Where Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign went wrong

by James Robins / 19 June, 2017

Hillary Clinton: her data analytics proved catastrophically wrong. Photo/Getty Images

Was Hillary Clinton's campaign derailed by misogyny or infighting? Two autopsies of the campaign reach remarkably different conclusions.

From day one, Donald Trump’s presidency has been a whirlwind of thunderous bluster and staggering incompetence, of scandals, callous remarks and doomed policies. As Timothy Snyder writes in On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, we are being hit by “wave upon wave, but never see the ocean”.

Another autopsy on Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign, then, seems indulgent, unless something crucial can be learnt, and by this definition, Susan Bordo’s The Destruction of Hillary Clinton is mildly useful as a catalogue of what she calls the “poisonous alchemy” of misogyny directed at the former First Lady and Secretary of State. She was called a “corporate whore”; Trump supporters demanded he “put the bitch in jail”; she was depicted as a witch on a broomstick and held in the ridiculous double bind that women should not appear “shrill” or “aggressive” (Bob Woodward, exposer of Watergate, said Clinton should “get off this screaming stuff”).

Bordo condemns the mainstream media’s complicity in this “medieval” chauvinism and mentions three rule-breaking interventions by then FBI chief James Comey, which she calls a “coup d’état”. But the book is hampered by Bordo’s refusal to believe that Clinton has ever done anything wrong. She passes over her subject’s long history of calculated obscurantism and petty lying. Any criticism of Clinton is dismissed as fiction or hyperbole, to the extent that she directly paraphrases Clinton’s own spin doctors. Writers expressing this kind of unflinching loyalty should, as a rule, not be trusted.

Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign, by Roll Call columnist Jonathan Allen and the Hill correspondent Amie Parnes, is somewhat more valuable. The authors secured access to the Clinton campaign by granting their sources anonymity and an assurance that none of their comments would appear in print before the election.

This enables them to document with visceral immediacy the infighting, the confusion and the campaign’s failure to rid the candidate of the whiff of arrogant entitlement.

“The campaign,” the authors write, “was an unholy mess”, full of “supplicating sycophants” and “fraught with tangled lines of authority, petty jealousies, distorted priorities, and [with] no sense of greater purpose”. They describe the Democratic leadership as stuffed with competing consultants and egotistical aides to the point that it resembled “a traffic jam on a Venn diagram”.

The Clinton campaign, Allen and Parnes argue, relied too heavily on data analytics. “Every investment decision we made,” one source says, “like how many staff to put in a state, how frequently [Clinton] would visit some place, was all driven by analytics.” The numbers, of course, were catastrophically wrong, and Trump was busy doing the opposite, focusing on small numbers of contestable regions with high numbers of electoral college votes. Clinton’s team failed to see the resentment festering in those humiliated places. We’re now all the poorer for it.

THE DESTRUCTION OF HILLARY CLINTON, by Susan Bordo (Text Publishing, $37);

SHATTERED: INSIDE HILLARY CLINTON’S DOOMED CAMPAIGN, by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes (Penguin Random House, $55)

This article was first published in the June 17, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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