No one could blame you for having your fill of post-mortems of the 2016 presidential election. But Democratic strategist and current USC professor and and director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics Robert M. Shrum has some perceptive insights in a review article of Hillary Clinton’s book, What Happened. Writing in America: The Jesuit Review, Shrum has this to say about Clinton’s economic messaging:
To put it plainly, in areas of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that previously went for Barack Obama, she lost the message war on the economy. Yes, Trump’s claims to be on the side of working people were specious. But they were also effective. His explanations for the economic distress of those who have not shared in the post-2008 recovery were trade and immigration—scapegoats, in my view, but nonetheless a resonant message about things he said he could change that would, in turn, change their lives. Thus, while Clinton characterizes Trump’s performance in their first debate as “dire,” the reality is that in the opening minutes, he relentlessly hammered away on trade, the loss of manufacturing jobs and her shifting positions on the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. And in a different context, she herself cites data showing that voters under economic stress were more negative toward immigration.
Clinton fell short in communicating a persuasive economic message of her own. She criticizes Joe Biden for saying this and notes that he campaigned across the Midwest and “talked plenty about the economy.” But his commitment was not in doubt; hers was. He was not the candidate; she was.
The tragedy here is that she had, as she notes, an economic program that should have appealed to precisely the places she had to win: “massive infrastructure…new incentives to attract and support manufacturing jobs in hard hit communities…debt-free college.” It was on her website, but who among the undecided or wavering voters bothered to read it? She insists that on the campaign trail, she talked more about the economy and jobs than anything else—and cites a word frequency chart to prove it.
As T. S. Eliot wrote, “Between the idea and the reality…. Falls the shadow.” The shadow for Clinton is that what counts is not what you say but what people hear. Still, the failure to convey an economic message was not just her fault. The U.C.L.A. political scientist Lynn Vavreck found that from Oct. 8 on “only 6 percent” of news coverage mentioned Clinton “alongside jobs or the economy.” (Only 10 percent mentioned Trump in that context, but arguably his economic message had long since broken through.) Clinton did have another means to deliver her message, paid advertising, but Vavreck calculated that only 9 percent of her television spots were about jobs or the economy. Instead three-quarters of her ads focused on leadership “traits” or character, frequently in the form of assaults on Trump.
…Trump would have been vulnerable to an economic assault. As Obama did with Mitt Romney in 2012, Clinton’s ads could have spotlighted his controversial business dealings and mistreatment of ordinary workers; then they could have moved on to arraign his proposed tax cuts for the wealthy and to convey Clinton’s plans on jobs, manufacturing and infrastructure. The strategy might not have been a silver bullet, but it could and probably would have been enough to move those 38,000 votes.
Shrum notes a paradoxical effect of Trump’s Access Hollywood tape, a “bright shiny object,” which distracted the media and voters from Trump’s embrarrassing economic record, as well as Clinton’s progressive economic policies. Shrum acknowledges other factors which could have played a decisive role in Trump’s Electoral College victory, from Comey’s meddling and voter suppression to her husband’s ill-timed visit to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, among others.
A candidate can’t always control “what happened” during a campaign. But every Democratic candidate has to take charge of their economic messaging, define clearly how it differs from that of their adversary and make sure it gets out to both the base and swing voters.