Clinton’s Defeat: Outside Factors Hurt, but Blame Falls on the Candidate

From her private email server to her dysfunctional campaign, she never gave Americans a compelling reason to elect her president.

Bill Clinton applauds as Hillary Clinton speaks in New York on Nov. 9, 2016.
AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
May 4, 2017, 8 p.m.

Fin­ish­ing Amie Parnes and Jonath­an Al­len’s en­gross­ing book, Shattered: In­side Hil­lary Clin­ton’s Doomed Cam­paign, listen­ing to Clin­ton of­fer­ing her per­spect­ive on why she lost to CNN’s Chris­ti­ane Aman­pour, and watch­ing FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey testi­fy be­fore the Sen­ate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee in the same week leaves a de­cidedly mixed view of the last elec­tion.

The book delves in­to what went wrong in the Clin­ton cam­paign and why, as well as the in­tern­al power struggles and foibles of the key char­ac­ters in Clin­ton World. While I am un­aware of any ma­jor fac­tu­al mis­takes in the book, it made the out­come seem pre­or­dained when it most cer­tainly wasn’t.

Where the book is most help­ful is put­ting in­to con­text events that were not fully ap­pre­ci­ated last year. The WikiLeaks re­leases of in­tern­al Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee emails and mes­sages from Clin­ton cam­paign chair­man John Podesta came at crit­ic­al junc­tures. Some sur­faced on the day that Tim Kaine was an­nounced as Clin­ton’s run­ning mate, oth­ers just minutes after the dis­clos­ure of the lur­id Billy Bush-Don­ald Trump con­ver­sa­tions on Ac­cess Hol­ly­wood. Oth­er leaks kept drib­bling out, keep­ing the Clin­ton team off-bal­ance and off-mes­sage throughout the cam­paign.

Clin­ton this week took of­fi­cial re­spons­ib­il­ity for the loss but blamed oth­er factors. “I was the can­did­ate. I was the per­son who was on the bal­lot,” she said. Later she ad­ded: “Did I make mis­takes? Oh my God, yes. You will read my con­fes­sions, my re­quest for ab­so­lu­tion. But the reas­on I be­lieve we lost were the in­ter­ven­ing events in the last 10 days.” Earli­er in the ses­sion, she had said, “I was on the way to win­ning un­til the com­bin­a­tion of James Comey’s let­ter on Oct. 28 and Rus­si­an WikiLeaks raised doubts in the minds of people who were in­clined to vote for me but got scared off. If the elec­tion had been on Oct. 27, I’d be your pres­id­ent.”

Tech­nic­ally speak­ing, Clin­ton was prob­ably right, but she would have been more con­vin­cing if she had giv­en a more de­tailed ac­count of the mis­takes made by her­self, her hus­band, and her cam­paign. She neg­lected to men­tion her fate­ful de­cision to set up a private email serv­er. Nor did she try to ex­plain why her hus­band wandered over to say howdy to At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Lor­etta Lynch on the tar­mac of the Phoenix air­port at a crit­ic­al junc­ture in the email probe, which ef­fect­ively dis­qual­i­fied Lynch and put the in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Comey’s hands.

The Amer­ic­an people faced a choice between the two most un­pop­u­lar pres­id­en­tial nom­in­ees in his­tory. When the spot­light was poin­ted on Trump, as it was for most of the cam­paign, his poll num­bers dropped; when it shif­ted to Clin­ton, her num­bers tumbled. To Trump’s cred­it, in the cam­paign’s clos­ing weeks he heeded his ad­visers’ ad­vice to stifle his pro­voc­at­ive tweets and pub­lic pro­nounce­ments. His lower pro­file, co­in­cid­ing with Comey’s pub­lic state­ments, had the ef­fect of put­ting the spot­light onto Clin­ton.

When Comey first raised Clin­ton’s emails in Ju­ly, he told House Re­pub­lic­ans that there was noth­ing there but that he’d get back to them if things changed. The big change was the dis­cov­ery that the laptop be­long­ing to Huma Abedin’s hus­band, dis­graced former Rep. An­thony Wein­er, con­tained emails sent by Clin­ton from her private serv­er. Be­cause the FBI’s New York field of­fice was filled with Clin­ton-hat­ing agents who leaked like sieves, Comey figured that this in­form­a­tion was bound to seep out and that it was bet­ter that House Re­pub­lic­ans hear it from him dir­ectly rather than from blogs or news­pa­pers. So less than two weeks be­fore the elec­tions, he an­nounced that more emails had been found even though the FBI didn’t yet know what was in them. Then, nine days later, he cleared Clin­ton for a second time. But by that time, the spot­light of bad pub­li­city had clearly dam­aged her cam­paign.

Giv­en Vladi­mir Putin’s back­ground as a KGB of­ficer and his pat­tern of us­ing dis­in­form­a­tion and med­dling in the in­tern­al af­fairs of oth­er coun­tries, it was not sur­pris­ing that he would make mis­chief in the Amer­ic­an cam­paign. And giv­en his hatred of Clin­ton for pro­mot­ing demo­crat­ic ef­forts in his coun­try, it was likely that Rus­si­an in­tel­li­gence agen­cies were try­ing to sab­ot­age her can­did­acy more than help Don­ald Trump, al­though there is little ques­tion that they did. Pil­fer­ing emails from the DNC and Podesta’s private email proved more ef­fect­ive than the Rus­si­ans could have hoped.

But those leaks and Comey’s pro­nounce­ments would not have made a dif­fer­ence had Clin­ton run a bet­ter cam­paign. In­stead of try­ing to win over mal­le­able voters, her team tried to re-cre­ate the Obama co­ali­tion of minor­it­ies, mil­len­ni­als, lib­er­als, and urb­an voters—nev­er mind that the can­did­ate was a 69-year-old white wo­man who had been in the pub­lic eye for 25 years, not a young, cha­ris­mat­ic, fresh face seek­ing to be­come the first Afric­an-Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent.

The cam­paign paid scant at­ten­tion to work­ing-class whites, par­tic­u­larly those in small-town and rur­al Amer­ica, who had been im­port­ant in Frank­lin Roosevelt’s New Deal co­ali­tion as well as in Bill Clin­ton’s suc­cess­ful cam­paigns in 1992 and 1996, and who, iron­ic­ally, made up the core of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s sup­port against Obama in 2008. The cam­paign re­lied too much on ana­lyt­ics, failed to closely mon­it­or crit­ic­al states in the fi­nal three weeks, and didn’t al­loc­ate suf­fi­cient re­sources to Wis­con­sin, Michigan, and rur­al Pennsylvania. Fi­nally, the cam­paign was riv­en by in­fight­ing, and the can­did­ate could nev­er come up with a ra­tionale for her pres­id­ency bet­ter than “you can’t elect Trump.”

But you have to give cred­it to Trump and his cam­paign. He tapped in­to fear, an­ger, and re­sent­ments that polit­ic­al pros had either ig­nored or dis­missed. He settled down and be­came as fo­cused as he is cap­able of be­ing in the fi­nal two weeks, when it really mattered. And his cam­paign blew through cracks in the vaunted blue wall of states that Demo­crats thought was im­pen­et­rable.

The 2016 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion had a lot of mov­ing parts, a lot of vari­ables that alone might not have af­fected the out­come but col­lect­ively cer­tainly did. No one or two things ex­plain a race that be­low the radar was closer than na­tion­al polls in­dic­ated—and that on Elec­tion Day el­ev­ated to the pres­id­ency a polit­ic­al novice whose strength among or­din­ary voters was masked by the loath­ing of the elites.

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