Hillary Clinton wrote a book titled What Happened? with a goal to explain her defeat in the presidential election of 2016. She succeeds, but not in ways she intended.
After the usual “I’m-responsible” clichés, Clinton states the major factors in her loss are linked to ex-FBI director James Comey, Democratic primary opponent Bernie Sanders, and sexism. These assertions have some validity, the issue is not that they were genuine challenges but how Clinton dealt with them.
Sexism is pervasive even in modern societies such as the United States. How that factored in the 2016 election is less clear. For the 66 million Americans who voted for Clinton, her sex was not a deterrent. Her popular vote was three million more than Trump’s and larger than Obama’s in 2012.
Clinton only won 54 per cent of the total women’s vote. Race and education levels were more significant in that tally than gender. Her percentage of white women voters was 43 per cent and among non-college educated white women 34 per cent. For those voters, the problem wasn’t that Clinton was a woman, but that she was not the right woman.
Clinton expected to be gifted the Democratic nomination. That illusion was shattered when Sanders waged an ideological challenge funded by a grassroots movement. Rather than defending her positions as being better than those of Sanders, Clinton eventually adopted many of them. These included supporting a national $15 an hour minimum wage and rejecting the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement. Their differences on health issues reminded voters of Clinton’s inept handling of health care reforms when her husband was president.
The general impression left by the Clinton-Sanders conflict was that Sanders believed in what he said. In contrast, Clinton seemed to say what she thought was needed to gain votes and once in office would likely finesse her way back to positions she had supposedly abandoned. Revelations of how the Clinton-oriented Democratic National Committee worked to thwart the Sanders campaign cast more doubt on Clinton’s integrity.
James Comey’s handling of the email controversy was indeed harmful to Clinton’s campaign. The root of the problem, however, was her decision to use a private email service in the first place. This error was greatly compounded when she dawdled about providing all her emails for analysis by the FBI.
Clinton still doesn’t realise her record as Secretary of State troubled many voters. Her Cold War mentality resulted in an unnecessarily bellicose handling of the crisis in Ukraine. Regarding Syria, she seemed more intent on stemming Russian influence than defeating ISIS. Clinton also coddled Turkey even though Turkey was acting as a financial and communications conduit for ISIS. With the outbreak of the Arab spring, Clinton reverted to the failed policy of nation building. The results in Libya were particularly disastrous. American voters who were fed up with endless wars in the Middle East felt a President Clinton was likely to offer more of the same.
She was confident of winning a large African American and Hispanic vote. She also assumed she would get the normal Democrats and a high percentage of female voters without considerable effort. Anti-Trump Republicans were an unknown but possibly potent cross-over vote. This thinking led her to focus on educated suburban voters, particularly in southern states with weakening Republican majorities.
Never seriously considered was why the Democrats had steadily lost governorships and Congressional seats. Clinton never understood that her centrist husband’s championing of NAFTA and his fondness for divisive wedge issues had alienated a large segment of traditional Democrats. While resentful that Sanders had won the Michigan and Wisconsin primaries, Clinton thought his supporters were just disgruntled Democrats who would automatically ‘come home’ in the general election.
Clinton campaign leaders in Michigan openly complained that the national campaign was not sending them the basic materials needed by volunteers doing onsite campaigning. They warned Clinton that her margin of victory was slipping and she, not a surrogate, needed to stage a major event in Detroit. Similar pleas came from Wisconsin.
The response to Clinton’s Michigan and Wisconsin campaigns was that her polls indicated she would carry those states. Hoping for a national landslide victory, she would concentrate on possible swing states with a final major rally in North Carolina. She made a brief plane stop in Grand Rapids, Michigan, but not in Detroit or in Democratic strongholds in Wisconsin. She lost both states by narrow margins. The only swing state she carried in the South was Virginia.
At a major fundraising event, Clinton declared that “half of Trump supporters belong in a basket of deplorables”. Although she apologised for her comments the next day, her elitist cat was out of the bag. Her image was further damaged when voters learned she had been paid $400,000 for a speech to Wall Street executives that was so trite she only made it public after extensive criticism by Sanders and Trump. Fees of that nature seemed to demonstrate her economic orientation far more accurately than her populist campaign rhetoric.
What happened? A flawed presidential candidate ran a flawed campaign and now has written an account of that campaign laced with the same flaws.