Clinton’s economic plan. “We knew we had to win the economy, so that ad had one subject, ‘win the economy.’”

In Greenberg’s view, after a “masterful” handling of the Convention and the debates, the Clinton campaign fell off a cliff, and President Obama helped with the downfall.

“He was the main closing message,” he said. “His message was things are going well, we need to build on the progress.”

While Obama had every right to build on his legacy, Clinton didn’t have to follow his lead. “She no longer ran on change, she ran on continued progress in a change election. She lost the election in the final two weeks because of avoidable things that could have put them in the lead.”

As the Democrats survey the wreckage, Greenberg is optimistic. He doesn’t believe the party is divided ideologically. There’s not much that divided Clinton from Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in terms of policies. It’s more a question of cultural emphasis, and Clinton’s remark at a fundraiser that half of Trump’s voters could be put in a “basket of deplorables” was the equivalent of Mitt Romney’s “47 percent” in revealing her elitist side. She never properly walked that back, saying only that the number was fewer than half.

The new American majority that gave Clinton over 2 million more votes than Trump is real and growing, and is leading to a new politics. “The future divide may be cultural not economic,” says Greenberg. “The issues that trouble white working men in Macomb are not very different from what upset millennials and single women… When we’re all done talking this through, we will see more commonality than difference between Macomb County white men and our own base of voters.”

Hillary Clinton’s slogan, “Stronger Together,” conveyed a message of multiculturalism and diversity that warmed the heart of voters wanting to live the dream but came across as elitist and out of touch to Macomb County voters.

They wanted to go back to the basics. “It’s the economy, stupid,” brought them back once before, and three decades later, it’s a good place to start all over again.