As Ed Kilgore has pointed out, an argument blaming any one factor exclusively for an election outcome is generally a dicey proposition. There may be rare exceptions but, election upsets, in particular, are usually a function of a combination of events, gaffes, demographic trends, voting laws, media bias, approval ratings, turn-out mobilization and even the weather, to name just some of the most commonly-cited factors.
You can blame the F.B.I. director’s partisan meddling, as did the Clinton campaign, for the 2016 outcome. But you can also blame younger voters, white working-class anger and racially-driven voter suppression. And it’s possible to marshall compelling statistics for all of these arguments. If any one of them can explain Trump’s electoral college victory, however, then it can’t be only one of them.
But if you held me hostage, twisted my arm and threatened to take away my beer for a year unless I came up with a single cause of Clinton’s Electoral College defeat, I would have to go with distracted messaging.
Compare for a moment the respective slogans of the Trump and Clinton campaigns, “Make America Great Again” and “Stronger Together.” Both are yawners, to some extent, in that neither has any rhetorical music to it. But Trump’s message at least articulates a clearly-stated goal, and one that resonates if you live in a declining Rust Belt community. “Stronger Together” — not much of a goal or direction there, just a nod to some vague vision of unity in pursuit of…something.
Nor did the Clinton campaign’s “I’m with her” buttons win any hearts and minds. Anyone who wore that button was going to vote for Clinton anyway, zero value added. Worse, some fence-sitters may have read it as “I’m with her…and you’re not,” a counter-productive message of exclusion.
Slogans aren’t everything. The candidate is the ultimate messenger and what she or he projects on the stump, in interviews, comments, photo-ops, tweets and ads are even more important than the slogans. Here again the Clinton campaign was bested. Much of the reason is shallow media coverage. With few exceptions, the press amplified everything Trump said, and pretty much smothered Clinton’s statements and policy positions with her opponent’s outrages du jour. Trump played the media like a fiddle.
Let’s never forget, however, that Clinton actually won the popular vote by 2.5 million, and she banked more total votes than any other presidential candidate in history. Nitpicking about messaging in light of that reality seems a little unfair. It’s faulting her for not winning by 3 million votes, instead of a measley 2.5. But the presidenial election is really 10 or 12 different elections, thanks to the Electoral College, and that’s where the Clinton campaign was outfoxed. Somebody in the Trump campaign, perhaps Bannon, saw the path through the Rust Belt and the power of sleeper issues, like offshoring jobs.
Credit the Trump campaign also with relentless branding of Clinton as elitist, even though she has been a tireless supporter of disadvantaged people and progressive reforms all of her life. Trump’s bio-narrative, on the other hand, defines the lifestyle of the self-serving billionaire who never performed an act of public service.
Clinton had by far the more credible economic policies, in terms of helping blue collar and middle class voters. But she couldn’t get any coverage or traction for them. I don’t place much stock in the argument that Clinton couldn’t sell her progressive policies because she got big speaking fees from the likes of Goldman-Sachs. If most voters cared about that, why wouldn’t they care about Trump’s routine stiffing of his subcontractors in his business and his ridiculously gilded lifestyle, while he masqueraded as a champion of working people?
The Trump campaign’s media exploitation and message discipline were impressive. They milked the power of sheer repetition to the fullest and stayed on their message. Clinton had to respond to Trump’s outrageous statements and revelations about his abuse of women. As the first female candidate, she couldn’t just ignore it. There was so much of it that her economic messages were dwarfed and got scant coverage. Her campaign could have focused more on economic messaging in her ads, however.
The next Democratic presidential candidate must not get distracted from projecting a message and vision of broadly-shared economic opportunity. A rigorous, disciplined, all-inclusive message supporting economic progress for working families of all races is the path to victory for the next Democratic president, and down-ballot Dems ought to embrace it as well.