A Failed Defensive Effort: Why Hillary Clinton Lost the 2016 Election

On November 8th, 2016, to the surprise of many, former Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton lost the U.S. presidential election to Republican nominee Donald J. Trump by a margin of 77 electoral votes. Most of the world was shocked with this result, as poll after poll predicted Clinton to win by a landslide. This sentiment was especially felt here at the University, as political scientist and University professor Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball predicted Clinton to beat Trump in 322 to 216 electoral votes the night before the election. In a poll conducted by The Cavalier Daily, 75% of University students polled supported Clinton while only 13% supported Trump. In working with the Clinton campaign on Grounds, I was personally exposed to this feeling of electoral security within the campaign itself. In hindsight, we can all look back and see that this feeling of assured victory was a false one, and one of the several reasons why Clinton lost the election.

The Clinton campaign was too sure of itself, and emphasized Clinton’s differences to the Trump campaign more than the attributes of the candidate on her own. Clinton played too much on the defensive, focusing on why the American people should not vote for Trump and not concentrating enough on why they should vote for her. Many of Clinton’s campaign ads were centered around her opposition to Trump, and less about her own attributes. Take, for example, the Clinton campaign ad “Role Models,” which features crude remarks by Trump playing on the television while young children watch. After these children watch, the screen reads, “Our children our watching. What example will we set for them?”. This was an attempt to show voters that Clinton is the more tactful candidate and sets a better example than her opponent. Although this may be true, Clinton was fighting the wrong fight here. The Democratic voters that were already committed to voting for Clinton knew of Trump’s remarks on women and the way he mocked a mentally disabled man, but so did Trump’s supporters. The Clinton campaign should have been aware that the people who supported Trump did not care about his unsavory words and actions, and that his un-presidential rhetoric did not did not create a reason enough not vote for him. Trump himself was fully aware of this, once saying at a campaign rally in Iowa, “I could stand in the middle of 5th avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.” In focusing on Trump’s rhetoric rather than reasons why Clinton was the better candidate , the Clinton campaign failed to capture any of Trump’s potential voters.

The Clinton campaign also failed to emphasize economic issues that many voters, especially middle class families in the midwest, were very concerned about. This is where the Trump campaign established its upper hand, as the campaign slogan was “Make America Great Again”, with a heavy emphasis on bringing jobs back to America from overseas and reviving the economy as a whole. This awoke many forgotten voters across the country: 15% of the people who voted said it was their first time voting in a presidential election. Trump’s rhetoric was centered around rebuilding the country from his perceived downfall of the nation under Obama, which resonated with many of his lower and middle class supporters, named the “basket of deplorables” by Clinton. Clinton, on the other hand, focused more on social issues like women’s rights and overall social justice. Although Clinton did have 40 pages outlining policy positions including economic policies on her website as opposed to Trump’s 7 pages, the majority of voters will not and did not do that much research beyond what they heard from the candidates. The Pew Research Center conducted a study showing that out of 3,760 adults surveyed, cable TV and social media were the most helpful. While cable TV and social media provides accessible information for voters, it often does not provide policy specifics that would be found in policy proposals by the candidates.

Clinton talked about the economy, but Trump’s campaign was centered around it, and consequently, those hurting economically truly believed that Trump had every intention to help them. The Clinton campaign did not adequately broadcast that the country is still recovering from the 2008 recession and that many middle class families are still struggling economically in comparison to the Trump campaign. In and study conducted by the federal reserve in 2013, 47% of respondents said they would not be able to cover a $400 dollar emergency. Many people in this country are still hurting economically, and Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again” led them to believe he would help him. This effect can is clearly shown on the final electoral map, as Trump won almost all of the rust belt states and all of the southern states besides Virginia. Those are the poorest areas of the country that are hurting the most economically and have seen the most jobs being moved out of the area to places overseas. Take for example Mississippi, who has the lowest median annual household income at $40,037, and voted for Trump. In fact, all of the top ten states with the lowest median annual households income besides New Mexico voted for Trump. The economy was a very important issue that the Clinton campaign did not emphasize enough, and therefore lost in the states that need the most economic help.

As a Hillary Clinton campaigner and voter, I truly believe she had good intentions and would have done great things for this country. However, her campaign was heavily flawed in its execution, and ultimately cost her the presidency. I hope that the Democratic party will be able to learn from the Clinton campaign’s mistakes and move forward in the future. We need to be on the offensive, not the defensive. As Democrats, we cannot keep disregarding the red parts of the country as a  “basket of deplorables”. These are our fellow Americans, and if we want the government to turn blue again, we must find a way to resonate with their concerns.