Published May 4, 2017
Denial is more than a river in Egypt: It’s Hillary Clinton’s take on why she lost the presidency. But the data are clear: She didn’t lose because of Russian interference, James Comey or misogyny. She lost because she alienated millions of people who’d voted for President Obama twice.
The Russian-interference claim is easy to dismiss. Clinton began her campaign in 2015 with a favorable rating of 50 percent. By that summer, though, her favorable rating had dropped to the mid-40s, and it plummeted further to a mere 41 percent by Labor Day. Despite a further year-and-a-half of campaigning, she never rose above the 45 percent mark for the remainder of the race.
It’s easy to know why this happened: Her email scandal surfaced. The first news broke March 2, 2015, in the New York Times. By that summer, the FBI had announced an investigation into whether classified documents had been compromised.
This timeline easily disproves the claim that Russian-government interference determined the election. The initial Times story was based on leaks from the State Department. Later stories also relied on State Department or administration leaks, not emails or info hacked by the Russian government. By the time any now-suspected Russian efforts began to hurt Clinton, she was already mortally wounded.
Comey’s Oct. 27 letter announcing a continued investigation into her emails should be understood in that context. Her approval ratings had barely budged all that year, moving between 42 and 38 percent. Her unfavorable ratings also hadn’t budged, moving between 53 and 55 percent.
Comey’s letter didn’t cause any increase in her unfavorable ratings; in fact, her favorable ratings ticked up a point after its release. American voters had decided long before that her legal status was irrelevant to their opinion of her. Non-Democrats had already decided that they didn’t want her to be president.
She nevertheless lost to a man even more unpopular than she, Donald Trump. Perhaps the Comey letter, coming as late as it did, tilted the decisions of people on the fence against her. But the available data say it did not.
Buried in the exit polling is one shocking bit of data: The 18 percent of voters who disliked both Trump and Clinton favored Trump by a 47-30 margin. The GW/Battleground Poll, directed by Republican Ed Goaes and Democrat Celinda Lake, also found in early September that 18 percent of Americans didn’t like either candidate, but they preferred Trump by an 18-14 margin. A second poll in October again found that same 18 percent figure, and Trump’s edge had moved up to only a 27-19 advantage.
Even if the Comey letter tilted some of those wavering voters against her, the fact remains that this means that information was more important to those voters than anything she had said about herself or Donald Trump for over a year. That fact is a damning indictment of her campaign.
Clinton’s final rationale for why she didn’t lose her own race is misogyny. But that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. First, why should the appearance of misogyny in the polls be so eerily timed in 2015 with the leaked information about her emails? Second, why should misogyny be so decisive among the 18 percent who disliked both candidates? Third, if misogyny were so important, why would the Clinton campaign spend all of October telling Americans to vote against Trump because he allegedly hated women?
Finally, why have the same blue-collar whites who elected Trump voted time and again for Democratic women such as Heidi Heitkamp, Tammy Baldwin, Amy Klobuchar and Debbie Stabenow in their Senate contests?
This last point gets to the heart of the matter. News broke this week that Democratic analysts have concluded that Clinton lost because she failed to attract millions of Obama voters who instead went to Trump. These voters, the analysts note, tend to say their incomes are falling or just staying steady. Many also say their vote was against Clinton rather than for Trump.
Makes sense. The regions where Clinton lost the largest share of the Obama vote overlap with the areas where white blue-collar voters have historically voted Democratic because of economic issues.
When their lot in life failed to get better after eight years of a Democratic president, they voted against someone running to continue that agenda and for someone who aggressively courted their votes.
I know how hard it is to lose a race you desperately wanted to win. Three decades after I lost a state Assembly race, I still occasionally wonder what if anything I could have done differently.
But that’s where Clinton and I differ. I still wonder what I could have done; she still broods about what others did to her. She, the Democratic Party and the country would be better off if she adopted a healthier and more accurate outlook.
Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His next book is “The Working Class Republican: Ronald Reagan and the Return of Blue-Collar Conservatism.”