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by Timothy Stafford
In Clinton, the Democrats nominated an establishment insider in an anti-establishment age, who provoked more hatred amongst Republicans than any other politician in the country.
International reactions to Donald Trump’s election victory have been defined by two soul-searching questions. Firstly, how could a man with no prior experience of public office, whose personal and temperamental flaws were on display throughout the campaign, succeed in capturing such widespread support? Secondly, how could the ‘historic candidacy’ of Hillary Clinton, a well known figure with decades of experience in Washington, not only lose but fall far short of victory?
Both questioned are explained by the most staggering dimension of the 2016 campaign: that both major parties nominated the candidates who were least popular amongst the electorate at large. Mr Trump’s inflammatory comments regarding women, disabled people, and religious and ethnic minorities, meant that he entered election day with 58% of all voters regarding him unfavourably. In normal times, such numbers would doom a major party-nominee. Yet such discontent was all but matched by Secretary Clinton, who registered 55% by the same metric. Not for nothing did many voters joke that a giant meteor strike would be preferable to choosing between the two candidates.
These numbers ultimately explain the Democrats electoral blues. In Clinton, Democrats chose a candidate who was poorly placed to maintain the ‘Obama coalition’ of 2008 and 2012. Though her vote held up amongst African American, Latino, and women voters, she struggled most amongst those voting primarily on economic issues: white, working class white voters in northeastern America. Clinton’s ostentatious personal wealth – epitomised by paid speeches to financial firms such as Goldman Sachs – contributed to her struggles against Bernie Sanders in the primaries, and explains why she polled seven million fewer votes than Barack Obama on election day. For a crucial segment of the electorate, Clinton came to be seen in similar terms to Mitt Romney four years ago: distant and disconnected.
Moreover, Secretary Clinton was uniquely ill-suited to executing the strategy her campaign team crafted. Following Trump’s emergence as the Republican nominee, Clinton campaign officials assumed that the election could be decided – in Clinton’s favour – on the basis of personality. As a result, Democratic surrogates made every effort to frame the election not as a clash over policy, but as a referendum on Mr Trump’s suitability for high office. The hope was to establish a dynamic similar to that which characterised the 2002 Chirac vs. Le Pen presidential runoff in France. (Mr Chirac won with over 82% of the vote). Such efforts sustained their hopes of capturing traditionally red states such as Georgia, Texas, and Arizona. Yet no other candidate is as heavily disliked amongst conservative voters as Clinton, something that made it highly likely that Republicans would unify behind the candidacy of Mr Trump. Indeed, as election day approached, the percentage of self-identifying Republicans prepared to vote for their nominee soared. Moreover, contrasting Clinton’s experience with Trump’s positioned her as a de facto incumbent, a poor place to be given that a vast majority of voters disapprove of the direction in which the country is headed.
All of these trends were aggravated by the decision of Clinton’s campaign team, beginning in late October, to portray her election as inevitable following a series of strong debate performances. Secretary Clinton’s birthday tweet, and Mr Obama’s barb directed at Mr Trump on the Jimmy Kimmel show, all but claimed victory in advance. In normal times, suggesting that the frontrunner’s election is predetermined can bring major benefits, by depressing opposition turnout. However, in a race in which the frontrunner’s negative numbers outweigh their positive ones, it is likely to backfire by encouraging undecided voters to think again.
The 2016 election cycle was defined by the perverse reality that each candidate tended suffer most when they were under the spotlight. Secretary Clinton was at her weakest when revelations about her e-mail server were front and centre; Mr Trump, when revelations about his treatment of women were laid bare by previously unseen video. As Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer stressed, the ‘rule of thumb for a presidential campaign where the two candidates have the highest unfavorable ratings in the history of polling: If you’re the center of attention, you’re losing’. By portraying Clinton’s victory as all but assured, Clinton aides thrust their candidate back into the spotlight at the worst possible moment – an error compounded by the FBI’s re-opening of its investigation into additional e-mails.
With the benefit of hindsight, there is no escaping the reality that the Democrats nominated an exceptionally poor candidate, and that almost any other contender would have handed them four more years in control of the White House. A ticket headed by Massachusetts firebrand Elizabeth Warren or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders could have secured greater support from the left of the party, and blunted Mr Trump’s anti-establishment appeal. Vice-President Biden, had he run and won the nomination, would have been far better placed to maintain the support of rural white voters in the decisive states of Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Someone with a lower profile such as the Vice-Presidential nominee Tim Kaine could have reaped the benefits of Mr Trump’s record-high ‘unfavourables’, by being sufficiently unobjectionable to conservatives to attract swathes of Republican voters.
Throughout the campaign, much was made of many establishment Republicans’ decision to abandon their ideological principles to embrace Mr Trump’s candidacy. Overlooked, until this week, was the fact that the ‘cult of personality’ also framed the Democratic nominating process. The origins of the Democratic calamity lies in Mrs Clinton’s enormous name recognition, the ironclad grip over campaign staff and donors that she assembled between 2013, and 2015, and the unwillingness of DNC insiders to try and bring about a more competitive contest for the party’s Presidential nomination.