Why did Hillary lose

Last week I had my Gender & Politics class discuss this report looking at the role of sexism in the 2016 election.  Had some really great class discussion.  Some students were pretty hard on mistakes Hillary’s campaign had made and I ended our discussion by pointing out that all campaigns make mistakes, no candidate is perfect, and that, of course, Hillary made mistakes, but nothing of the level that one could reasonably point to as directly causing her loss.

I got back from class to see that Ezra had made a very similar argument that day in Vox.  Not much I love more than having an idea and seeing that Ezra was thinking pretty much the same way:

This discussion conflates two very different questions. One is: Why did Clinton lose? And there, factors like Comey, Russia, and the media’s email obsession have real explanatory power. But the harder question — the one this blame game is designed to obscure — is why was the election close enough for Clinton to lose? …

Clinton made mistakes. All candidates do. But the question in elections is … compared to what? Take the criticisms made of Clinton and turn them around. Trump surely did not run a smoother campaign than Clinton. His team featured more infighting, leaking, and churn. He made more obvious mistakes in a week than she made in a year. His finances were far shadier than Clinton’s, his foundation far less ethical, his behavior far more erratic. He walked into the debates unprepared, ran a bizarre and ineffective convention, and appears to have been saved from defeat — albeit narrow defeat — by the twin interventions of Russia and James Comey.

And Clinton was, in ways people have rewritten since her Electoral College loss, an effective candidate in nontraditional ways…

Similarly, Clinton really did crush Trump in the debates. As I wrote then, most presidential debates have little effect on the polls. Clinton’s performances were unusual in that they transformed the race. On the eve of the first debate, Trump and Clinton were basically tied. By the close of the third, Clinton had opened up a massive lead — a lead that, if retained, would certainly have won her the election.

It also must be said: Many of Clinton’s strengths were hidden by our gendered expectations of leaders — what she was good at would have been important for her presidency, but it is not what 44 male presidents in a row have taught us to expect, or even to see. Anyone who thinks sexism isn’t a force in American politics should have a good answer to the question of why, in a country that’s more than half women, there has never been a female president and, aside from Clinton, no woman has ever come close to winning a major party’s nomination…

I understand why people want to castigate Clinton, and why they want to see Clinton castigate herself. Her loss devastated many, and her mistakes offer an easy answer to an election that poses awful questions. If Trump won merely because Clinton was such a crummy candidate, then we don’t have to ask how someone like Trump could win, and whether it could happen again, perhaps with someone even worse.

Even better, Drum made a similar argument last week as well:

Everyone is outraged that she refuses to admit that she herself made gigantic mistakes that led to her loss.

Bah. Let’s run the tape:

  • Hillary Clinton was running for a third Democratic term with an OK but not great economy. Most models predicted a roughly 50-50 race.
  • In the end, despite everything, she still outperformed the models and won the popular vote by 2 percent.
  • The Comey letter cost her 2-3 percent, and the other stuff probably cost her another couple of points. Without those things, she wins in a landslide and cruises into the White House.

So she’s right. I guess everyone wants her to be the captain going down with her ship, but that’s stupid. She accurately described why she lost. Why shouldn’t she?

But still, what about all the stuff she screwed up? There wasn’t that much, really, but sure, there are a few things:

  • The Goldman Sachs speeches were dumb.
  • The private email server was dumb.
  • The “deplorables” comment was dumb

But look: no candidate is perfect and every campaign has stuff like that. It comes with the territory. And despite all that, Clinton had a comfortable 7-point lead by the end of September. Those things couldn’t have been the reason for her loss since they were all well known by then. After that, she crushed Trump in all three debates and was all set to win.

So why didn’t she? The answer is pretty simple: despite running a pretty good campaign, she got walloped by things that decidedly don’t come with the territory: Russian interference via the WikiLeaks drip; an indefensible letter released by the FBI director; and a press corps that treated the Comey letter like the OJ trial. She got slammed late in the game, and had no time to recover.

That’s just what happened. Denying that reality because we like losers to wear hair shirts is dumb.



About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Why did Hillary lose

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Amen to you all.

  2. rgbact says:

    At least Democrats are trying to get over the tantrums and doing some frank analysis. Bottom line….insider candidates often lose to fresh outsiders. And the Democrats decided to nominate the ultimate insider candidate. The wonkier you are…the harder it is to understand this.

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