I’ve been reluctant to focus too much on Hillary Clinton after her election loss, but since everybody (including her) is discussing the determinants of her loss today, I thought I would add my thoughts.
Clinton thinks she would have won if not for the October 28 letter from James Comey. I tend to agree.
But in any close election, there is more than one factor that, if changed, would have led to a different result. And I think the most productive questions for Democrats to dwell on are the ones about what they did wrong, not about what misfortunes befell them.
A better candidate than Clinton would not have been vulnerable to the Comey letter. And Clinton’s problems started much earlier, and ran much deeper, than her choices about what states to campaign in.
I want to focus on one question: Why did so many voters decide that Trump was the candidate of ordinary people while Clinton (and Democrats broadly) stood for wealthy elites – despite the fact that Trump ran on an agenda of deep tax cuts and financial regulation, and has sought to implement such an agenda after winning?
A lot of explanations for this amount to Trump having pulled a fast one on downscale voters, and a lot of explanations focus on Trump’s appeals to racial resentment. These explanations aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re incomplete.
The conclusion that Clinton stood for the elite wasn’t was just reached by white working-class voters in the Midwest (who swung toward Trump) and black working-class voters (whose turnout was depressed). It’s also a conclusion that was also reached by a large chunk of America’s wealthy elite.
Hillary Clinton won Greenwich, Connecticut, by 17 points. Four years earlier, Barack Obama had lost it by 11. In New Trier Township, Illinois (which contains Winnetka and other rich suburbs north of Chicago), she improved Obama’s margin from 10 points to 43. In Weston, Massachusetts, she turned Obama’s 3-point win into 41 points.
In similar, “leafy” suburban jurisdictions outside America’s most major cities, wealthy voters abandoned the Republicans in droves to choose Clinton over Trump, producing 20-plus point swings toward the Democratic Party. The widely expected Trump collapse among college-educated whites didn’t materialize nationally on the scale that she would have needed to win, but boy did it ever materialize in these specific jurisdictions, exactly the sort of places you would expect Trump’s plutocratic agenda to produce the greatest benefits.
Trump’s promises of tax cuts and bank deregulation didn’t turn off voters in working-class Midwestern cities, and they also didn’t impress voters in America’s fanciest suburbs. Why?
Maybe voters in both places were both reacting to the same signals: Clinton’s coziness with a global elite that funded the Clinton Foundation and bought services from Teneo Group, and Trump’s willingness to reject priorities of business elites, like free-trade agreements and high immigration levels – not to mention his crude demeanor that would tend to get him thrown out of Winnetka’s better garden parties.
Maybe voters in Greenwich and Youngstown made the same inferences about what it meant that a candidate would take two years off politics so she and her husband could make $75 million, much of it by selling access to themselves, including $675,000 for speeches to Goldman Sachs.
Unfortunately for Clinton, there are a lot more voters in places like Youngstown than in places like Greenwich.
The idea that Trump would be bad for Goldman Sachs was, of course, hilariously wrong. But a candidate who hadn’t taken $675,000 from the bank would have been able to make a clearer case that she was the better choice to hold banks accountable.
This is the main problem I have with Clinton’s own postmortem of her loss. She clearly understands that, in addition to having been kneecapped by the director of the FBI, she made some significant tactical errors, such as campaigning in the wrong states.
She does not seem to have reflected on the fact that her extracurricular choices strongly reinforced the idea that she was in bed with wealthy and powerful interests, such as banks.
Democratic politicians would do well to remember that their personal choices drive voters’ perceptions of who they care about, and to avoid creating financial ties like the Clintons’ that create negative perceptions in places poorer than Greenwich.