Of all the dirgeful postmortems to come out of the 2016 presidential election, the most striking was from Debbie Dingell, the wife of former “dean of the House” John Dingell and a congresswoman from Michigan. In an op-ed published in the Washington Post, Dingell revealed that Hillary Clinton only came to her district in the waning days of the campaign and her presence was scarcely felt. “They never stopped on a campus; never went to a union hall; never talked to the Arab American community,” she wrote. Donald Trump would narrowly win Michigan on Election Day, one of three states that ultimately netted him the presidency.
My sources who work in campaign politics told a similar story. It wasn’t, they said, that Clinton ran a slipshod operation in the Upper Midwest; it was that she barely ran an operation at all, ceding Wisconsin and Michigan to the Republicans from the start.
Now, a dish-heavy piece in Politico about Clinton’s non-campaign shows just how bad it was. Clinton operatives reportedly dismissed Michigan early on the basis of insider polling that placed it firmly in the Democratic column. The Clinton machine, top-heavy and administered from Brooklyn, rebuffed local union volunteers and activists who wanted to campaign, maintaining its certitude that the Upper Midwest was won. Literature was never distributed because “everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is.” “I’ve never seen a campaign like this,” said one DNC member.
Another told Politico: “They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t.” The Clinton campaign was thus an extension of the Clinton political brand, driven by the overweeningly arrogant presumption that centralized managers know better than local officials, along with a Calvinist sense of predestination for higher office that precludes any sort of persuasion. Just drive out the Obama coalition voters in swing states who are ours by birthright, they said, and we’ll lock this thing up. A month before Election Day, the Clinton campaign was diverting resources to Texas, believing not only that its phantom GOTV had Michigan and Wisconsin sewed up, but Ohio, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Florida, too.
This arrogance was the single greatest cause of Clinton’s loss, but there was another. There exists among many liberals, most prominently at so-called wonk websites like Vox.com, an unshakeable belief in the healing power of empiricism. Poverty can be eradicated, the health care system can be made equitable, if only we marshal enough data to our cause. That poverty is still very much with us and Obamacare is crumbling tends to undermine this thesis; nevertheless, there it was at Clinton headquarters. Per Politico, staffers shrugged off Michigan altogether on the basis of poll data. Volunteers were refused lawn signs because such materials were not “scientifically” effective. Door-knocking and other forms of in-person persuasion were eschewed in the name of almighty statistics.
It was the same mindset that led the calculator-pecking pencil-necks at the Huffington Post to conclude that Trump had a 2 percent chance of winning the election (even the estimable Nate Silver only put Trump’s odds at 35 percent). Elevate polls to the level of gospel truth and you had to assume Trump was cooked. Those who called this election correctly, chief among them Michael Moore, did so because they actually traveled to the Upper Midwest and gathered—perish the thought!—anecdotes from voters (gnash those teeth, Voxers!) that led them to believe Trump was going to win. They also panned the camera outwards and analyzed the national mood, one of working-class fury and angst, similar to that which precipitated the shock Brexit vote in Great Britain.
Those sentiments can’t be graphed on flow charts, but they are rather important if you’re trying to win an election. Checking your boundless arrogance helps, too.