The 2016 presidential election was extremely close. Hillary Clinton seems to have narrowly won the popular vote, and according to the current vote count, a shift of just 1.3 percent in three states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan — would have given her an Electoral College majority too.
Naturally, when an election is this tight, there are many possible explanations and counterfactuals for what went wrong for the loser, and how the outcome could have been different. And as Ezra Klein writes, with this election and the extreme nature of Trump’s candidacy in particular, there’s a deeper question about not just how he got over the top, but how he became competitive in the first place.
Obviously, Trump himself, his avid supporters, and his voters deserve a large share of credit for his victory. But it also took a village of miscalculations and blunders from his critics or at least neutral players to make him president. Here, then, in no particular order, are the primary culprits:
1) Hillary Clinton
There’s no way around it — blame has to go to the top of the ticket, and Hillary Clinton is a big reason that Donald Trump won the election.
Her biggest blunders were in giving Trump ammunition to characterize her as corrupt. If she hadn’t decided to use a personal email address for all her State Department business, if she hadn’t raked in exorbitant speaking fees from Wall Street banks and corporations, if her family hadn’t spent years raising big money for their foundation in a way that looked ugly to many (even if it was used for a good cause), the outcome could well have looked different.
Yet Clinton made other mistakes too. There was her vote to authorize the Iraq War back in 2002. There was her denigration of “half” of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables.” And, more generally, she just failed to generate enough enthusiasm among as many people.
2) FBI director James Comey
After the debates wrapped up, Hillary Clinton seemed set for a landslide victory — until just 11 days before the election, when FBI Director James Comey shocked the political world by sending a brief letter revealing that the bureau had obtained new emails that could be relevant in the thought-closed Clinton email case.
The next week of news was dominated by coverage of the email issue and other leaks from the FBI about investigations into Clinton, some apparently from agents who wanted her to lose the election. Clinton’s poll lead declined in this time period, and as Will Jordan of YouGov writes, all this happened just as late-deciding voters were making up their minds. Only on the Sunday before the election did Comey reveal that the newly-discovered emails were essentially a nothingburger, as far as Clinton herself was concerned. (Politico’s Anna Palmer reports that an internal Clinton campaign memo claims Comey’s letter cost them the election.)
Comey’s impact on the election is broader though — it goes back to July, when he made a highly unusual public statement that while the FBI wouldn’t recommend any charges against Clinton, he did consider her conduct to be “extremely careless.” He went on to release a great deal of information about this investigation in which no charges were made against anyone, and testified at great length about it to Congress.
Now, Comey may have had somewhat understandable reasons for acting in this way — President Obama had commented on the investigation, and Attorney General Loretta Lynch infamously met with Bill Clinton when their planes happened to be on the same airplane tarmac — but the practical effect of what he did was to put a cloud of suspicion around Clinton even though he hadn’t found any activity that merited charges being filed in a court of law.
3) The Democratic Party
During the primaries, Democratic Party elites essentially cleared the field for Hillary Clinton, letting potentially strong challengers like Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden know they could expect little party support, and freezing out candidates who did run, like Martin O’Malley.
So when Bernie Sanders waged a surprisingly strong challenge, the party was stuck deciding between Clinton and a democratic socialist they feared would get obliterated on the general election. If the party hadn’t succumbed to the logic of inevitability (and more than a little careerism) and backed Clinton early on, perhaps a mainstream alternative who didn’t have Clinton’s personal baggage could have gained traction. (Alternatively, they could have tried to roll the dice with Bernie.)
More broadly, though, the Democratic Party in the age of Obama has embraced a demographic coalition of nonwhite voters and millennials, a coalition that’s heavily weighted toward coastal states and urban centers. Party leaders and politicians have often tried to accommodate corporations and big banks — and raise money from them — rather than fighting them. None of this was sufficient to defeat Trump, and all of these party choices will be hotly debated in the coming years.
4) The media
Much digital ink has been spilled on the media’s treatment of the Donald Trump candidacy. When he first entered the race, Trump got hugely disproportionate amounts of coverage compared to his GOP rivals, particularly on cable news.
When the general election came around, some have criticized media outlets for giving too much weight to Hillary Clinton scandals rather than Trump’s own checkered history, allegedly because they were trying to provide “balance,” or because they simply assumed Trump would lose. Furthermore, coverage of both candidates’ personal flaws and identity matters overwhelmed coverage of policy issues. (Network newscasts spent more time on the Clinton email scandal than all other policy issues put together.)
But in covering Trump so heavily, these media outlets were merely delivering their viewers what those viewers wanted (as proven by ratings and clicks). And it’s hard to get around the fact that there was a ton of negative media coverage of and excellent investigative reporting of Donald Trump — but his supporters simply didn’t care. Perhaps the media’s biggest problem was losing the trust of millions of Americans in the first place.
When wondering why tough media reporting on Trump didn’t seem to make much of a difference, it’s important to keep in mind the role of Mark Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth. Forty-four percent of American adults consume media from Facebook, according to Bloomberg. In practice, that means that they are seeing what their friends share.
But in practice, the company and its algorithm aid the spread of a great deal of outright false information. They also seem to allow people of any political views to live in bubbles, to the point where many liberals were utterly flabbergasted that Trump won. Timothy Lee made the pre-election case that Facebook was hurting our democracy, and Max Read made the post-election case that Facebook helped elect Trump.
6) Hillary Clinton’s campaign
Any losing campaign gets second-guessed, and so it will be for Team Clinton. In a practical sense, their polling and data operation clearly missed much of what was actually happening among white and rural voters, particularly in the Midwest and Rust Belt. As a result, Clinton ended up spending little time in Michigan and Wisconsin, must-win states for her that she ended up losing by small margins. Instead, she wasted her time and money in states that didn’t end up even being close.
More broadly, the campaign’s bigger picture strategy will also be criticized. The campaign seemed to put all its chips on the idea that they could define Trump as a uniquely repulsive figure who was unfit for the Oval Office — an effort that clearly failed. The campaign also never truly made a “pivot” away from her primary positions, sticking to a remarkably liberal platform rather than moving to the center when the general election loomed.
Some will say Clinton devoted insufficient attention to matters of economic populism, letting Trump outflank her on the issue. And others will argue the problem was that Clinton and her team embraced the Democratic identity politics coalition too fully — praising Black Lives Matter, defending unauthorized immigrants, and so on — while neglecting the biggest “identity politics” group of all, white voters. (Bill Clinton reportedly made this case at the time.)
7) Pollsters, pundits, and election forecasters
The polls were wrong. The final national polls predicted a Clinton victory, and state polls pointed to her winning too. Election modelers long put her as a solid favorite, and the range of opinion at the end of the race was that she was between 72 percent and 99 percent likely to win. And the pundits were wrong about Trump’s chances yet again, just as they’d been wrong about him all along.
This lulled Clinton’s team into a false sense of security (they were apparently looking at similar data to the public polling), which drove the strategic choices mentioned above. It may have led some of her supporters to feel overly confident, perhaps believing that their votes weren’t necessary for her victory.
There’s a lot of criticism of elites right now — cultural elites, economic elites, cosmopolitan elites, and political elites from both US parties and globally. The utter failures of Republican elites led to their influence being discredited among their base voters, and set the stage for Trump’s rise. US economic elites failed to foresee the 2008 crash and to arrest broader trends of stagnation and rising inequality. And Emmett Rensin made the case that a culture of liberal “smugness” and condescension toward white working-class voters has alienated them and created a backlash.
9) The Republican establishment
The Republican Party allowed itself to be captured by a demagogue, and submitted to his takeover. Despite a few high-profile GOP defections from Trump, the vast majority of current Republican politicians ended up backing him in the end, and stuck with him through everything — including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, RNC Chair Reince Priebus, and most GOP Congress members, senators, and governors. (Some even briefly un-endorsed him when the “grab ’em by the pussy” tape leaked, before coming crawling back days later.) Fox News too, took an institutionally pro-Trump line for the most part.
Some of these people had apparently privately concluded Trump was bound to lose and so simply wanted to avoid being blamed for it by the GOP’s base, or to preserve the party’s strength down ballot. If so, they badly miscalculated. Trump may well have lost if he in fact went into the general election facing constant criticism from a deeply divided Republican Party, but what actually happened was that the party mostly fell behind him and helped him consolidate GOP support against Clinton. And now he’s going to be the president.