For all the shock expressed in reaction to Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, it didn’t teach us anything we didn’t, or at least shouldn’t have, already known. The electoral college is a bad idea whose time is long past. Money is the most overrated force in politics (a “ground game” is a close second). Polls have a margin of error for a reason. Believing in the ultimate decency and wisdom of the American electorate is pure folly. And most importantly, it’s difficult for a bad, unpopular candidate to win the presidency.
Of course, a “bad, unpopular candidate” describes both of the major party nominees. Indeed, as a contest between the two most unpopular nominees in modern American history, this election represented an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. So it’s fitting that, in a way, they both lost: Trump lost the popular vote (or as it would be called in most countries, the election), while Hillary lost the obnoxious relic known as the electoral college. But Hillary’s loss was vastly more important, in that it resulted in Trump being elected President.
Hillary’s weaknesses as a candidate were apparent to all but the willfully blind. At a time when Americans were desperate for someone with “that new car smell”, as President Obama himself recognised, she was a relic from the ‘90s, unloved even then, and much more unpopular now, with decades more of accumulated baggage and rust. She was unable to connect with voters on a personal, emotional level, or deliver a speech to save her life. She was overly scripted, cautious, and calculating, yet also weirdly gaffe-prone (the “basket of deplorables”, “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”, etc.). Much of the hard Left regarded her with suspicion, if not outright hostility, while the Right simply hated her, such that she had virtually no crossover appeal. And she was under an active FBI investigation for much of the election season.
In addition, far from being “tested”, as she claimed, Hillary had never run in an election against an actual Republican anywhere outside of deep-blue New York. In fact, her electoral history was not reassuring. In 2008, when she was already old news for an electorate looking for a change, she lost the Democratic primary to a first-term Senator from Illinois, despite beginning the campaign as the overwhelming favourite and establishment choice.
Most importantly, and largely as a consequence of these factors, the public just didn’t like her, as her favourable/unfavourable ratings remained deeply underwater throughout the election campaign.
Alas, the Democratic establishment was indeed willfully blind to these manifest weaknesses, and did all it could to coronate Hillary as the Democratic nominee. Democratic National Committee Vice Chair Donna Brazile said in 2013, that “If Hillary Clinton gets in the race, there will be a coronation of her”, and the Democratic establishment did all it could to fulfil this promise. The “Ready for Hillary” Super PAC, which encouraged and supported Hillary’s run, was formed by numerous leading Democrats in January 2013. Major Democratic officeholders and leaders began lining up to endorse Hillary long before anyone, even Hillary herself, announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination, let alone before any actual voters had their say. (Hillary announced her candidacy in April 2015.) New York Senator Chuck Schumer endorsed Hillary in November 2013, a full three years before election day. “If you run, you’ll win, and then we’ll all win”, Schumer promised. Around the same time, all the female Democratic senators signed a letter encouraging her to run. Former DNC Chair Howard Dean endorsed her in December 2014. By April 2015—still almost a year before a single vote had been cast in a Democratic caucus or primary–over 200 Democratic lawmakers had endorsed Hillary. (The grand total for all other candidates combined was 0.)
The establishment’s rationale boiled down to: it was “her turn”, as former Obama campaign manager Jim Messina put it. And wouldn’t it be neat to have a woman president?
“Ready for Hillary” was the slogan used by the Democratic establishment eager to have Hillary as the Democratic nominee, as well as the name of the Super PAC formed to support her candidacy. But the broader electorate wasn’t so much ready for Hillary as it was sick of Hillary.
The message to any other prominent Democrat even thinking of running for the nomination was to, well, not even think about it. One such Democrat who got that message was Vice President Joe Biden, who publicly flirted with, and ultimately declined to make a bid. His decision effectively marked the end of the Democratic primary contest. Biden had his own shortcomings as a candidate, but he also had something all of Hillary’s campaign contributions and Super PAC money would never be able to buy for her: a personality.
Even with the best efforts of the Democratic establishment to clear the field for her, Hillary still managed to lose 22 states to Bernie Sanders, a 74-year-old previously little-known socialist who wasn’t even a Democrat. Hillary’s struggles in the primary were an ominous sign of both the restless mood of the electorate and her own weaknesses as a candidate.
None of this means Hillary was the evil criminal witch portrayed by the Republicans, or that she wouldn’t have made a good president. But it does show that, in short, Hillary was the wrong candidate at the wrong time, chosen for the wrong reasons. Under these circumstances, she did about as well as she could be expected to do.
Hillary’s very expensive and utterly worthless campaign consultants told her it was a “change election”, so she insisted she was the “change candidate”. At a Democratic debate, she said she found it “amusing” that anyone could consider someone “running to be the first woman president, as exemplifying the establishment.” (In fact, Hillary weirdly boasted about “playing the woman card” throughout the campaign. “Deal me in”, as she put it.)
Hillary may have found it “amusing” that anyone would consider her—a woman!—as an “establishment” candidate, but voters weren’t laughing. On November 8, she lost voters looking for a candidate “who can bring needed change” by 69 points.
The public was mad at Wall Street, Hillary’s campaign consultants told her, so she tried to play the part of the Wall Street-bashing populist, even though she had gotten personally extraordinarily wealthy by giving speeches to Wall Street and other major industries.
She made the safe, boring choice of Tim Kaine as her running mate when what the ticket desperately needed was some pizzazz and excitement.
Even the Democratic convention, hailed as a success, failed in its ultimate mission impossible: making Hillary Clinton likeable. Hillary gave a flat, meandering speech that mainly served as a contrast to the barn-burners delivered by Democratic heavyweights like Barack and Michelle Obama and Joe Biden, revealing herself as the weak link at her own convention. Her favorability ratings remained stubbornly underwater.
None of this was particularly convincing or compelling, and it resulted in a message that was somewhere between muddled and nonexistent. Ultimately, Hillary’s message amounted to little more than: “Trump is really scary. And did I mention I’m a woman?” And Trump was indeed so frightening and unpopular himself, that this message was almost enough to carry Hillary to victory.
But not quite. Although Hillary led in national polling averages for almost all of the campaign, she was never able to put Trump away. Even after three abysmal Trump debate performances, the release of the “Access Hollywood” tapes, seemingly damaging revelations about Trump’s taxes, and a string of women accusing Trump of sexual assault (which Trump denied, in one case by saying, “look at her … she would not be my first choice”), Hillary’s lead never stretched beyond about five or six points. And when Trump’s latest outrageous statement or revelation would inevitably fade from the headlines, polls would tighten again. By election day, Trump was within the margin of error, and in some cases even ahead, in most major battleground state polls.
Since the election debacle, Democrats and liberals/progressives have begun to debate where they go from here. Bernie Sanders has argued that the party needs to move ever further to the left. This is dubious advice when Hillary herself boasted that she ran on the most “progressive” (i.e. left-wing) platform in American history. She certainly ran to the left of where Obama did in his 2008 and 2012 victories.
Here is an alternative, simpler suggestion: next time, nominate a better candidate. Even if that candidate isn’t someone who “breaks the glass ceiling”, or establishes any other supposedly all-important “diversity” milestone. A party that lives by identity politics will die by identity politics.
Trump’s victory doesn’t change who he is: a buffoon, a demagogue and a fraud, among other unsavoury qualities. His election is an American travesty, disgrace, tragedy, and embarrassment.
Trump didn’t deserve to win. But for its arrogance, its willful blindness, and its rank stupidity, the Democratic establishment did deserve to lose. That chirping you hear is the sound of Democratic chickens, coming home to roost.