(This is the first in a three-part series exploring the reasons for the Clinton loss and the lessons that loss can teach former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign this year.)
By Larry Levine –
When the result of an election is as close as the 2016 U.S. Presidential race, we can point to any number of things that might have changed the outcome had they gone differently. Which leads to the question: how did Hillary Clinton, arguably the most qualified person ever to run for president, lose to Donald Trump, possibly the least qualified person ever to run for president? How did she manage to lose seven states that Barack Obama won twice?
There are as many explanations and theories about this as there are explainers and theorists.
• It was Benghazi
• It was the Comey letter
• It was Bernie’s people who voted for minor party candidates or stayed home
• It was the emails
• It was the servers
• It was Russia
• It was the media that gave purchase to the Trump campaign’s most outrageous and oft-repeated lies
In all probability, it was a combination of these, with different factors impacting different voters in different places. Another reason cited often is not on this list.
• She was a bad candidate
I left that one off because I don’t believe it’s true. It’s a trope fostered mostly by disappointed Bernie Sanders backers, who still believe their guy would have beaten Trump.
These explanations tend to be self-perpetuating pronouncements of pundits and academics who talk to and listen to each other, usually on the east coast. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, just that many of their opinions are shallow, ill-informed and mouthed by people who have done little or no independent research and may never have been involved in the daily workings of an election campaign.
When all is said and done, in spite of all these purported reasons, Hillary Clinton almost won. If 39,000 people in three states had switched their votes from Trump to Clinton, she would now be heading the federal response to the coronavirus pandemic.
It is easy to conclude that by eliminating any one of these factors selectively from various blocs of voters, Clinton might have carried those three states and won the Electoral College vote. Except it isn’t that simple.
The fact is she should have won even in the face of all these challenges and their combined effect. The single thing most responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat was not any of these. It was her own campaign, which was off target and off message. It allowed data to dictate strategy and there was no one around with the political moxie or muscle to say, “Wait a minute.” It took certain states for granted and allowed them to slip away. It assumed the successes of the Obama economy were reaching working families. It was ineffective in combatting Trump’s ability to control and dominate the news cycles. It thought so little of Trump and his chance to win that it was tone deaf to what he was saying.
So, if all these things are true, isn’t it ultimately the fault of the candidate for allowing them to happen? Doesn’t it make her a bad candidate because she didn’t question or challenge decisions during the course of the campaign?
These questions assume two things: 1) the candidate had the necessary experience in crafting and implementing campaign strategies and operations; and 2) the candidate had the time to be involved in the day-to-day oversight of the campaign.
The latter might be so in a city council or state legislative campaign, where the candidate is on site every day and available for conversations with the manager or consultant. Not so much when the candidate is campaigning across 50 states, sitting through endless interviews and debate training sessions, eating what and when she can and sleeping on airplanes and buses.
In any campaign, there can be only one candidate and one manager. Once there is agreement on strategy, it’s the candidate’s job to raise funds, seek endorsements and meet voters. It’s the manager’s job to see to it that the strategy is implemented, know when adjustments are necessary, make those adjustments, and keep the candidate apprised of things he or she may need to know when talking with potential donors, the media, or other opinion leaders. Only if there are going to be changes to the overall strategy should the candidate have to be consulted. No candidate should be expected to be involved in every detail of the campaign every day. This applies to any campaign, be it for school board or President of the United States.
In the case of the Clinton campaign, it wasn’t the details that misfired. It was the big stuff. Things like where to send the candidate to campaign and where to expend financial resources and for what purposes.
There’s an adage I created several years ago, only partially in humor: No consultant ever won an election and no candidate ever lost. Of course, that’s from the candidates’ point of view. From the point of view of a consultant, it’s the opposite: No candidate ever won an election and no consultant ever lost one.
The truth is when you win an election it’s because everything went right, even those things that didn’t. Or maybe it’s because not enough things went wrong. Often, it’s as much because of mistakes the other side made.
Another truth is when you lose an election, it could be because any one of a thousand things went wrong, starting with the possibility that you may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or you may just have misread the potential and had no chance from the start. Or the person or team you put in charge of the campaign wasn’t up to it.
So, the first message to Joe Biden: make sure you have the right people in the right jobs. Youth is great, but make sure there are people around with authority who have been around the block before, won’t get thrown by what is going to be the ugliest opposition campaign in history, and have the flexibility and vision to react. Oh, and know when not to react. Unfortunately, you won’t know any of these things about your team until the campaign is over.
(Part two of this series will discuss the role of data in campaign planning, how the data was misused in the Clinton campaign, and what Biden must do to avoid that same mistake. Part three will explore where the Clinton campaign was off-message and the messaging the Biden campaign should consider this year.)