Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Clinton 2016: A Fundamentally Flawed Campaign

Before the election I had planned to do a long post-election multi-part series of detailed posts about what I felt were some serious mistakes in Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign. Part of that plan was my underlying assumption that Clinton would win. I thought the combination of a decent economy, the worst candidate in US history as her opponent, and a technically proficient campaign would carry her through despite her missteps. But I felt strongly that she had made it much, much closer than it needed to be because she simply doesn't have good campaign instincts.

Now that she lost I feel a bit as if detailing Clinton's awfulness as a campaigner would just be piling on. Plus, I'm feeling a lot of urgency to start moving on to discussing what is coming under a Trump presidency, why I feel it will be bad for America, and what we all might do to reduce the damage he will do in the next four years. Maybe I'll go back and write the long version one day when I don't feel our democracy itself is imperiled.

So, gentle readers, you're going to get the summary version of my Clinton campaign post-mortem, not the longer one I had been gathering during the campaign itself.

Here are my two basic beefs with Clinton's 2016 campaign. One is a violation of Campaign 101, the very basic principles that any candidate learns in running for even the smallest of offices. The other concerns the most difficult but most essential thing a Presidential candidate must do during a campaign, controlling the narrative.

Campaign 101 - If you ever take any candidate or campaign training anywhere, any time, for either party one of the first things they will tell you is this:

Don't run on your resume. Nobody votes for a resume. Your resume can get you the job interview, which in this case is the opportunity to campaign. But you need to explain what you will do with the job if you want to be hired. Voters will vote for a candidate they believe will do something good and useful in office. They will not vote for somebody just because that person is qualified for the office.

Instead, if we heard it once we heard it 10,000 times from the Clinton campaign: "the most qualified candidate to ever run for President."

To that the electorate said, "So what?" And rightly so.

The last Democratic candidate to run on his resume was John "The Real Deal" Kerry. We all saw how that turned out.

Control the Narrative -- This is complicated and difficult because it's really the sum total of every single thing you do in a campaign. But controlling the narrative is the ultimate goal of a campaign. And the Clinton campaign made a series of decisions that led to both a poor campaign narrative and a failure to control the overall narrative.

Maybe the best way to explain it is this. Think of a political campaign as a battle between two storytellers. Each storyteller wants to tell his or her story in a way that is satisfying and convincing to the listeners.

In this case the listeners are the voters. The measure of which story is most "satisfying and convincing" is "showed up to the polls and voted for that storyteller." This storytelling exercise is enormously complicated because the two storytellers are telling opposing tales at the same time in an infinitely complex environment that involves everything about the campaign: the slogan; fundraising; free, earned, and paid media; debates; mailers; voter outreach; voter registration; get-out-the-vote (GOTV) management; and ten-thousand other details.

But the measure is simple. Enough showed up to the polls and voted for that candidate for that candidate to win.

Instead of digging into those ten-thousand details -- books and doctoral theses will be written on them -- I'm just going to hit a few of ways in which the Clinton campaign made bad narrative decisions along the way that ultimately cost them enough votes to lose the election.

  • The Slogan 

"I'm with Her." ← The slogan itself made the Clinton campaign a referendum on Hillary Clinton. This wasn't a good idea. Not only do I refer you to our Campaign 101 lesson above -- "Don't run on your resume" -- but coming into 2016 Hillary Clinton wasn't nearly as beloved among Democrats or the general populace as her campaign always seemed to assume.

I get what they were doing there. Clinton did come into 2016 with tons of support from various institutional Democrats. And there were good reasons for that support, given all of the fundraising and other work she did on their behalf over the last 25 years. The Clinton campaign wanted to create an early bandwagon to shut down any serious competition for the nomination. So the notion of a bunch of "I'm with Her" messages popping up as endorsements by Democratic leaders must've been irresistible.

But it makes the campaign about the candidate, instead of about what the candidate will do for constituents. It set the course of the campaign in a bad direction from the start.

By contrast, let's look at the campaign slogans of two 2016 campaigns that succeeded beyond what should have been possible.

"A Future To Believe In" ← It wasn't about Bernie. It was about Believe in the Future.

"Make America Great Again" ← It wasn't about Trump. It was about Make America Great.

Take a look at any Presidential campaign slogans that resonated from "Fifty-four forty or fight!" to "Morning in America" to "Change We Can Believe In". They're never about the candidate. They're about what the candidate is going to do for America and thus, they're really about the voter.

Okay, I'll grant "I like Ike." But for God's sake, her own husband famously ran and won with, "It's the economy, stupid!"

It's the voter, stupid!

  • The Campaign Trail and Fundraising

Those of you who who want some details can get a good sense of my thoughts here by going back to read my two blog posts from this Spring on the Michigan Presidential primary:

A few thoughts on the 2016 Presidential primary

Wow, Bernie! Wow!

To summarize, I came away from the primary feeling that the Clinton campaign cared more about raising money than talking to voters.

Prophetically enough, my experience of the Michigan primary became my experience of the closing weeks of the general election. After the first debate I decided I'd better pony up fifty bucks towards the "Keep Donald Trump the heck away from the White House fund" AKA Hillary for America. Afterwards I received upwards of a half-dozen emails a day begging for more money. As the campaign came down to the final hours they were literally barraging me with emails asking for just a dollar or two for their GOTV efforts -- and meanwhile they were supposedly planning to spend a big chunk of money on a celebratory fireworks display!

Do you know what they weren't barraging me or anybody else with? Emails explaining to me what Hillary Clinton would do for me if she was elected president. Unless, of course, that explanation was enmeshed somewhere in a paragraph wrapped around a "DONATE NOW!" button.

In the narrative of this election one of the ways in which Hillary Clinton's story failed was that the dominant narrative for a lot of voters was that she cared more about the big-money donors than any of them. That narrative nearly cost her the Democratic nomination and I'm sure that in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan it ultimately cost her more the 100,000 or so votes that lost her the election. My personal experience of the Clinton campaign and the choices that it made reflected a campaign that cared more about fundraising than voters.

Secrets, Openness, Emails, Conspiracy Theories, Etc.

I have a lot of sympathy for Hillary Clinton on this point. When she came into the White House as First Lady in 1993 she faced a horrible and unending wave of right-wing propaganda garbage. There really was a vast right-wing conspiracy and she has the losing Supreme Court case (Federal Election Commission v. Citizens United) to prove it.

After getting her every statement thrown back in her face for long enough she understandably became very closed and defensive about whatever she said in public. And hey, playing your cards extremely close to your chest was a darn good quality in a Secretary of State. But that attitude can also come across as very secretive, defensive, and sketchy when you are a candidate. This undermined her credibility whenever she tried to summarily dismiss the vast cloud of nothing that seemed to enmesh her campaign from Day 1.

And I really do mean a vast cloud of nothing. The Republican Party has spent decades and tens of millions of taxpayer dollars trying to find some crime -- any crime -- that they can hang on her and they've come up completely empty. Either she's the most brilliant supercriminal of all time, or maybe -- just maybe -- HILLARY CLINTON ISN'T GUILTY OF ANYTHING.

(Yes, I could hear some of my friends from both the right- and the left-wing gasping with outrage when I typed that last sentence.)

It's weird and it's not fair. She was up against the most openly corrupt and dishonest candidate in US history. But because Donald Trump totally lacks any filter on any least utterance or tweet, public perception became that she was somehow the dishonest, untrustworthy one.

A lot of Democrats want to blame the media for their spin and their coverage of all those things. But it was Hillary Clinton's job as candidate to change that narrative. The only way you change a narrative that claims you are secretly corrupt is to embrace it openly. Prove to the public that you are an open book. Instead, she and her campaign consistently ran away from those issues, tried to ignore them, tried to bury them, and then pointed fingers back at the media shouting "Sexism" when that didn't work.

The Kinks were right. "Paranoia will destroy ya."

Identity Politics

While I'm on the topic of charges of sexism, let's take a quick moment to also note that the Clinton campaign's constant drumbeat of identity politics turned off a lot of voters who might have voted for her otherwise, while probably failing to net her very many votes in the bargain. This was another poor narrative choice.

There's a ton to dig into on this topic, and we're not going to do it here. But in terms of the campaign narrative this became a narrative from the Clinton campaign that who you were in terms of race, gender, sexual identity, etc. was what mattered, not what you did. The conscious choice to create a constant drumbeat of identity politics was part and parcel of Hillary's decision to run on her resume. The Clinton campaign's narrative was "Vote for me because I'm a woman," not "Vote for me because I will improve your country."

Voters may feel an inclination or disinclination to be open to a candidate depending on their race, gender, background, situation, community, etc. But a candidate's narrative can't be that he or she is entitled to anybody's vote based on their race, gender, background, situation, community, etc.

A candidate's narrative always needs to be grounded in "Here's what I'm going to do in this office if you vote for me."

Closing Arguments

The Clinton campaign has taken great pains to blame their defeat on on FBI Director James Comey's letter to Congress stating that they were reviewing more emails. But there are two problems there:

1) Their failure to change that email narrative during their two years of campaigning to change that narrative in the first place.

2) Their utter failure to make any sort of genuine closing argument on behalf of why people should vote for Hillary Clinton was far worse than Comey's ill-advised interference.

Just to show that I'm not playing 20-20 hindsight here, I'm going to quote myself from a couple of private emails I wrote to a few friends during the last week of the campaign. This was around the time that I decided I wanted to write up this summary of where I think her campaign went off the rails, even though I still expected her to win.

By then I was beside myself with frustration at her campaign:

Seriously, Campaign 101 is that this is the time to make your closing arguments and to get out the vote. Making your closing arguments means SHOW ME SOMETHING GOOD THAT WILL HAPPEN IF I FILL IN THE LITTLE CIRCLE NEXT TO YOUR NAME. Oh, and ... IF YOU DECIDE TO BOTHER TO DO THAT BEFORE TUESDAY DON'T MAKE IT ANOTHER (BLEEPING) LAUNDRY LIST OF 48 DIFFERENT POSITIONS.

Criminy. It gets back to what worried me about the institutional stampede for Clinton all along. She just doesn't have that political gift of putting out a shared vision and getting everybody on board to get there. Donald Trump is literally the worst Presidential candidate in the history of the United States and he can do it. Even Dubya could do this: "Fightin' terrorists and cuttin' taxes. Git r'done."

Why can't Hillary do this?!!!


As long as I'm venting, from a party politics point of view, the Clinton campaign's utter failure to mix in any policy-based reasons to vote Democratic is pretty much campaign malpractice. "Not being Donald Trump" doesn't exactly move the needle on the Senate races, does it?

(Bleep) ... "Here's the vision. Here's what you're voting for. Thank you!" Is it really that hard?

I still think she wins. But it didn't need to be this nerve racking.


I left that last paragraph in as a disclaimer for you, gentle reader. I thought Clinton was still going to win this thing, despite it all. Keep that in mind when you evaluate my punditry.

And that's my post-mortem for now.

However, that won't be all the political commentary I have to share in coming days. I've really enjoyed maintaining the ol' Patio Boat as a general quiet spot to post up some fun photos of vacations and cool cars. And there'll likely be a bit of that in the mix going forward. (There'll definitely be a post on my new pickup truck!) But I find that I have things to say about President Elect Donald Trump, his plans, and his policies. And I'm dead serious in my intention to do what little I can to help protect this country from the damage I expect him to do, even if that little bit of help is just bloviating on my blog.


  1. I said to my wife 1000 times in the car ride home, "Hillary has a 500 point policy plan for EVERY single existing problem we face..... but I have no idea how she will react to some unknown problem because she doesn't have a vision or a theme or even a slogan. I KNOW how Bernie will react... he will go, 'what is best for the middle/working class?' and 'is that fair?'" Then he will act.

  2. >And I'm dead serious in my intention to do >what little I can to help protect this country >from the damage I expect him to do, even if >that little bit of help is just bloviating on >my blog.

    Count that expected damage as likely as your expectation that Hillary would win.

  3. Should be required reading for all Democratic leaders. We actually have the best narrative for middle class and aspiring middle class voters, but we never really heard it. The bottom line is that they got overconfident. And I get it - no one really believed the voters were dumb enough to vote for Trump. As H.L. Mencken famously said, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."