James Comey did not, as Hillary Clinton recently claimed, cost her the election.

That view is too narrow. It is driven by frustration and loss, which deflects from the more complex and ultimately more important picture.

Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election for these reasons: She was a flawed candidate. Her campaign was badly run. The election was more normal — yes normal — than we anticipated.

Finally, Democratic policies had little to offer.

Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail in 2015.

Phil Roeder/Flickr.com

Sense Of Foreboding

From the beginning, Clinton’s personal flaws softened her support and hardened her opposition.

Political journalists John Allen and Amie Parnes had extraordinary access to her campaign. In “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign,” they wrote that her defensiveness and unwillingness to be forthcoming was a constant problem for members of her staff.

The staff could not get Clinton to offer an upfront apology for the way she handled the emails. They wanted her to be more candid and more contrite and to understand that this was about building her character in the eyes of the public.

Big Democratic contributors were reluctant to give more money to her campaign unless she was more open about the emails. President Barack Obama also disapproved.

This contributed to the campaign team’s early and constant sense of foreboding about the race even as the polls showed her in a comfortable lead.

So, as her staff implicitly feared, it was not simply about what Comey did with the emails.

It was also about the chronically worrisome things that Clinton did that increased the impact of what he did, softening her support.

Last-minute undecided voters swung considerably more Republican than they usually do, and there was a significant drop in African-American turnout.

‘An Unholy Mess’

The Trump campaign operation was much better than Clinton’s.

According to Allen and Parnes, the Clinton campaign was “an unholy mess” with petty jealousies, intrigues and tragicomic confusion about who was in charge.

All presidential campaigns have their ups and downs. They typically cancel out each other.

The 2016 race was different in two ways. First, there was a chasm between the way the Clinton people were running their campaign and the pundits’ poll-based analysis of her chances.

Twice as many Obama-to-Trump switchers say that Democratic policies favor the rich as those who say Trump’s policies do.

Second, the media’s confirmation biases about Trump’s chances led them to assume that his unorthodox campaign strategy was stupid and ill informed.

Ultimately his strategy focused on the right states. Hers did not. And no one paid attention until it was too late.

The conventional wisdom is that Clinton lost because of those white working class switchers who had voted for Obama but supported Trump.

Obviously they were important. But it makes just as much sense to say that Trump won because of his strong support among regular GOP voters.

You know, the ones more like your conservative brother-in-law on the mainland, not those unhealthy, bigoted, unemployed West Virginia miners that occupied so much of the anti-Trump imagination.

Overall, party identification, traditionally the most important predictor of how a person votes, was strong as ever. Ninety percent of people who normally vote Republican voted for Trump. The same percentage of Democrats voted for Clinton.

Ultimately, Donald Trump did a better job of focusing on the states that turned the election.

YouTube

How many times did you hear something like this: “Trump’s really done it this time. No woman (or evangelical) could support him after that.”

The Clinton supporters’ knowing chuckles about the Hawaii Republican women’s reaction to the Trump “pussy” tape turned out to be unknowing chuckles.

Not surprisingly, given what we know about how people make voting decisions, party identification overcame whatever misgivings these two groups had.

Republican women and Republican evangelicals saw themselves above all as Republicans.

Racial resentment, which has become closely related to party identification, also played a role in making 2016 a normal election.

The 2016 election was, as the voting expert Alan Abramowitz put it, “the natural outgrowth of the racial realignment that has transformed the American electorate since the 1970s.”

Not just white working class resentment, Republican resentment. As a group, Republican voters show more racial resentment than Democrats do. In this regard, 2016 essentially continued the trend that began in the 1972.

Like other recent presidential elections, attitudes toward race divided Republican from Democratic voters. And, like normal elections, voters did not leave their fold.

Except, of course, for that relatively small but enormously crucial group of white, economically marginal folks who did.

Little To Offer People Hurt By Economy

Policy-wise, Democrats had nothing to offer the voters who switched from Obama to Trump, what Paul Krugman calls the West Virginia problem.

Because Allen and Parnes were so immersed in the campaign, they talk about this problem the way her campaign strategists did.

“Hillary did not have a vision to articulate,” they write. “And no one else could give one to her.”

As if what she needed was a sales pitch to sell timeshares.

The problem for Clinton was not lack of packaging. The problem was that progressives, or anyone else for that matter (especially Donald Trump), don’t really have solutions to the West Virginia problem.

Post-election voter studies show how serious the problem is for progressives. Twice as many Obama-to-Trump switchers say that Democratic policies favor the rich as those who say Trump’s policies do.

In his recent sympathetic review of Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s new book, Krugman nicely summarized the limits of recent Democratic policies and the uncertainties of what they need to do in the future.

“To her credit,” he wrote, “Warren repeatedly acknowledges the political importance of prejudice; she’s not one of those people who insist, as Bernie Sanders sometimes seems to, that bigotry won’t be a political factor if only your economic program is progressive enough.”

“But,” Krugman concludes, “She doesn’t offer any good answers.”

Ultimately, the big picture of Clinton’s loss is not what James Comey did, but what progressives don’t know how to do.

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