Why Clinton Lost and what Democrats can do about it

By Doctor Michael Herron

This blog is a departure from my usual blogs in that here I put on my previous hat of a Democrat campaign strategist.  A number of the Clinton campaign strategists may be reluctant to accept that Clinton was a flawed candidate or that their strategy was wrong, given that Clinton won the popular vote and may argue that she only lost because of the quirks of the electoral college system.  However, they knew how the electoral college worked before the campaign started.  They also knew Clinton’s potential weaknesses so they have no excuse.

Normally, the first job of the strategist is to map out the electoral battlefield, identifying what your candidate’s and opponents’ base is.  Your primary focus is then to try to win over the undecideds while leaving the task of getting your base out closer to the election.  The problem for the Democrats was that large elements of their base moved to support Donald Trump long before the election.  The fact that the Clinton campaign up to election day was talking about winning traditionally Republican states in the South while assuming it had won the Midwestern states such as Michigan and Wisconsin in its fabled blue wall meant its strategy was profoundly flawed.  For all its talk of having a superior ground game the fact that it did not have the local knowledge to know that much of its base had moved to Trump or even worse it ignored it, meant its ground game was not superior at all.

Although the result of the election was greeted as a shock, there are reasons why it should not be a complete surprise, which will be explained later.  That said, two key groups of voters voted in an unexpected way: blue collar men and women in the Midwestern states and Latinos that could be said to have swung the election Trump’s way.  There is a precedent for these voters voting the way they did, however.  In the 1980s blue collar families in the Midwest voted for Republican Ronald Reagan earning the name Reagan Democrats.  Cuban Americans in Florida have also traditionally voted Republican.  Arguably, one of the reasons for the surprise voting patterns in this election can be explained by the concept of voters having multiple identities as argued by Gary Younge of The Guardian which he defined in his article on the key constituency of Muncie, Indiana during the election, which amounted to a virtual case study.  This constituency was important because it was a bell-weather constituency for the election since both Obama and George W Bush had won it twice and Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders won their primaries there.

As Younge defines it the concept of multiple identities should not be seen in the Tammany Hall sense of “vote early, vote often”, but in the sense that voters have different priorities which can change over time and through the prism of their different identities of gender, race, class and other identities they assess their priorities to choose whatever candidate they feel will satisfy their most important priorities at that time.  While it is true emotion and bias may also be factors in this choice, recognition of this more nuanced approach to voting poses a real challenge to campaigners.  Conversely, many will say that Trump hardly led a sophisticated campaign since he appealed to the base sentiments of voters, particularly around race and gender.  However, his clear message on the economy, specifically trade, whenever he did mention it, resonated with many voters who were prepared to downplay their other identities in favour of their working class one and their priority for them or their family members to regain a proper job with prospects, “The American Dream” in other words.  Voters in this election were faced with a number of choices mediated by their priorities, which will be outlined below.

Identity v Class Politics
The election of Donald Trump poses problems for progressive politics.  There has been an argument over how progressives should organise in light of this event and criticism of the identity politics around which progressives have tended to emphasize at the expense of class politics.  Some like Larry Elliott, economics editor for The Guardian have argued that this emphasis on identity politics really took off after the fall of the Berlin Wall when progressives largely accepted that the economic argument had been won in favour of the free market and limited government intervention in the economy.   Another reason for an emphasis on identity politics is the nature of modern political campaigning which breaks the electorate down into segments who can then be targeted with tailored campaign advertising.  However, the problem with this form of campaigning as Gary Younge identified is that voters have multiple identities when they cast their vote so appealing to one of these identities in campaign advertising or the wrong one may not get the job done.

Outsider v Insider
One important reason why the result of this election may not have been the shock that some believe as pointed out by Martin Kettle in The Guardian is that since 1950 only once has the incumbent party held onto the White House after a two-term presidency.  That was the elder Bush who succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1988.  According to Kettle “after eight years of the same party in power, Americans tend to vote for change.”  The elder Bush, arguably succeeded because Americans were largely satisfied with the state of the union and he was the beneficiary of a notoriously negative campaign against his opponent, Michael Dukakis.

In an election when the primaries revealed that Americans wanted change it was always going to be difficult for someone like Clinton, who was seen as the embodiment of the Washington establishment, to get elected.  Her association with the Washington establishment was too strong for her to make the claim that as the first woman president she would represent fundamental change.  Arguably, the only way the Democrats could have won in an election which demanded change is if they had nominated a candidate who would be seen as anti-establishment like either Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.  The latter would have been a better female candidate since she had none of Clinton’s baggage and her message would have been similar to Sanders’ who gained substantial support in the Midwestern states won by Trump.  The argument that Sanders lost the primaries fair and square disregards the fact that the Democrat Washington DC establishment strongly backed Clinton during the primary season.

The problem with Clinton’s main strength, her vast experience in Washington DC is that she had acquired massive baggage during that time, as well as many enemies.  Trump exploited that impression in one of the debates when he turned her strength into a weakness by stating that she had “bad experience.”  In the same way he challenged Clinton’s legitimacy by alleging that she was corrupt by alluding to the various scandals the right wing had alleged she was involved in.  This was another consequence of being in the limelight of mainstream politics for such a long time.

Another problem with having the insider tag is that Americans may have grown tired of being governed by the same two political families for the bulk of the last thirty years.  This raises questions of legitimacy not just for any particular candidate but for the system itself.

Isolationism v Global Leadership

Protectionism v Free Trade
Donald Trump’s slogan “America First” suggested two main themes to his campaign, which were really two sides of the same coin.  One was for America to view global affairs through the prism of its own interests rather than to be the world’s policeman.  The other side of the coin was to reject or at least renegotiate many of the free trade deals America had made so that he could protect American jobs.  His policy on trade was clear and unambiguous.  This contrasted with Clinton’s approach on trade where she had previously supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the US, Mexico and Canada but then during the election appeared to oppose it.  Indeed, Trump invoked Bill Clinton’s signing of NAFTA and Hillary Clinton’s later support for it to undermine Hillary Clinton’s credibility on trade.  This garnered support among blue collar workers in the Midwest for Trump who blamed NAFTA for the decline of industry in their area and its relocation to Mexico.  Indeed Gary Younge found that NAFTA was the key issue in Muncie that swung that constituency to Trump.

Race v Class
Trump clearly made race a centrepiece of this campaign primarily around the issue of immigration of notably Mexicans and Muslims.  However, he juxtaposed this issue often in the case of Mexicans of how this would affect jobs and the loss of the latter to NAFTA.  It has been argued that Trump won the white vote and lost the vote of minorities.  While this is undoubtedly true of the general figures: 69% of the electorate is made up of white voters of whom 58% voted for Trump and 37% for Clinton.  Conversely, 31% of the electorate is made up of non-white voters of whom 74% voted for Clinton and 21% for Trump.  However, if one digs deeper, there are important nuances.  Trump’s share of the white vote actually declined in relation to Mitt Romney who got 59% four years earlier.  White blue collar workers in Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania voted for Obama in 2012 but many switched to Trump in 2016.  If race was the primary determining factor these voters would not have voted for Obama the first time he was nominated in 2008, never mind in 2012 as well.

As highlighted by Niall Ferguson in The Sunday Times, there are other anomalies, 29% of Hispanics voted for Trump as did 29% of Asians, 37% of other racial groups and 1 in 12 African Americans.  There is particular surprise at the large numbers of Latino voters, who voted for Trump, apparently against their own interests.  However, an article by Felicity Lawrence in The Guardian may offer a partial explanation.  According to Lawrence, NAFTA allowed American agribusiness to export corn to Mexico at artificially low prices, harming 3 million local farmers.  It also led to 1.3 million Mexicans being forced off the land, who naturally wanted to enter the US.  It may be possible that Latinos in the US are aware of the damage NAFTA has done to them and their families while elites have prospered on both sides of the border.  Since Clinton was the most associated with NAFTA during the election not only Midwestern blue collar workers have blamed her for the consequences but other groups including Latinos may have done as well.

Race v Gender
Another result of the election that has caused controversy is the fact that 53% of white women voted for Trump while 43% for Clinton.  This contrasts with a figure of 94% of black women voting for Clinton whereas 26% of Latino women voters voted for Trump. Since there was a great emphasis on gender issues during the campaign; indeed, arguably, the Clinton campaign made these central to its campaign such results have been interpreted as the consequence of either racism or misogyny.  The first argument disregards the fact that many of these women must have voted for Obama given the latter’s margin of victory four years previously.  The second argument disregards Gary Younge’s argument of multiple identities.  Women in the Midwestern states may have downplayed their gender prioritising the hope of a better economic future for them and their families through greater job prospects which they did not believe Clinton would deliver.  Of course misogyny may have played a part for some but it may not have been the only factor.

A Blueprint for Success?
Both Gary Younge and Anne McElvoy, senior editor of the Economist, identified a lack of clarity by the Clinton campaign.  Younge perceived in Muncie that voters there did not feel the Democrats offered them real change, only incremental change.  McElvoy interviewed a Clinton strategist and she was confused whether Clinton wished to continue Obama’s legacy or offered a complete break with the past and suggested that this lack of clarity was a strong contributing factor to Clinton’s defeat.  Given this conclusion, I will suggest some recommendations on how Democrats may avoid such an outcome in the future.

Democrats need a clear message on what they would do in office, to offer real practical change, not just incremental change.

Democrats should aim to achieve the broadest spectrum of support.  The two transformative presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson campaigned and governed on this basis.

To achieve this result, Democrats should reclaim from Trump and the Republicans Keynesian economics.  They should recast the Conservative diatribe “tax and spend” as “invest to grow.”  This can be used to appeal to white middle class voters as this is a staple of middle class life from buying a house, to spending on a college education to investing in pension funds. For the foreseeable future, this group along with white blue collar families in Midwestern states will be the key demographic in battleground states to win future presidential elections.

They must promise to reinvest in areas that have lost out to globalisation.  This should be smart investment that can create a multiplier effect.  This should be done in partnership with local small and medium sized businesses to create a business cluster similar to that which exists in Germany.

They need to support a broader range of candidates with varied backgrounds not just the same insiders time and again.

Since the electoral college has just delivered the result it was designed to prevent of a populist mobilising support to challenge many of the principles governing the republic one could argue that it is not fit for purpose.  This is in addition to the fact that the winning candidate has lost the popular vote in 2 of the last 5 presidential elections.  Democrats may campaign for a Constitutional amendment for direct election of the president.  However, given the fact that Republicans control both houses of Congress and a majority of the state legislatures, for the foreseeable future, this may be easier said than done.


Gary Younge “How Trump took Middletown” The Guardian 16 November 2016

Martin Kettle “It is easy to hate the man, essential to learn from him” The Guardian 11 November 2016

John Henley and Mona Chalabi “Demographics: Victory built on ‘whitelash’ from wealthy voters” The Guardian 10 November 2016

Niall Ferguson “This was no whitelash, it was a vote to get America working” The Sunday Times 13.11.2016

Felicity Lawrence “Trump is right: Nafta is a disaster.  But US workers aren’t the big losers” The Guardian 18 November 2016

Anne McElvoy “Face the facts: this was Hillary’s race to lose- and she lost it” Evening Standard 9 November 2016


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