Ron Berger —
In the latest issue of The American Prospect, long-time Democratic Party pollster Stanley Greenberg weighs in on what he thinks went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Greenberg was the lead pollster for the 1992 and 2000 presidential campaigns and a consultant for the 2004 campaign. In his TAP article, he draws upon his experience as a consultant for the 2016 campaign, whose advice was not heeded, and the book, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.
Greenberg is of course cognizant of the external factors that influenced the election results, such as Russian interference and James Comey’s announcements of the FBI investigations into Clinton’s emails. He is also aware that Clinton, in her campaign memoir What Happened, admits to some mistakes made by her campaign. Still, Greenberg thinks that Clinton soft-peddles what he calls the “malpractice” of the campaign, and he is particularly critical of campaign manager Robbie Mooks’s overreliance on “data analytics.” This methodology utilizes strategic models built from data on “the country’s 200 million voters, including turnout history and demographic and consumer information, updated daily by an automated poll asking for vote preferences to project the election result.” But what happened, Greenberg thinks, is that changing circumstances of the campaign overtook the model’s assumptions and made them outdated—“and this happened repeatedly.”
During the Democratic primary, for example, Mook was taken off guard by the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign, which grew “organically” and resulted in an unexpectedly high number of new voters who “broke against Clinton.” Thus the models used by Mook’s team missed what was happening on the ground in Iowa and Michigan. Citing Allen and Parnes, Greenberg writes, “Campaign chair John Podesta wanted to fire Mook, but Clinton stood by him.”
Greenberg thinks this malpractice was duplicated as the campaign failed “to focus like a laser on winning each target primary or battleground state” and using distinct state strategies, including qualitative focus groups and feedback from the field, as well as “state tracking polls right to the end.” In contrast, the “campaign conducted no state polls in the final three weeks of the general election” and shifted “resources and media buys across states based on the analytics’ projection of cost per delegate or voter.” In doing so, the campaign missed much of what each candidate was doing to define the election or get people engaged, and focused on turning out voters who already supported Clinton rather than on persuading undecided voters in key swing states.
Greenberg also believes that one of biggest mistakes made by the campaign was thinking that Clinton could not win white working-class voters, and that a rising “rainbow coalition” based on racial, gender, and sexual identities would be sufficient to win the general election. Thus, for example, she did not campaign in the “archetypal white working-class” Macomb County, Michigan, as her husband had done in his campaigns. I would also note that she did not campaign in the entire state of Wisconsin. Add Pennsylvania to the mix, and these are the three states that should have gone Democratic but did not, costing Clinton the Electoral College. Of course, her comment about Trump supporters being a “basket of deplorables” didn’t help either, as many took this as an insult to the white working class more generally. And her comment about the coal industry, unfairly taken out of context, was also damaging: “We’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Overall, in Greenberg’s view, Clinton and her campaign “senselessly and increasingly drove up Trump’s margins in white working-class communities.”
The Clinton campaign assumed that Trump’s temperament and tasteless campaign rhetoric would be sufficient to dissuade voters from supporting him. But Greenberg thinks they underestimated the seriousness of Clinton’s own “trust problem.” For example, Sanders had exposed her tendency to waffle on support of Wall Street and trade agreements, and when she changed her positions to co-opt Sanders’s critique, such as her newly found opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, she lacked credibility.
Importantly, the Clinton campaign profoundly underestimated the public’s discontent with the state of the economy. Although Clinton began her campaign by saying she was not running for a third Obama term, once the primary campaign took her to South Carolina and its large proportion of African-American voters, she discovered that embracing Obama was key to deflecting Sanders’s challenge. Thus the campaign message morphed into one of building upon Obama’s accomplishments and “finishing the job.” This left the change message to Sanders, and Trump.
As an advisor to the campaign, Greenberg advocated a more populist tone, including a critique of special interests. If Clinton wanted to talk about “stronger together,” Greenberg suggested that she should add, “We are stronger together, yet so many of our corporate and political leaders seem content to pursue their own goals…” When Clinton tried to counter Trump’s “make America great” theme with “America is already great,” Greenberg advised that the electorate was “looking for a president who will address the building problems,” not one who wanted to build on the status quo. But time and time again, such advice was ignored.
Greenberg has positive things to say about Clinton’s performance in the first and third presidential debates, when she talked about her vision of an economy that works for everyone, not just for those at the top. In doing so, polls indicated that she gained parity with Trump on who would do a better job of handling the economy. But then the campaign dropped this theme for the rest of the campaign, choosing instead to emphasize “breaking barriers” for women and people of color, in Greenberg’s words, “explicitly privileging race and gender over class.” Even Bill Clinton complained to James Carville that the campaign maddeningly believed that Hillary “couldn’t win the economy.”
In this article, it has not been my intention to critique the critic. I will leave that for others to do, and I will weigh in further on these issues in a future article. Greenberg admits that if Clinton had won the election, the debate around the “stark questions” he raises regarding the Democratic Party’s position vis-à-vis the white working class “would probably have been put off, but can’t be put off now.”
Greenberg is of the school of thought that thinks that Democrats cannot rely on a coalition of white progressives, people of color, and younger voters to win elections. John Judis used to think this way, but he has changed his mind. In his book The Emerging Democratic Majority, which he co-authored with Ruy Teixeira in 2002, Judis argued that people of color, who disproportionately vote Democratic, were emerging as the new majority, a majority that would come to fruition in 2044. But Democrats can’t wait until 2044 to win elections. Besides, Judis now thinks it is folly to assume that people “who currently identify as Latino or Asian will continue to claim these identities in future generations,” because as ethnic groups assimilate, they increasingly align their interests and identities with whites. Judis warns that Democrats should not assume that “all people of color will inevitably vote alike” or agree with each other.
To be sure, there are Democrats who believe it is a waste of time and resources to try to court recalcitrant white working-class voters. However, the white working class, as Guy Molyneux notes, “is not a monolith, but contains a wide diversity of political views.” Democrats need to figure out ways to convince the persuadable among them that they really can help them improve their economic prospects and strengthen their communities. This does not mean abandoning the idea of a “rainbow coalition” or soft-peddling a commitment to racial and gender justice. Rather it means gaining a greater appreciation of class politics as an essential ingredient of what this coalition needs to entail.
Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown, 2017).
Hillary Rodham Clinton, What Happened (Simon & Schuster, 2017).
Stanley B. Greenberg, “How She Lost.” The American Prospect (Fall 2017, pp. 91-95).
John B. Judis, “Redoing the Electoral Math.” The New Republic (Oct. 2017, pp. 16-17).
John B. Judis & Ruy Teixeira, The Emerging Democratic Majority (Scribner, 2002).
Guy Molyneux, “Mapping the White Working Class.” The American Prospect (Winter 2017, pp. 11-14).
7 thoughts on “What Went Wrong: One Pollster’s View”
Hillary was a poor candidate who made strategic mistakes. Nevertheless, Trump is the most unpopular President in history and it seems unlikely that he will be able to improve his popularity by 2020. The polls during his Presidency indicate worse numbers than the popular vote did last November. If the Democrats can’t find somebody who can beat this turkey in 2020, then they are truly pathetic.
I agree, we can’t assume that the growing non-white population will vote for a Democrat. A lot of non-whites are fiscally and religiously conservative. Non-whites can be as selfish as whites. Nevertheless, I don’t want to see the Democrats sacrificing “all” of their principles to win an election. The difficulty is in deciding which principles can be sacrificed in order to win anything. Besides Trump himself, I think health care is the Democrats’ best bet to help them win, because the Affordable Care Act–as flawed as it is–succeeded in pushing the Republicans into a corner from which they can’t seem to escape. But, it’s hard to predict the foolishness of American voters. Should the Democrats pander to those jingoists who are upset about football players kneeling during the anthem? Perhaps.
I don’t think it’s as much a matter of sacrificing principles, but of offering positive (and succinctly explainable) policies that appeal to a broad-based constituency.
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Readers may want to revisit Ron’s piece from January 2016, “The Color of Geography,” and Dave Gillespie’s February 2016, “It’s a Reality Show.” Insightful observations which have proved all too relevant to how we got to where we’re at.
As to today, way to speak out, Jeff Flake!
I think Democrats should maintain their social liberalism while developing an economic populist message. Populism on the left is a strong position for these times. People like Molly Ivans, Ronnie Dugger, Jim Hightower, Fred Harris, and others have represented this point of view.
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Hillary just came across as too arrogant. Maybe because she is.