A hard look at the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, with lots “insider” thoughts on what went wrong. The book has taken some criticism over the use of unnamed sources, but I did not have an issue with how the author put forward the narrative.
This book is not a rundown of the Presidential election of 2016, as there is little to say about the other candidates, save for Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. But even there the book only deals with how those candidacies impacted the Clinton campaign, and how the Clinton team responded to the challenges presented by both. The Clinton campaign strategies are dissected, and with the losing result comes the inevitable harsh criticisms leveled at the candidate, and at her campaign team, with emphasis on Robbie Mook. That analysis (criticism) will (has) been subject to pushback and scrutiny, with that back and forth, I believe, having important ramifications for the Democratic Party going forward. This book deals with the Clinton campaign, but the issues raised by the strategy, and by the election of Donald Trump, reverberate loudly to this minute in the Democratic Party.
The criticism of the candidate falls along the expected lines. Insular, arrogant, too scripted, too calculating, not representative of desired change, with a wooden campaign style. Those evaluations have been heard since 2008, and Clinton was determined, as she started, to change the narrative. She hoped to apply lessons learned from the Obama loss, and brought on Robbie Mook to make sure that the campaign was relentless in its hunt for delegates in the run up to the Democratic nomination. The fly in that ointment? Bernie Sanders, and the left wing populism that drove his campaign, managed to expose the flaws in the campaign, and the book explores those issues in detail. Did the Sanders campaign weaken Hillary, or simply expose the deficiencies that would be more fully exploited by Donald Trump? A Sanders criticism in the book seemed to sum up the problem:
“This kind of campaigning, of going to rich people and asking them for money and modulating your policies in a way that didn’t inspire people, that was a losing formula.” The Clinton “modulation” on the Trans Pacific Partnership, and President Bill Clinton’s past support of NAFTA, were cited, correctly I believe, as positions that hurt her in the primary against Sanders, and would come back to haunt her in the final against Trump. Careful “issue positioning” has worked in the past, but is substantially more difficult with waves of anger sweeping over large segments of the electorate. The Clinton loss, in Michigan, to Sanders, was a harbinger of things to come:
“But for all her attention to detail, Hillary mostly put her fate and her faith in the hands of the professionals she’d hired to run the campaign. The “Valeant” ad was symbolic of her larger challenge in overrelying on data. It tested well with focus groups, but corporate profiteering wasn’t the issue animating the working-class white voters Hillary had to fight for to win Michigan. They cared about trade, trade, and trade. “Bernie Sanders really captured the zeitgeist,” said one longtime Michigan politician. And, like Trump, he did it without Hillary’s taking notice. The traction they were getting should have been a warning sign to Hillary not just about the rest of the primary but for the general election looming behind it.”
Beyond some of the focus on the candidate the book zooms in like a laser on the strategy of Campaign Manager Robbie Mook. Mook’s vaunted analytics model pushed the campaign into a “go where the Democratic votes are” model that essentially gave up on persuasion in areas that were traditionally red.
“During the primaries, Mook’s obsession with efficiency had come at the cost of broad voter contact in states that would become important battlegrounds in the general election. It led him to send the Clintons to big cities, where black and Latino voters would produce major delegate hauls. Putting Hillary in Detroit, for example, was the most efficient way of building votes for the primary and the general election, but it meant that she wasn’t in mostly white Macomb County, just outside the city. “If you’re a white voter in Macomb County, that means something,” said one high-ranking campaign aide. Some of Hillary’s top brass would eventually theorize that this was a major difference between Hillary and Obama: white voters punished her for running a campaign so focused on minority voters, whereas Obama was able to spend time in the white-heavy suburbs of major cities without alienating his African American base. Mook was giving up on persuading voters who weren’t inclined to support Hillary because it was less efficient to go after them. “It’s hard if you try; it’s even harder if you don’t try,” one senior aide said of the decision to forgo appearances in white suburbs. “This is where the analytics can mislead you.”
That argument, pushed hard post election by some, (why did the candidate not visit Wisconsin?)is still being debated. Nate Silver over at Five Thirty Eight has cast some doubt on the theory, but many fault Mook for a strategy that wrote off large segments of voters. Bill Clinton himself, during the campaign, urged that more attention be paid to smaller rural areas. Big Dog or not the campaign, specifically Mook, overruled him.
“Bill’s time on the ground only encouraged his skepticism of Mook’s reluctance to send him outside population centers. Having grown up in Arkansas, Bill understood that a major political player— a senator, a governor, or a former president— could bridge ideological divides by just showing up in small towns that never got much attention from elected leaders. He liked to go to small towns in northern New Hampshire, Appalachia, and rural Florida because he believed, from experience, that going to them and acknowledging he knew how they lived their lives, and the way they made decisions, put points on the board. Mook wanted Bill in places where the most Hillary-inclined voters would see him. That meant talking to white liberals and minorities in cities and their close-in suburbs. That was one fault line of a massive generational divide between Bill and Mook that separated old-time political hustling from modern data-driven vote collecting. Bill was like the old manager putting in a pinch hitter he believed would come through in the clutch while the eggheaded general manager in the owner’s box furiously dialed the dugout phone to let him know there was an 82 percent chance that the batter would make an out this time. It’s not that Bill resisted data— he loved poring over political numbers— but he thought of it as both necessary and insufficient for understanding electoral politics. One longtime Bill confidant put the difference this way: Robby was an expert in GOTV (get out the vote) data, and Bill came from a time when GOTV meant “go on television”— not to get interviewed but to get free media exposure that amplified his appearance in a small town and ensured everyone there knew he’d been by to check in. Trump’s mastery of turning social media posts into twenty-four-hour reporting on his campaign echoed Bill’s instincts for getting free press.”
Mook’s aversion to polling is highlighted, as well as some of the decisions made on how to deploy resources. Constant complaints about the real lack of a Hillary ground presence in major states was a constant source of bickering in the campaign. (That deficiency, if it was real, was not covered extensively by the media.)
Finally the management dysfunction, while not appearing to be as great as the mess in 2008, still existed. With a network as large as the Clinton’s it may be that there is no way around a certain amount of campaign chaos, but it sure does not help. While the Obama “management model” from 2008 was the goal it is safe to say that Clinton 2016 came up short in that area.
The book, as mentioned, was tough on candidate Clinton. I think we can agree that there were some self inflicted wounds that Hillary suffered. But the book was without much mercy:
“But another view, articulated by a much smaller number of her close friends and high-level advisers, holds that Hillary bears the blame for her defeat. This case rests on the theory that Hillary’s actions before the campaign—setting up the private server, putting her name on the Clinton Foundation, and giving speeches to Wall Street banks in a time of rising populism—hamstrung her own chances so badly that she couldn’t recover. She was unable to prove to many voters that she was running for the presidency because she had a vision for the country rather than visions of power. And she couldn’t cast herself as anything but a lifelong insider when so much of the country had lost faith in its institutions and yearned for a fresh approach to governance. All of it fed a narrative of dynastic privilege that was woefully out of touch with the sentiment of the American electorate. “We lost because of Clinton Inc.,” one close friend and adviser lamented. “The reality is Clinton Inc. was great for her for years and she had all the institutional benefits. But it was an albatross around the campaign.”
The book makes a large issue out of the difficulties that Hillary, and the campaign, had in articulating the reason she was running for President. That failure, and the ability of Donald Trump to simplify and put forward a strong campaign message, is pointed at as a major reason for the Clinton loss.
With all of that the late hit by FBI Director James Comey certainly played a role in the outcome. Was it the reason Hillary lost? That will be debated, along with the accepted and acknowledged Russian intelligence interference, for many years to come, although the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel may expedite some of those answers for the American public. The authors have put forward a pretty good book on the Clinton campaign, which is worth a read even if you do not agree with all of the analysis they have offered.