As a diehard Hillary Clinton supporter, I was sure she was going to win. I was wrong. But along the way, even I — a Kool-Aid drinking Clintonista — saw some things that I thought she should have done differently to increase her chances of victory. And while I don’t claim to be smarter than her legions of campaign experts, even an arm-chair quarterback can sometimes out-think an NFL coach.
So with all due respect to her campaign strategists and Clinton herself, here are some of her unforced errors that I believe may have cost her the presidency…
- The VP pick. To me, this was her most grievous miscalculation. I argued adamantly at the time that Clinton should pick Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren to shore up her left base. I heard every argument against that — that picking Warren would give up a senate seat, that the country wasn’t ready for two women on the ticket, that Clinton couldn’t work with Sanders or Warren, and that both were more useful in the Senate. All those arguments missed the bigger point: you don’t get to govern if you don’t get elected. Hillary made the strategic calculation to pass both of them over and picked Tim Kaine in an attempt to shore up her white working class vote. That backfired miserably, as the results with those voters in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin show. Kaine did help her win Virginia’s 13 EC votes – a huge plus that cannot be over-stated. But I believe she would have done significantly better with liberals, minorities and millennials in other states had she played to her base and ran a populist progressive campaign that echoed some of Sanders’ themes. My reading of the turnout numbers says she lost because not enough of the base voters returned to the Democratic fold, either opting for Jill Stein or simply not showing up. I think she would’ve boosted Democratic turnout and cannibalized a few million of Gary Johnson and Jill Stein’s votes if she had picked a more liberal running mate. Spread out across the battleground states, those extra votes might have made the difference.
- Being too nice. The slogan, “When they go low, we go high” has a lovely nobility to it. But winning presidential elections is not about being high-minded; it’s a ruthless task. Hillary should have done less apologizing about her email server and her “basket of deplorables” comment and been, I hate to say it, more like Donald Trump. Hang tough. Double-down. Insist on the rightness of everything that you say and do. Fight back. Trump did one thing very right in this election: he read the mood of the electorate, and they did not want a passive good-guy. They wanted a mean, tough SOB. Hillary was too nice. Every time she would graciously take responsibility for making an error in judgment with the email server, the talking heads on cable TV would immediately come on air and say she didn’t go far enough, and she’s going to have to apologize yet again. There’s a reason politicians are always demanding that their opponent apologize for something: because it makes you look weak. Never apologize, never explain. As every political strategist knows, if you’re explaining, you’re losing. Heartfelt apologies may work in marriages, but they’re a brutal hamster wheel in politics. Once you step on, you never step off.
- Letting Trump define her. Clinton let Trump paint her as the rich, elitist plutocrat in the election. I always found it bizarre that the guy who made half a billion bucks a year was painting her as too wealthy and privileged. Sure, she made $200,000 for a few hour-long speeches — the product of a public career that vaulted her to top demand on the speaking circuit. But she should have pointed out every day that Trump makes about $200,000 an hour EVERY HOUR of his life*….mostly for doing nothing but licensing his name. Had Clinton successfully painted Trump as the out-of-touch, self-absorbed, billionaire plutocrat that he is, things like The Clinton Foundation or her paid speeches would not have become the hot-button issues they did. In 2012, President Obama was able to portray Mitt Romney as too rich to understand the daily concerns of regular folks, but Hillary could not do that with a man ten times richer and fifty times more elitist. Romney got clocked for wanting to build an elevator for his cars. Imagine what could have been made out of Trump’s ostentatious lifestyle.
- Miscalculating Democratic turnout. If the final vote tallies are indeed accurate (I still have my doubts), Clinton failed to turn out enough of her base in the rust belt states. But even if she had seen that coming, what could she have done to avoid it? Political gurus are now castigating her for not having campaigned more in Wisconsin or Michigan. But how many fall rallies would she have needed there to sure those states up? Would two October rallies in Wisconsin have won the state for her? Three? Five? Remember, every rally is a half day affair, and each one she held in the rust belt would’ve been one less in Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, or Florida. Besides, she campaigned like the Dickens in Florida and Pennsylvania and still came up short in those states. Obviously in retrospect she should have avoided her November 2nd side-track to Arizona and spread her time out more productively among the swing states. But that is the nature of planning a national campaign, and her staff did the best they could with the polling data and resources they had.
- Bill’s glad-handing. It’s true, having the popular Bill Clinton on her side was a tremendous asset. But his one glad-handing gaffe on an airport tarmac with Attorney General Loretta Lynch may have cost his wife the presidency. We now know that Lynch felt handcuffed after the ex-president neutered her ability to exert authority over FBI Director James Comey when he wanted to go public with his letter about Huma Abedin nine days before the election. Had Bill not cornered Lynch in a private airplane pow-wow, she may have felt confident to order Comey to stay out of the election in its final days. And had she stopped him, it’s likely Clinton would’ve gone into election day with a 5-8 point poll lead and held on to win.
- Running a conventional campaign. The Clinton team was focused on traditional campaign tactics like ground organization and ad campaigns, while Trump was stumping and grabbing valuable TV air time. Hillary only held joint appearances with Warren and Sanders one time each during the entire fall campaign, and never all three together. She needed high excitement, high tune-in events like that to match Trump’s media appeal. Though I was never particularly impressed with Sanders and Trump’s ability to fill stadiums, even I got sick of watching her addressing “intimate” crowds in high school gymnasiums. And then she’d spend the first five minutes thanking local officials, instead of launching right into the kind of red meat speechifying TV audience’s want and need, the way Trump did. If she had made “show your taxes” or “grab his pussy” as ubiquitous as “lock her up,” she might have generated more free media coverage, more enthusiasm and more votes.
- No campaign theme. I’m circling back to this from her running mate choice, because I think it’s so crucial to what went wrong. No campaign goes without bumps and mistakes, and Trump certainly had more than his share of those as well. But what Trump did right was have a slogan and a theme to his campaign – as hokey as it was. But tired wordplay like “Stronger Together” or “Love Trumps Hate” are not governing goals or inspirational messages. And just being the first female president clearly didn’t have the emotional resonance of, say, the first black president. Had Clinton gone populist and campaigned to take on Wall Street, increase incomes and fight for economic justice, she may have been able to cobble a coherent campaign raison d’être. That message may have resonated in the white rural and suburban enclaves where she struggled to win disenfranchised white voters. The national opiate problem is a perfect example. While Clinton had an 8-point plan to deal with the nation’s prescription drug epidemic, Trump spoke about the issue in almost every campaign stop, while she only referenced it sporadically. So while she offered a real solution, he gave the issue voice — and in our hyper-televised political world, pithy sound bites beat website bullet lists every time. Voters heard him talk about it, so they believed he cared more. That won him votes where it counted.
If I’m being honest with myself, there’s probably a dozen more head-slapping errors Clinton made along the way (just as there were for the Trump campaign). Frankly, it was an election that both sides seemed intent on losing. But Trump got the bounces in the final days, and Hillary couldn’t hang on to her tenuous lead. If the election had been held two weeks earlier or two weeks later, the outcome might’ve been very different. We’ll never know.
And like any good arm-chair quarterback, we’ll forever be second guessing.
* Based on an estimated $500,000,000 earnings per year and a 50 hour work week. According to this article, his net worth grew from one billion dollars to seven billion in 12 years, or $500 million a year.