NEW YORK, April 18 — Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in November came as a shock to the world. Polls, news reports and everything the Clinton campaign was hearing in the final days pointed to her becoming the first female president in US history.
In their compelling new book, Shattered, journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes write that Clinton’s loss suddenly made sense of all the reporting they had been doing for a year and a half — reporting that had turned up all sorts of “foreboding signs” that often seemed at odds, in real time, with indications that Clinton was the favourite to win.
Although the Clinton campaign was widely covered, and many autopsies have been conducted in the past several months, the blow-by-blow details in Shattered — and the observations made here by campaign and Democratic Party insiders — are nothing less than devastating, sure to dismay not just her supporters but also everyone who cares about the outcome and momentous consequences of the election.
In fact, the portrait of the Clinton campaign that emerges from these pages is that of a Titanic-like disaster: An epic fail made up of a series of perverse and often avoidable missteps by an out-of-touch candidate and her strife-ridden staff that turned “a winnable race” into “another iceberg-seeking campaign ship”.
It’s the story of a wildly dysfunctional and “spirit-crushing” campaign that embraced a flawed strategy (based on flawed data) and that failed, repeatedly, to correct course. A passive-aggressive campaign that neglected to act on warning flares sent up by Democratic operatives on the ground in crucial swing states, and that ignored the advice of the candidate’s husband, former President Bill Clinton, and other Democratic Party elders, who argued that the campaign needed to work harder to persuade undecided and ambivalent voters (like working-class whites and millennials), instead of focusing so insistently on turning out core supporters.
“Our failure to reach out to white voters, like literally from the New Hampshire primary on, it never changed,” one campaign official is quoted as saying.
There was a perfect storm of other factors, of course, that contributed to Clinton’s loss, including Russian meddling in the election to help elect Trump; the controversial decision by FBI Director James Comey to send a letter to Congress about Clinton’s emails less than two weeks before Election Day; and the global wave of populist discontent with the status quo (signalled earlier in the year by the British Brexit vote) that helped fuel the rise of Trump and Bernie Sanders. In a recent interview, Clinton added that she believed “misogyny played a role” in her loss.
The authors of Shattered, however, write that even some of her close friends and advisers think that Clinton “bears the blame for her defeat”, arguing that her actions before the campaign (setting up a private email server, becoming entangled in the Clinton Foundation, giving speeches to Wall Street banks) “hamstrung her own chances so badly that she couldn’t recover”, ensuring that she could not “cast herself as anything but a lifelong insider when so much of the country had lost faith in its institutions”.
Allen and Parnes are the authors of a 2014 book, HRC, a largely sympathetic portrait of Clinton’s years as secretary of state, and this book reflects their access to long-time residents of Clinton’s circle. They interviewed more than 100 sources on background — with the promise that none of the material they gathered would appear before the election — and while it’s clear that some of these people are spinning blame retroactively, many are surprisingly candid about the frustrations they experienced during the campaign.
Shattered underscores Clinton’s difficulty in articulating a rationale for her campaign (other than that she was not Donald Trump). And it suggests that a tendency to value loyalty over competence resulted in a lumbering, bureaucratic operation in which staff members were reluctant to speak truth to power, and competing tribes sowed “confusion, angst and infighting”.
Despite years of post-mortems, the authors observe, Clinton’s management style hadn’t really changed since her 2008 loss of the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama: Her team’s convoluted power structure “encouraged the denizens of Hillaryland to care more about their standing with her, or their future job opportunities, than getting her elected”.
The campaign frequently spun its wheels in response to crises and urgent appeals from Democrats on both the state and national levels, the authors report. Big speeches were written by committee. “Evolving the core message” remained a continuing struggle. And the Brooklyn campaign headquarters — which would end up outspending Trump’s campaign by nearly 2-1 — frustrated coordinators in battleground states like Colorado by penny-pinching and cutting back on television, direct mail and digital advertising.
As described in Shattered, Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook — who centred the Clinton operation on data analytics (information about voters, given to him by number crunchers) as opposed to more old-fashioned methods of polling, knocking on doors and trying to persuade undecideds — made one strategic mistake after another, but was kept on by Clinton, despite her own misgivings.
“Mook had made the near-fatal mistakes of underestimating Sanders and investing almost nothing early in the back end of the primary calendar,” Parnes and Allen write, and the campaign seemed to learn little from Clinton’s early struggles. For instance, her loss in the Michigan primary in March highlighted the problems that would pursue her in the general election — populism was on the rise in the Rust Belt, and she was not connecting with working-class white voters — and yet it resulted in few palpable adjustments. Michigan, the authors add, also pointed out Mook’s failure to put enough organisers on the ground, and revealed that his data was a little too rosy, “meaning the campaign didn’t know Bernie was ahead”.
These problems were not corrected in the race against Trump. Allen and Parnes report that Donna Brazile, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, was worried in early October about the lack of ground forces in major swing states, and that Mook had “declined to use pollsters to track voter preferences in the final three weeks of the campaign”, despite pleas from advisers in crucial states.
After a planned appearance in Green Bay with Obama was postponed, the authors write, Clinton never set foot in Wisconsin, a key state. In fact, they suggest, the campaign tended to take battleground states like Wisconsin and Michigan (the very states that would help hand the presidency to Trump) for granted until it was too late, and instead looked at expanding the electoral map beyond Democratic-held turf and traditional swing states to places like Arizona.
In chronicling these missteps, Shattered creates a picture of a shockingly inept campaign hobbled by hubris and unforced errors, and haunted by a sense of self-pity and doom, summed up in one Clinton aide’s mantra throughout the campaign: “We’re not allowed to have nice things.”
Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign
By Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes
464 pages. Crown. US$28 (RM123). — The New York Times