Looking Back at Election 2016

Recent items about Hillary Clinton reflecting on the 2016 campaign caused me to look back at things said way back when. One of those was this one by Nathan Robinson, whose particulars look eerily prescient in hindsight.

We can scrap everything in it about how Sanders would have done better as moot. The thing to note is how Robinson’s analysis of the Clinton-Trump matchup played out, and how those vulnerabilities were assessed as sufficient to sink Clinton’s candidacy. This predated such things as Comey’s interjection of himself into politics, or the knowledge of the Russian interventions. Those can be treated as external factors. The main point here is that we had an early identification of a systemic, self-inflicted weakness in the campaign, that being the inherent mismatch of Clinton and Trump in particular as opponents. This wasn’t a perfect analysis; I think Robinson’s casual dismissal of the role of contempt in getting out the GOP vote was a mistake, a factor that loomed larger in the loss than Robinson allowed. On the other hand, Clinton was neither quite as bad against Trump nor was Trump quite as effective against Clinton as Robinson projected at the time; Clinton did pull ahead of Trump in the popular vote while losing the electoral college. But there was enough truth in that analysis that the external factors helped tip the race, rather than becoming oddities to be mentioned in political science footnotes about it in the future.

Pair that with Robinson’s post-election analysis prompted by the publication of “Shattered” concerning the internal issues of the Clinton campaign. Robinson has things in there that look quite a lot like what I have been saying since November: the thinness of the margin of loss means a great many factors could be considered “the” cause; assignment of blame isn’t as important as figuring out how to make future campaigns better; and making future campaigns better means taking seriously those causes that you can do something about yourself and not getting hung up on the ones that were factors beyond anyone’s control. (Though I’ll note that paying attention to Russian interference isn’t an issue particular to Democratic Party prospects; it is an existential threat to the integrity of our democracy and demands attention commensurate to the threat it poses.)

Robinson had this, which resonated with me:

The arrogance was infectious: phone-banking volunteers, who realized there was little enthusiasm for Clinton among the electorate, were puzzled that “campaign staffers were so confident” and “acting like they had this in the bag.”

As a phone-banker going through page after page of contacts who either did not respond, promptly hung up, or who mostly could not be persuaded to get involved to any greater extent than saying they planned to vote, yes, that was a concern of mine. In Michigan, where I was doing what I could as a volunteer for the campaign, it turned out that the state campaign had pleaded for more involvement, but had not gotten far with that. It was considered more important to set up a “feint” in Iowa.

I think any post-election analysis that points to external, arbitrary factors as a way of dismissing the intrinsic factors that we might actually be able to learn from and act upon is not merely poor argumentation and possibly avoidance of responsibility, it is also an invitation to continue a dangerous state of affairs in how we conduct campaigns we care about.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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