Trump Didn’t Win the Election, Hillary Lost It

Hillary was always going to be a weak candidate and the evidence was there for anyone willing to see it.  The only surprise was how hard many people worked not to see the obvious. For one, she was exactly the wrong candidate for 2016. In May 2014, two and a half years ago, I wrote on these pages:

By every metric, voters are in a surly mood and they are not going to be happy campers in 2016, either. Why should they be? The economy is still in the toilet, not enough jobs are being created even to keep up with population growth, personal debt and student debt are rising, college graduates can’t find jobs, retirement benefits are shrinking, infrastructure is deteriorating, banksters never were held accountable for melting down the economy, inequality is exploding — and neither party is addressing the depth of the problems America faces. As a result, voters in 2016 will be seeking change and there is no way Clinton can run as a “change” candidate — indeed, having been in power in Washington for 20-plus years as First Lady, U.S. Senator and Secretary of State, she is the poster child for the Washington political establishment, an establishment that will not be popular in 2016.

This is exactly what happened, which is why the Washington Post’s chief political writer Chris Cilliza could write today:

This was a change election. And Trump was the change candidate. To me, this is the single most important number in the exit poll in understanding what voters were thinking when they chose Trump. Provided with four candidate qualities and asked which mattered most to their vote, almost 4 in 10 (39 percent) said a candidate who “can bring needed change.” (A candidate who “has the right experience” was the second most important character trait.) Among those change voters, Trump took 83 percent of the vote to just 14 percent for Clinton.

On top of this problem–which to be fair to Clinton was not a problem of her making–she was extremely unpopular and had a long history dating back to 2007 of polling badly against Republicans. In December 2007, while leading national polls among Democrats by 26 points, in head-to-head polls against Republicans, she polled weaker against Republican presidential candidates than John Edwards and a relatively unknown new black Senator from Illinois. In fact, when matched up against Republicans–who had a very weak field themselves in 2008–she even polled behind an unnamed generic Democratic candidate. We saw this inherent weakness repeated in 2016, when she was challenged by a 74-year old senator from a small state who wasn’t even a Democrat, who had virtually no financial base, but went from 3% in national polls to winning 22 contested primaries and 47% of the votes in those primaries, in the process regularly pulling 20,000+ enthusiastic people to his rallies, while Hillary spoke in small gatherings to large donors and never attracted more than 800 people to an event.

What this obvious lack of enthusiasm for Hillary translated to in this election is the single most appalling–and definitive–statistic of this campaign: Hillary got almost 10 million fewer votes than Obama got in 2008, despite the fact there are millions more registered voters now and six million less votes than Obama got in 2012. Trump did not win this election. Hillary lost it. In fact, Trump got fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012!  We are not surrounded by more Republicans. We are surrounded by Democrats who were not inspired by the Wall Street-friendly candidate their party pushed on them.

Hillary’s utter tone-deafness about her connections to Wall Street was another huge liability.  In November 2014, I wrote:

On nearly every important issue, except women’s issues, Clinton stands to the right of her Democratic base. Overwhelmingly, Democrats believe that Wall Street played a substantial role in gaming the system for their benefit while melting down the economy, but Clinton continues to give speeches to Goldman Sachs at $200,000 a pop, assuring them that, “We all got into this mess together and we’re all going to have to work together to get out of it.” In her world — a world full of friends and donors from Wall Street — the financial industry does not bear any special culpability in the financial meltdown of 2007-’08. The mood of the Democratic base is populist and angry, but Clinton is preaching lack of accountability.

She got hammered by Sanders, and later Trump, for her reliance on Wall Street money, and then added to her problems by not releasing transcripts of her speeches to Wall Street banks to the public, which exacerbated the perception that she was not transparent and was rigging the system with the financial industry in ways that did not serve the public. So when her email problems arose, it all seemed part of the same pattern of duplicity.  Polls with voters rating her 65% “untrustworthy” soon followed.

She also never explained why she had supported the deregulation of Wall Street, never explained why she had promoted NAFTA, why she had called the NAFTA-like Trans Pacific Partnership the “gold standard” of trade deals, despite the damage NAFTA had caused to America’s manufacturing base and the millions of jobs that had been exported to lower-paying countries. And the DNC Democrats who fixed the primaries to nominate her have never explained how they expected to win the industrial midwest with a candidate who had contributed to their economic demise or why they favored Clinton over a candidate who ran 10 points stronger against every Republican presidential candidate, including Trump, in match-up polls.

This election was always going to be a plebiscite on the status quo and the status quo candidate, Hillary Clinton. For a while many thought Hillary could pass it because she was matched against the weakest candidate imaginable. In the end, she could not overcome her many liabilities, the fact that her party had forgotten they needed to deliver results to the working class, nor the surly mood of voters who had figured out what a rigged system looked like and were willing to try a long-shot who might just bust up the system.

Author: Guy Saperstein

Guy T. Saperstein was a civil rights attorney for 25 years. He was included in the National Law Journal's list of "The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America."