Before assigning blame for why Hillary Clinton lost a race that she was supposed to win, it seems appropriate to first give credit to the victor. Whether you like or agree with President-elect Donald Trump, you have to give him credit for seeing and tapping into something that few others saw. From his gilded 58th floor, three-story apartment in Trump Tower overlooking Central Park, the real estate developer and television personality somehow peered into the American psyche and detected a growing anger and resentment among working- and lower- middle-class whites, particularly those in small towns, far suburbs, and rural areas, who feel left behind in the 21st-century global economy.
Trump has lived in New York City for most of his 70 years, excepting a stint at a military prep school and an Ivy League interlude at Penn in Philadelphia, and his life was catalogued in glossy Manhattan style and society magazines. Yet alone among the presidential candidates, this moneyed, citified man sensed the grievances of country people toward the rich and powerful in New York, Washington, and Los Angeles. He was able to connect with these voters by skillfully manipulating the news media into lavishing on him as much as $2 billion in free airtime. All the while, he professed disdain and if not downright hatred for this very same media, further delighting his supporters.
The estrangement of these white voters created a backlash—inartfully called a “whitelash” by some commentators—based on the conviction that the country they remembered growing up, made idyllic by the passage of time, had been swept away. They at once deplored the change that took this country away from them, and demanded change to give it back.
So what killed Clinton’s candidacy? A good place to start is the Affordable Care Act. Before President Obama took office, Democrats had majorities in the Senate and House. They controlled more state legislatures than Republicans. Within six years, all of those Democratic majorities were gone. Heading into the 2016 elections, Democrats were weaker at the grassroots than at any time since 1928. The coup de grace was delivered when Obamacare insurance premiums shot up by an average of 25 percent less than two weeks before the election.
Clinton blamed her troubles on FBI Director James Comey, but that was a political cop-out. The original sin was the dumb and dangerous decision to set up and use a personal email server. I’d still like to know whether her staffers advised her against it and whether she ignored their counsel, or whether they stayed mum for fear of angering her.
There certainly seemed to be a bit of hubris in the Clinton campaign, which tried to expand its footprint into long-shot states while not devoting sufficient resources and attention to states that leaned her way and would have provided the necessary 270 Electoral College votes to win the presidency. That the Clinton team spent more money on ads during the last month in Omaha than in Michigan and Wisconsin combined was political malpractice. Flirting with Arizona while Pennsylvania was starting to drift away was just as bad.
Even before this campaign, Democrats were overestimating their strength. In 2006, when the unpopularity of the Iraq War had reached toxic levels and President Bush’s approval numbers were below 30 percent, they won an important midterm election and swiftly pivoted to the 2008 presidential campaign. After a hard-fought internecine fight between Obama and Clinton for the Democratic nomination, Obama was effectively elected president as Lehman Brothers fell and the stock market crashed. No Republican under those circumstances could have won, including the sainted Ronald Reagan. While Obama’s charismatic candidacy did attract impressive numbers of minority and younger voters, it also masked the fact that any Democrat would have won that general election.
In 2012, the economy was in tepid shape and Obama’s numbers were not sufficiently strong to be an asset but not quite problematic enough to prevent his reelection. The caliber of the Obama campaign was first-rate, while Mitt Romney’s advisers failed to tell their candidate’s story, apparently afraid of exacerbating concerns about his Mormon faith, his private-equity work at Bain Capital, his term as governor Massachusetts, and his upbringing as the son of a onetime governor and automobile company CEO. One side ran a great campaign, the other an OK campaign.
The patterns of support in Obama’s victories convinced Democrats that the world had changed, that their new coalition of upscale white progressives, young and socially liberal college graduates, and minority voters was an unbeatable combination. The only problem was that while the country had changed and continues to change, it hadn’t changed as much as Democrats thought. The crushing irony was that Democrats failed to hold onto the downscale whites who had gravitated to the party at the beginning of the 20th century and became the cornerstone of FDR’s New Deal coalition—and a cornerstone of the party’s success ever since.