How Hillary Clinton managed to lose an election to a candidate as divisive and unpopular as Donald Trump will baffle observers and agonise Democrats for years to come. Once the shockwave passes, some glimpses of rational explanation may become visible.
Incumbent parties rarely hold on to power after eight years in office. George HW Bush, following Reagan, was an exception, but politics has become steadily more polarised since and pendulums have a habit of swinging.
Trump’s defiance of expectations has itself also become somewhat of a golden rule in American politics in 2016. Written off repeatedly during the Republican primary, and only rarely taken seriously during the general election, he nonetheless epitomises the same anti-establishment mood that led Britain to vote to leave the European Union and Democrats in 22 US states to nominate Bernie Sanders. Fairly or not, it is an establishment with which Clinton could not have been more closely aligned in the minds of many voters if she tried.
“It’s the economy, stupid” was a phrase coined by her husband’s adviser James Carville in the 1992 election and, in many ways, it ought to have helped Democrats again in 2016. Barack Obama helped rescue the US from the financial crash and presided over a record series of consecutive quarters of job growth.
Unfortunately for Clinton, many Americans simply did not feel as positive. Stagnant wage levels and soaring inequality were symptoms of the malaise felt by many voters. Trump successfully convinced them to believe this was caused by bad trade deals and a rigged economy.
Despite being pushed in this direction by Sanders in the Democratic primary, Clinton never really found a satisfactory response. Her volte-face on trade sounded – and was later proved by leaked emails – unconvincing at best; deeply cynical at worst.
Neither socialism nor the proto-fascist homilies of Trump offered much in the way of coherent alternatives either, but the bottom line was that Clinton simply failed to articulate a convincing defence of modern American capitalism.
One big problem which undermined many otherwise plausible policy positions was a lack of trust. Paid speeches to Goldman Sachs and a murky web of business connections to the family charity left many Americans doubting Clinton’s sincerity on matters of money and much else.
That the Federal Bureau of Investigation was investigating the Democratic candidate until just two days before voting with a view to bring possible criminal charges for her flouting of data security laws was just the most extreme manifestation of the issue.
It was damaging not just that the FBI bungled its timing of what ultimately proved to be a dead end investigation but because it played into the notion that the Clintons behaved as if the law did not apply to them.
It also did not help that what Clinton was selling was mainly herself. The campaign’s strongest message was that she was uniquely qualified to become president. This was largely true, especially when compared to the grotesquely inexperienced Donald Trump, but big ideas took a backstage role.
There was a cast of a thousand policy prescriptions, from tweaks to the healthcare system to a watered-down version of the Sanders college debt proposals. Few were memorable, even among supporters.
Campaign slogans are notoriously vacuous. Obama’s “hope and change” turned out to be more of the former than the latter. Yet Clinton’s “stronger together” only really began to take shape in response to Trump’s divisiveness. It was attractive to many Democrats as a symbol of what they felt the campaign was about but it ensured the battle was fought on Trump’s terms.
Amid the recriminations, special attention is likely to be reserved for the pollsters, who showed Clinton clinging to a comfortable three- or four-point lead in national opinion polls going into the election. Granted, some, such as Nate Silver’s 538 website, flagged up the risk of an upset in key swing states, but even he had downgraded expectations of a Trump win to less than 30% on the eve of polling.
The failure partly reflects a broken industry. Reaching a vast audience no longer using landlines, or even mobile voice calls much, with a 20th-century modeling of statistical sampling has produced dangerously misleading results in elections around the world of late.
But the US fortune tellers were particularly confused by the scrambled demographics of the 2016 election. Trump in many ways ran to Clinton’s left on some economic issues, with a populist appeal to a growing group of unaffiliated independent-minded voters, and yet analysts continued to assume that if registered Democrats were voting early, or telling pollsters they were going to vote, it meant a vote for Clinton.
That all changed in 2016, a ground zero for a political bombshell that will mean the US electoral map never looks the same again.