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.


  1. I agree with your conclusion. One thing I would add is that it wasn't Hillary's fault that she won, rather it was the democractic party's fault for choosing the wrong candidate. What I mean by that is that the Right had been preparing for Hillary to run since 2008 (or before?). This can be seen in the Benghazi hearings and all of the fall out from that. By the time the election season started they had already laid the ground work for tons of political landmines and overall tarnished her image. I have so many friends that say "Trump's not great, but he is better than Hillary." Many of these people have in their heads the image that was painted by the Right of a corrupt liar which is completely fabricated (in my mind at least). I always think of things in military metaphors (and maybe I fall in to the same trap that political pundits fall into by viewing the election as an epic battle as you point out in your piece). If the Democractic party was planning an amphibious landing and they have a few beaches to choose from for landing, they chose the one that had been reinforced the most. Maybe it was the strongest beach for a choice at one point, but after the other side fortified it, it became much harder to turn into a victory. Hillary is a phenomenal woman with a truly admirable career to public service, but the fact is Republicans and the Right had planned and prepared for her for years. So by 2015/16 Bernie may have looked like the better candidate, despite being weaker fundamentally.

  2. Well I'd say this, the GOP, and much of the DC based political media, have been portraying the Clintons as being incredibly corrupt since at least 1991. The thing is this never really seemed to hurt them before (Bill won in 92 and 96 easily after all). So maybe you're right that this sort of stuff finally caught up with them. But the other way to think about this is that it was events driving things all along. In other words if Hillary had been the nominee in 2008 she probably would have won in a big landslide and then have been reelected (as incumbent presidents usually are). Obama then very well might have been the nominee in 2016 and lost in a squeaker (just as the fundamentals of that election cycle predicted). Of course we'll never know, but this outcome could have been quite "normal" in terms of how election cycles tend to play out, but in this alternative reality our memory of the candidates would have been totally different. That is Obama was a terrible candidate while Hillary was great.

    Anyway thanks for the comment!

  3. In your entire post you don't mention the elephant in the room, which is Hillary's unprecedentedly high unfavorable ratings. She had literally the worst ratings ever recorded for a presidential nominee apart for Trump himself.

    Now, this is separate from the question of how deserved her low ratings were. Hillary haters on the right and left argue that she earned those ratings from being horribly corrupt and depraved. I don't happen to share that perspective. I think she was the victim of a vicious, unfair smear campaign, aided and abetted by the mainstream media. And I believe there was more than a little understated misogyny there, as well, something I've noticed ever since she appeared on the national political scene in the 1990s.

    Nevertheless, while I may not quite hold her morally culpable for her lack of popularity, part of the job of a politician is to sell themselves, and the fact is that Hillary did a poor job of it--partly due to incompetence (remember, she's the one who in 2008 had an advisor who didn't realize the California primary wasn't winner-take-all), partly due to an off-put-ish public personality and mannerisms. Fairly or not, she frequently comes off sounding hacky and artificial, qualities that contribute to the image of her as calculating and dishonest.

    Furthermore, your argument that she outperformed her fundamentals overlooks the important consideration that Trump was a pretty weak candidate, too.

    All that said, I do agree that political commentators have a habit of retroactively evaluating candidates based simply on whether they won or lost--winners are automatically "good" candidates, and losers (even those who may have won the popular vote) are automatically "bad" ones. Still, the evidence that Hillary was a weak candidate is pretty strong.