The narrative that Hillary Clinton’s campaign would like to cement in the minds of Democrats at this point is: it was all about James Comey. “There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not successful,” she said on a wrap-up conference call with her national finance committee, according to a person on the call. “But our analysis is that Jim Comey’s letter raising doubts that were groundless [and] baseless—and proven to be—stopped our momentum.” There are a number of reasons this is not true, but it’s telling that Clinton and her team very much want it to be true. It would excuse them for making mistake after mistake in the course of her campaign – the most embarrassing of which might have been wasteful expenditures of advertising dollars that utterly ignored her problems in Wisconsin and Michigan.
The truth is that at the time Comey’s letter was released, Clinton’s campaign dismissed it as having a huge impact on the race, because they claimed they’d already seen tightening in the polls. It’s telling that in the campaign’s memo on the Comey effect, they cite voters who made up their minds in the last week of the campaign – not acknowledging that the numbers are virtually identical in battleground states for voters who made up their minds in the past month. The Comey letter was not some grand new revelation – it only served as a vindication of what people already knew about Hillary Clinton. And it is very hard to see why this inside the beltway process story would make a big difference for the non-college educated voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin who put Donald Trump over the top.
It wasn’t just one mistake that sealed Clinton’s fate. But if there was one mistake that stands out above all the others, it is the decision by the campaign to ignore the warnings of one Bill Clinton. One odd detail that crops up again and again in the various postmortem pieces about Hillary Clinton’s campaign is the decision to ignore the would-be First Gentleman of the United States when he urged the campaign to spend more time on a message for the white working class voters who had handed her surprising primary losses to Bernie Sanders in Michigan and Wisconsin.
In meetings, Clinton would reportedly wonder aloud why more effort wasn’t being expended to win these voters with an economic message.
Bill Clinton’s viewpoint of fighting for the working class white voters was often dismissed with a hand wave by senior members of the team as a personal vendetta to win back the voters who elected him, from a talented but aging politician who simply refused to accept the new Democratic map. At a meeting ahead of the convention at which aides presented to both Clintons the ‘Stronger Together’ framework for the general election, senior strategist Joel Benenson told the former president bluntly that the voters from West Virginia were never coming back to his party.
Becket Adams has an extensive look at this in a must-read piece.
When Bill Clinton spoke on the campaign trail about the voting bloc ignored by Mook and other senior staffers, he argued repeatedly that, as a white Southerner, he felt their pain. He did this sometimes in unflattering terms, but usually from a place of self-deprecating humor.
‘The other guy’s base is what I grew up in,’ he said in October during a campaign stop in Fort Myers, Fla. ‘You know, I’m basically your standard redneck.’ His comments came as part of a larger appeal to his audience to reach out to undecided voters, especially pro-Trump supporters, and tell them the Democratic nominee understands and cares.
‘Don’t engage in our version of all this screaming,’ Clinton said. ‘Go out there and look people in the eye who aren’t going to vote for her and tell them we still want them to be part of America. Tell them we need them.’
‘I know how they feel,’ he added in reference to angry and frustrated voters, many of whom gravitated toward Trump. ‘And I’m telling you, the older you get, the worse it is if … you think you can’t do anything to change the future.’
The post-election data bear out what Bill Clinton was saying. Across the country and particularly the Midwest, it was former Obama strongholds that sealed the election for Trump. Of the nearly 700 counties Barack Obama won twice, Trump won 209 of them. Of the counties Obama lost twice, Hillary Clinton won just six. And what is markedly noticeable about the counties where Trump gained is the level of economic anxiety. Simply put: Trump was stronger where the economy is weaker.
Counties with weaker job growth since 2012, for example, were more likely to support Trump; the same is true for places with lower average earnings among full-time workers. Economic anxiety is about the future, not just the present. Trump beat Clinton in counties where more jobs are at risk because of technology or globalization. Specifically, counties with the most “routine” jobs — those in manufacturing, sales, clerical work and related occupations that are easier to automate or send offshore — were far more likely to vote for Trump.
This is the great irony to the end of Bill Clinton’s long career in politics. One of the most successful politicians of his generation having his queries dismissed by Northeastern liberals, ignored by those who believe they have successfully charted where the party ought to go. They viewed his coalition as old and unnecessary in the post-Obama era, where certainty about demographic destiny and the underlying belief that the Democratic Party really is on the right side of history allowed complacency and stagnation. They came to view these coal country white working class people as an unnecessary backwards drag on a new multicultural coalition sharing in elite sensibilities, and in so doing changed from a party that won on an “it’s the economy, stupid” message to one that lost on the message that the real problem with America is straight white men who wear trucker hats unironically.
Bill Clinton called Trump reportedly in the past few days to tell him that his 2016 run was “amazing.” And it is, of course. But it is also amazing how Bill Clinton ends his political career much the same as he started it – doubted by his party’s coastal elites, who cannot fathom, even after all his years of success, what this hillbilly from Arkansas could possibly know about America that they don’t.