During her Saturday conference call with donors, Hillary Clinton blamed FBI Director James Comey’s late hits on her email fiasco for costing her critical votes from college-educated white women and thus the election.
In a contest decided by a mere 112,000 votes across three states, that may be true. Two days before the election, a top Clinton adviser told me he was all but certain that those suburban women would put her over the top. They didn’t know yet that Comey’s third outrageously improper statement—the one reiterating his exonerating July statement—would actually depress turnout by reviving the meme that both candidates suck. Meanwhile, Donald Trump got to end his hate-filled campaign just where he wanted it—on emails.
That’s the interpretation Clinton will carry to her grave.
Of course there’s a little more to it than that. Historians writing about 2016’s cataclysmic election will reject mono-causal explanations. As my shock wears off, I’m trying to dig a bit deeper into what happened.
The first thing to understand is that Trump didn’t really win the election, and I’m not talking here about his loss of the popular vote. It’s more accurate to say Clinton lost. About 6 million fewer voters turned out this year than in 2012, with around two-thirds of the no-shows being Democrats. Millions of other Democrats voted only in down-ballot races. In Michigan, where Clinton lost by around 13,000 votes, some analysts estimate that 90,000 Democrats left the top line blank.
Like most other journalists, I missed the depth of Clinton’s weakness with older white Democrats who don’t eat brunch.
So did “Ada,” the Clinton algorithm named for Ada Lovelace, the 19th-century British noblewoman who did some of the early thinking behind computers. Every day, Ada spit out not just the status of the race in every state but which candidates and surrogates should be dispatched to which counties. Ada—and the aides slavishly devoted to her—was at least partly responsible for Clinton not visiting Wisconsin even once during the fall campaign. Both Ada and Clinton lost there.
Ada didn’t ignore the Keystone State, but it didn’t matter. Clinton traveled 10 times this fall to Pennsylvania—where Democrats enjoy a 700,000-voter advantage in party registration—and still fell short. I was in Pennsylvania with Joe Biden the weekend before the election and could tell he was having trouble dragging Clinton over the finish line with the working-class voters he grew up with. The enthusiasm you need to win just wasn’t there. Clinton’s often-confused ground game felt obligatory. But I wrongly trusted polls over my instincts.
Bill Clinton, who had argued (often in vain) for months for more attention to blue-collar voters, sensed trouble. On Election Day, I spoke with a Clinton friend who had seen him backstage the night before at the final rally in Philadelphia. She said he was nervous.
But no one anticipated the carnage. Obama lost working-class whites to Mitt Romney by a 26-point margin in 2012. Hillary Clinton lost them to Trump by an astonishing 39 points—even worse than Walter Mondale did against Ronald Reagan in the 1984 landslide. Meanwhile, Trump outperformed Romney in Republican rural counties in the Rust Belt.
The question is why, and the answers are not fully available in exit polls, which by definition tell us nothing about the half of all registered voters who don’t exit their polling places because they never entered them to begin with.
So it makes sense to assess the impact on the election of longer-term, often unquantifiable dimensions of American political life, listed here in rough chronological order:
1. Talk Radio
The geographical divide in American politics is stark. Rural counties now deliver lopsided totals for Republicans that approach Democratic tallies in black neighborhoods.
The explanation is partly economic (people feel underemployed since the recession), but the farm economy is actually quite healthy. The bigger reason is cultural—a sense that elites have not only left them behind in the global economy but are looking down their noses at them while they favor immigrants and politically correct liberals. This reactionary nationalism fueled the Brexit vote in Great Britain and rising right-wing populism across Europe.
We often forget that the conservative cultural context begins with talk radio, which is still influential with older voters. American elites who live in cities can’t fathom how much driving most Americans do. Nearly every day for the last 25 years, tens of millions of rural and suburban voters have climbed into their cars and trucks and heard Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and others trashing Clinton—an often-entertaining five-hour-a-day, multibillion-dollar advertisement against her. That’s not even counting Fox News. Conservative media blasted Obama and other liberals, too, but not as hard. No one took more hits, for longer—in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, as well as the rest of the country—than Clinton.
Hillary Clinton hatred—complicated by her gender and her history as a Clinton—took its toll over the years. Meanwhile, other once-potent sources of communications, like union newsletters to their members, have atrophied as union membership further declines and workers find other sources of information online.
2. Missed Pivot to Jobs
The single biggest domestic failure of the Obama administration—the record Clinton ran on—was its inability to win passage of a major infrastructure program to employ millions of workers building roads, bridges, and airports. These are the guys who lost their manufacturing jobs in the 1980s, then got some construction work in the 1990s, but suffered badly in the 2000s. In 2009, Obama was dismayed by the absence of enough “shovel-ready” projects to help inject hundreds of billions into the economy quickly. But after he signed the Affordable Care Act in March 2010, he didn’t pivot to a jobs agenda to lock in a trillion dollars in a special capital budget for new infrastructure spending, despite having a Democratic Congress and low interest rates. For the next six years, he proposed big infrastructure projects but was stymied by the Republican Congress—the same Congress that next year will likely pass such a bill for President Trump.
To make matters worse, neither Obama in 2008 and 2012 nor Clinton in 2016 was creative enough to frame the issue correctly. Clinton had a strong and specific economic program for workers left behind by globalization—and exit polls showed voters narrowly favored her on the economy—but her jobs message never cohered properly. Instead of running on “Rebuild America” or “Kitchen-Table Agenda,” or some other easy-to-understand program relentlessly repeated, à la Trump, she spoke wonkily and in lists about “investments,” many of which were family-friendly proposals (e.g. family and medical leave) that working-class male voters care less about than jobs. And when Trump self-destructively said last year that “wages are too high,” Clinton failed to wring it around his neck, as she did with his other gaffes.
3. Rigged Primaries
After Bernie Sanders gave Clinton a full-throated endorsement at the Democratic National Convention, the media dropped the story line about whether millennials and other Sanders backers would close ranks behind her. Millions did, but plenty of others went to the Green Party’s Jill Stein or Libertarian Gary Johnson, or stayed home.
Many were apparently still concerned that Clinton and the Democratic National Committee had tried to marginalize Sanders throughout the primaries (e.g. scheduling debates late on Saturday nights)—an effort to “rig the election” that played right into one of Trump’s signature lines.
Unlike Ralph Nader in 2000, Stein and Johnson have not been widely blamed this year for being spoilers. Maybe they should be. In Michigan, their combined total was nearly 20 times Trump’s margin of victory, in Wisconsin it was five times, and in Pennsylvania, nearly three times, with Johnson himself convinced he was drawing more from Clinton than Trump. Even accounting for Democrats who would have stayed home or voted for Trump had Johnson and Stein not been on the ballot, a two-person election would likely have been won by Clinton.
4. Blue-Collar Billionaire
There’s a retrospective tendency to make the winner into a good candidate. Trump was a bad one, and not just because he slimed so many people and gave Clinton so much ammo. He constantly distracted attention from his message with intemperate tweets and various other stunts. And he lost all three debates.
But Trump did have a more resonant message than Clinton this year, tightly focused on trade, terrorism, and immigration. The irresponsibility of his positions did nothing to detract from their power. When he said that he would “be your voice,” voters responded, though in lesser numbers than voted for John McCain or Mitt Romney.
It didn’t matter that the voice of the people came booming out of a Fifth Avenue penthouse. He was on the side of workers—a bully for white people who felt they’d been pushed around. Trump’s best line all year may have been “I love the poorly educated.” Reporters and liberals snickered, but these often-neglected Americans drove him right to the White House.
Even so, this wasn’t a “change election” based on “draining the swamp.” If it had been, many more incumbents in both parties would have lost, and Trump supporters would not have responded so mildly to news that Washington bank lobbyists were infesting his transition within 48 hours of his election.
Trump didn’t spark a revolution or even ride a wave of popular anger into office. He just got the right votes in the right places by breaking rules of behavior that voters eventually deemed irrelevant to their lives.
Because Clinton was the first female nominee of a major party, there’s no clear baseline for assessing the role of gender in a general election. But to blame her ENTIRELY for her own defeat lets plenty of misogynists—recall the ones who wore the disgusting T-shirts at Trump rallies—off the hook.
Some form of conscious or unconscious sexism must have played some role in why she was seen as the less trustworthy candidate when practically every word out of her opponent’s mouth was a lie.
In a time of relative peace and prosperity—with a president over 50 percent in popularity—the much-noted “anger” on the Republican side was mostly anger at Clinton. “Lock her up!” is an extraordinarily harsh political chant, especially when the FBI has cleared her of legal culpability. Imagine how Republicans would have reacted in 2004 if John Kerry supporters had chanted “Lock him up!” in reference to President Bush violating prohibitions on torture.
Clinton’s team was disappointed that more women didn’t flock to her banner and that the gender gap in 2016 didn’t widen much from previous elections. The impact of the Access Hollywood tape and its aftermath (when a dozen women accused Trump of sexual assault) dissipated fast, even among women who claimed they were appalled by it. While many women simply didn’t care for Clinton or her family, or were driven by issues like abortion, millions of others effectively chose to cast their lot with their husbands—and their assumed economic privileges—over equality for themselves and their sisters and daughters.
Sexism crossed ethnic lines. Early on, a Latino friend clued me in: Many Latino men respond favorably to Trump’s machismo. How else to explain why—after all of Trump’s slurs against Mexicans and immigrants—Clinton did at least 5 percentage points worse among Latinos than Obama in 2012?
Clinton’s consignment of half of Trump’s supporters to the “basket of deplorables” was arguably her worst gaffe of the campaign. Insulting voters—as opposed to groups—is just politically stupid.
But the size of the basket remains one of the most relevant questions of 2016. Two nights before the election, a top Clinton adviser asked me and another reporter a question:
“What percentage of Americans do you think are racist?”
We didn’t know the answer, and neither does anyone else. What we do know is that the tolerance of half of the electorate for Trump’s rank racism against Muslims, Mexicans, and others remains one of the most shocking developments of a shocking year.
CNN commentator Van Jones coined the word “whitelash” for what happened on Nov. 8—a white backlash against non-whites that began when Trump announced his candidacy with a blast against Mexican “rapists and murderers.”
Rather than reducing his rhetoric and disavowing racist support, Trump repeatedly doubled down. By the end of the campaign, he was refusing to DIRECTLY denounce the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacists who endorsed him. (He did issue a boilerplate statement.)
While Trump’s racist demagoguery may have intensified his support, there’s no evidence in turnout numbers that his incendiary comments expanded it. Exit polls suggest that most of his voters backed him in spite of his rhetoric, not because of it, though it’s impossible to know that for sure. Racism is not the kind of thing you admit on a little form distributed outside your polling place.
7. Dogs Don’t Like It
Political operatives often tell the story of a dog-food company president who complained that his company had the best ingredients, the best packaging, and the lowest price, but sales were flat. Why?
“Dogs don’t like it,” someone piped up from the back of the room.
Clinton had the best résumé of anyone who ever ran for president, the respect and admiration of those who worked with her, and—as she showed in her moving concession speech—most of the other qualities we look for in the White House. Her campaign was not as bad as depicted in some quarters this week; “Stronger Together” was a reasonably good theme, and her videos and TV ads were excellent. It made strategic sense to tar Trump as unfit for high office.
But Clinton was rarely a good candidate on the stump and, under constant assault, failed to move smoothly to an upbeat message that could give more people something to vote for. She wasn’t “likable enough,” as Obama said of her in 2008, even for many Democrats who despise Trump.
Clinton ended up as the Velcro candidate—everything stuck. Her paid speeches to Wall Street, Clinton Foundation complications, and WikiLeaks staff indiscretions all blurred together with Anthony Weiner, Huma Abedin, and the emails to turn her into a caricature of a corrupt politician—a nominee who seemed as if she had something to hide even when she didn’t.
Historians should judge the news media harshly for allowing these flaps—none of which was a bona fide scandal—to dominate the final days of the campaign. The email story will be remembered for generations not for anything Clinton did but as a symbol of how “false equivalence” in the media can have huge historical consequences.
Meanwhile, Trump’s scorched-earth approach to the final weeks—attacking “Crooked Hillary” relentlessly at every stop—dampened turnout by reinforcing pre-existing doubts about Clinton.
For all of the deeper explanations, that alone may have been enough to tip a close election, as Clinton will forever believe. History is a game of inches.