Saturday, March 11, 2017

Was Hillary Really A Bad Candidate?

I know, it's a stupid question to most people, and yes that's a bit of a clickbaity headline. But it's an interesting question to me, considering that contemporary wisdom of all sorts of journalists and pundits that this is obviously true. I also know it's pointless at this point, minds have been made up, and I now assume people telling me why "Bernie would have won" will continue into my days in the retirement home. But, fine, I'll bite.

The whole idea that Hillary Clinton was the worst presidential candidate ever (well maybe since John Davis, views seem to differ) I hear from all sorts of quarters. I disagree, and I'll try to make the case as best as I can, and yes I'll say it: Hillary Clinton wasn't a bad presidential candidate.

I've written about this before, but I restate the case briefly. While we political junkies, and especially political journalists, love to obsess about presidential elections being these epic battles of political skills between the two major party candidates, the eventual outcomes in terms of two party vote shares are fairly predictable. Thing like the state of the economy during an election year, which party holds the White House and for how long, and casualty levels from unpopular foreign wars are actually pretty good at predicting election outcomes. As I said a few months ago:
Political scientist Seth Masket did a great job explaining this by making, “…a simple scatterplot showing the relationship between economic growth (using per capita real disposable personal income) and the incumbent party’s share of the vote. Clinton’s vote share was right on the line.”
Don't believe me? Well fine, but Nate Silver (who's models correctly pointed out this was a lot closer election that I or other predicting models thought) put it this way
Instead, 2016 was generally treated as Clinton’s race to lose when that conclusion didn’t necessarily follow from the empirical research on presidential campaigns. A better perspective was that Clinton was leading in the polls despite somewhat challenging conditions for Democrats, no doubt in part because of Trump’s flaws as a candidate. However, that made her vulnerable if the candidate-quality gap closed — whether because of her own problems as a candidate or because Trump’s performance improved — in which case partisanship would kick in and she’d be headed for a barnburner of a finish.

Incidentally, Clinton slightly outperformed the “fundamentals” according to most of the political science models, which usually forecast the popular vote rather than the Electoral College. For instance, the economic index included in FiveThirtyEight’s “polls-plus” model implied that Trump would win the popular vote by about 1 percentage point. Instead, Clinton won it by roughly 2 percentage points. That’s not a huge difference, but it’s something to consider before assuming that Clinton must have been an exceptionally flawed candidate.
Read the whole thing, as the kids say on Twitter. Now I know the response to this, generally to roll out the laundry list of all the missteps Hillary made during the campaign, (and sometimes this list just keeps going back through the Dubbya years, then the 90's, and indeed sometimes into her days in Arkansas). Fair enough, but then again a list of all the thing Trump did "wrong" when it comes to how you're suppose to run for president is a pretty big list too.

Here's another way to think about this. Instead of making a list of everything Hillary did wrong, what are some (non-backhanded compliment type) things she did right that future Democratic nominees could emulate. Here's a few ideas I came up with:
  • Raise a lot more money than your opponent, a two to one financial advantage is a good goal.
  • Whip your opponents ass in all three debates.
  • Create much better adds than your opponent does.
  • Run a well organized convention with lots of great speakers that create media moments that just pop and then go viral (see here).
  • Get the endorsements of members of your opponent's party, also get important members of your opponent's party to publicly declare they will never support their party's nominee.
A list like this could go on for quite a while.

So what to make of it? Well one way to think about this is that the "bad/stupid" things Hillary did outweighed the "good/smart" things she did I listed above. I'm not a fan of this sort of thinking for a variety of reasons, for one thing it just assumes that things like "giving paid speeches" is more important than raising more money than your opponent. Why is that necessarily true? Or in other words, why is boasting about sexually assaulting women not as "bad" as giving paid speeches? You can believe whatever you want to in the world of subjective judgements about how politics ought to work, but in terms of "ranking candidates' good vs bad" there's no real way to determine which is and is not important.

Another way, a way I've come to believe in more and more is this: the things we and the media think matter in terms of presidential candidates don't actually matter a whole lot.

That is to say all of the things Hillary did well (and poorly), and all of the things Trump did poorly (and well) didn't really matter a lot at all. Because "fundamental" things like those factors I outlined above mattered so much more. In other words, if wages had grown more in 2016 or James Comey hadn't decided to pick a side Hillary might have done better, while lawn sign deployment and annoyed volunteers probably weren't that important after all. 

I've read a lot of pieces on what happened since that horrible Wednesday morning last year. I remember it well: I woke up hung over, and for a brief moment forgot what had happened, and then remembered, I saw the numbers of my old digital clock sideways and stared, and then realized I had to go to work. (If you read this blog you probably have a similar story).

Of all these pieces one that really has stuck with me is something that political scientist Julia Azari wrote in November about what she called "the politics of shock". She refers to a short story she loves that is about a number of things but, "It's also a story about reordering not just priorities but fundamental assumptions about what you can expect from the world."

What can we expect from this world? Great question, I am still grappling with this, but if I'm going to cast away some stuff, it's the idea that Kirsten Gillibrand (she used to be more pro-gun!) or Cory Booker (he's a vegan!) can't win in 2020 because of this or that  "important" thing the political media starts screaming about in 2019.

Did Hillary lose? Well yes, in the sense she lost the Electoral College while winning the popular vote by 2.9 million. And if you want to take your anger out on her, well okay. But I think there are more productive ways to deal with that, as she is now a very tired older woman who spent her life trying to make this country better. I respect that, I think you should too.