The list of reasons why some people think Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election is already long – and growing. Some of these reasons appeared during the last weeks of the campaign when even some Hillary supporters strongly suspected that she might lose.
But these are excuses. Hillary lost for two big reasons. First, and foremost, she was a terrible candidate in almost every way. Second, unlike 2008, when Democrats were the change bearers, in 2016 they were the incumbents. Establishment to the core, Clinton was the wrong leader at the wrong time
Sure, she’s an admirable woman — a path breaker, to some — but was that ever really enough? Despite her best efforts to deny it, Clinton’s gender was always her real cachet, her unspoken claim to grandeur. When Obama came seemingly out of nowhere to win in 2008 at a time of moral disarray, it made America – for many, the bastion of global white privilege – look like the freest and most open country in the world.
Surely, America was ready to take the next step. To break the “glass ceiling.” To make history again?
A lot of Hillary supporters thought so. Obama had no real governing experience and just a single term in the US Senate under his belt. Clinton had far more experience and she clearly passed the competence test.
Even her Republican critics – and voters — admitted as much. And they feared from the start that she’d be a formidable opponent.
But Clinton always had deep flaws that her closest supporters did their best to conceal. Her campaigns were bloated and disorganized. She raised large sums of money but tended to fritter it away, much of it on weak and ineffective advertising. She missed opportunities and often neglected the basics. And her persona could be off-putting. Her message often didn’t resonate. She failed to connect with voters – a potentially fatal attribute for any political candidate.
All of these failings appeared in spades in 2008. She not only lost Iowa but very nearly lost New Hampshire, which would have driven her from the race. Down by double digits, she managed to rally – but she soon faded as Obama racked up victory after victory until the electoral math became insurmountable.
And in 2016, it very nearly happened again. She won Iowa by a whisker over another charismatic challenger, Bernie Sanders, who proceeded to crush her in New Hampshire, and then went on to capture dozens of other contents. And as we now know, only a veritable conspiracy among senior Democratic leaders blunted his grassroots insurgency. The same party super-delegates that swung behind Obama in 2008 lined up early for her, creating an aura of inevitability that proved difficult for Sanders to surmount.
But Sanders exposed her soft underbelly – her weak support at the base. The Vermont socialist won a stunning upset in Michigan by captivating the kind of Rust Belt working class voters that Trump would later capture in spades. It was a cautionary warning and one that party leaders were eager to dismiss – and they did, at their own peril.
And it wasn’t just Michigan. Clinton, desperate for a campaign rationale, began echoing Sander’s most popular stances on the issues – on trade, jobs, income equality, and student debt. And yet, somehow she also insisted on attaching herself to the Obama “legacy.” She was the candidate of “staying the course” and the candidate of “change.” For most voters, especially working class voters still stuck in the no-growth Obama recovery, but also college-educated men, young and old, it just didn’t wash.
And then there was the never-ending drama of her emails and her penchant for secrecy and paranoia on a scale not seen since Richard Nixon. Even when Sanders gave her a pass, she couldn’t shake the impression that she was playing by her own rules, the voters be damned. In her cynical lawyer-like way, she never got caught lying under oath, but she lied repeatedly and flagrantly – to the public and to Congress — about what she had done, and why she had done it. Some half-truths voters are willing to chalk up to being a politician, but lies on this scale, told so often, suggest a much deeper flaw.
In the end, the very issue Clinton desperately tried to win on when nothing else seemed to work — Trump’s supposed lack of character and “temperamental unfitness” – came back to haunt her.
It’s true, of course that most men voted against Hillary while most women supported her. But female voters have backed male Democratic presidential candidates for years. Bill Clinton won women by 15 points in 1996. Obama won them by 14 points in 2012. Clinton, the historic candidate of women, managed to edge the boorish Trump with female voters by a paltry 12 points.
In the end, Clinton utterly failed to appreciate the fears, anxieties, and hopes driving most American voters. Trump, much like Obama in 2008, came virtually out of nowhere to tap into the zeitgeist of American politics and popular culture and to project the kind of bold transformational leadership that voters clearly crave.
One day Americans might want to elect a strong woman to the presidency. Right now they still prefer a strong man.