14 Jun 2017

How Clinton lost the election

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:07 pm on 14 June 2017

Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 was doomed to fail, two American journalists say in a new book. 

Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes started writing a book about Clinton’s campaign well before November 2016 and, like most other political observers, assumed it would be a book about her road to the White House.

Using inside sources, they catalogue a litany of mistakes that cost Clinton the election.

Hillary Clinton gives her concession speech.

Hillary Clinton gives her concession speech. Photo: AFP

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton's Doomed Campaign reveals there were fault lines apparent early on during the Democratic primaries race that would cost Clinton dearly during the subsequent general election.   

Jonathan Allen joined Jesse Mulligan to talk about the campaign that unravelled.

Allen says Clinton’s recent comments about the reasons for her defeat smack of denial.

“We think the things that led to her defeat were set in motion months before she lost.”

Clinton has pointed to then-FBI director James Comey’s reopening of the email server case, and Russian influence over the election, as central factors in her loss.

“We think the bigger factors are the existence of the email server in the first place - which was revealed a month before she began her campaign and sat with her for 18 months or so - and her decision to give paid speeches to Wall Street banks at a time of rising populism not only in the US but around the world.”

But ultimately, he says, it Clinton herself was the reason.

“She was a candidate who had tremendous difficulty articulating why she should be the president in 2017 at a time when the country was moving in another direction, she was facing a pretty strong headwind in terms of the electorate.”

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Photo: supplied

Campaign insiders told Allen and Parnes there was a failure to make her campaign about anything other than her desire to be president.

“An inability to come up with a real campaign message that voters perceived to be more about them than about her,” says Allen.

This was apparent in the primaries - with Bernie Sanders’ clear position on wealth inequality cutting through - and later during the presidential campaign - Donald Trump’s "America first" rhetoric.

“She ended up fighting a candidate [Trump] who promised change. Her argument against that candidate was he was too radical, too unpredictable, too temperamental and in the end painted herself into the corner of being the status-quo candidate.”

And that lack of a campaign raison d’etre came from the top. Behind the scenes her team tried to define her campaign - but Clinton gave them little clue what that central idea might be.

“They thought she was the one that should be setting a narrative of ‘why her, why now?’ and they were befuddled at her inability to do that. She thought that was their job,” says Allen.

Clinton herself conceded she was out of touch during the campaign.

“I don’t know what’s going on in the country, I can’t get my arms around it,” the book reports she said during the general election.

Despite that moment of self-awareness, she didn’t “correct” for that, says Allen. She did not mingle more during her campaign, she stuck with stage-managed events.

"America can't succeed unless you succeed," Clinton said, in launching her campaign in New York.

"That's why I am running for president of the United States."

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Photo: AFP

That "trite tautology", as the authors put it, was never bettered throughout the campaign.

Her failure to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 cast a long shadow, says Allen. She put a lot of faith in her analytics team, led by a youthful Robby Mook.

“She over-learned some of the lessons from 2008. She truly believed one of the reasons Obama beat her in ‘08 was he was technologically superior to her: his team used data well, had a better analytics.”

She ended up with the cart before the horse, he says.

“The data looks good when the candidate’s doing well. She took the opposite lesson and she built this data team and they were very good at their jobs, but within their silos.

"When their data ended up being off, there weren’t backstops for it.”

“They spent a lot of time trying to slice and dice the electorate into identity groups.”

The plan was to focus on distinct groups - black, Hispanic, women, academic, gay - and get them to turn out and vote.

Older heads in the party, including husband Bill, weren’t convinced. They wanted to invest in more conventional polling, field workers and house signs.

“She basically went with her younger data team because she didn’t trust her own instincts on how best to use the data coming into the campaign.”

She stuck with that strategy during the general election and, Allen says, alienated white, working-class voters as a result, losing her the rust-belt constituency of Michigan, a swing state.

Despite this and a rocky - sometimes inept - $US 1 billion campaign, Clinton and her team fully expected to win on election night.

“She absolutely believed going into election night she was going to win: she practised her victory speech, never even looking at her concession speech until after she conceded.

"This was someone who went into election-day believing she was going to be the next president of the United States."

So, since her defeat is Clinton still in denial?

"I think that‘s an understatement," Allen says.

“There is a much larger story to be told about self-inflicted wounds and what she and fellow Democrats failed to do in terms of communicating with large swathes of the American public.”