Clinton Loss Shows the Importance of "Being There"

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Clinton Loss Shows the Importance of "Being There"
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In the six weeks since Donald Trump won the presidency, the losers have comforted themselves by blaming outside forces for their stunning defeat.

Addressing donors in Manhattan recently, Hillary Clinton said that she lost because of two “unprecedented” events: FBI Director James Comey announcing the reopening of an investigation into her use of a private email server, and the “unprecedented Russian plot to swing this election.”

Clinton Campaign Manager John Podesta, who in the immediate aftermath of the election claimed that Clinton lost because the media gave Trump a pass, has more recently complained that the hacking of his personal email and emails of the Democratic National Committee by Russians had “distorted” the election outcome.

But analysis of final results in the three Rust Belt states -- Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin -- that cost Clinton the election suggests a less dramatic reason for her defeat than the machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She may have lost simply because she failed to show up in crucial counties where she might have made a difference.

Clinton, who leads in the popular vote by more than 2.8 million, lost the three states by a total of 77,759 votes. Trump won Pennsylvania by 44,307 votes (0.7 of a percentage point), Wisconsin by 22,748 votes (0.7 of a point) and Michigan by 10,704 votes (0.2 of a point).

Despite criticisms of her campaigning, Clinton made a difference in many of the places she visited. She campaigned, for instance, more in Arizona than President Obama did in 2012, and did better against Trump in the Grand Canyon State than Obama did against Mitt Romney. But Arizona is a Republican redoubt; it has voted for a Democrat (Bill Clinton in 1996) just once since 1948.

Wisconsin, with 10 electoral votes, is usually Democratic in presidential elections; it last voted Republican in 1984, when Ronald Reagan won re-election. But Wisconsin is more competitive than Arizona. Although Obama twice won it handily, Democratic nominees barely carried the Badger State in 2000 and 2004. Wisconsin was supposed to be part of the Clinton “firewall,” but it is not a state that a Democratic nominee can take for granted. And yet Clinton did not campaign there -- not even once -- in the entire general election. Was there ever a previous Democratic candidate for president who campaigned in Arizona and skipped Wisconsin?

Michigan, with 16 electoral votes, was supposedly an even firmer part of the Clinton firewall. Clinton campaigned there but just barely. A revealing article in Politico that reviewed the blunders of the Clinton campaign in the Wolverine State said she never went to a United Auto Workers hall. The UAW in turn has been criticized by Clinton loyalists for falling down on the get-out-the-vote effort on Election Day.

According to Politico, the Clinton campaign under the direction of Robby Mook was so confident of carrying Michigan that it turned away a bus load of Iowa campaign volunteers organized by the Service Employees International Union. The Clinton team wanted them to stay in Iowa in an effort to fool the Trump campaign into thinking that Clinton was competitive in the Hawkeye State, which she wasn’t.

It’s hard to understand Clinton overconfidence about Michigan, given that Bernie Sanders had upset her there in the primary. Rep. Debbie Dingell, a Democrat who represents Michigan’s diverse 12th Congressional District, repeatedly warned the Clinton team they were taking Michigan for granted. Dingell has said she was dismissed as a “nut” for doing this.

Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes and another part of the putative firewall, is heavily Democratic in registration and last voted for a Republican presidential nominee, George H.W. Bush, in 1988. The Clinton strategy in the Keystone State aimed at producing a big turnout in Philadelphia and its suburbs and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and largely ignoring the rest of the state. It worked, up to a point. Clinton’s huge margin in Philadelphia and her sizeable one in Pittsburgh were slightly better than Obama’s in 2012. But Clinton was crushed in five counties in southwestern Pennsylvania — Beaver, Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland -- by 32,000 votes, three-fourths of Trump’s statewide margin.

These once-Democratic strongholds have trended Republican in recent elections but Trump’s margin far exceeded Mitt Romney’s. And yet Democrats can still win there, as Louis Jacobson observed in an interesting analysis in Governing magazine. Pam Snyder, the heavily targeted incumbent Democrat in the 50th district of the state House of Representatives, which includes parts of three of these five counties, won re-election despite the Trump wave. She ran a positive campaign that emphasized an economic message and avoided attacks on Trump or her opponent.

It’s popular in some quarters to blame racism for Trump’s success with white working-class voters. But many of Clinton’s losses in Pennsylvania came in mostly white counties that had twice supported Obama. Trump flipped Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, which went for Obama in 2012 by five percentage points and 12,000 votes. Trump won the county by an amazing 20 points and 25,000 votes. Trump also flipped Erie County, which Obama had won by a 57-41 percent margin. Trump won it, 49-47 percent. He picked up only 3,000 votes in doing so but repeated this feat over and over again, winning 57 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Pat Toomey, the Republican incumbent senator in Pennsylvania, won re-election by 86,690 votes, twice Trump’s margin. But as Toomey’s campaign strategist, Jon Lerner, observed in National Review, Trump and Toomey won differently. For instance, in Chester County, a thriving Philadelphia suburb that has been trending Democratic, Toomey won by three points and Trump lost by nine. In Cambria County (Johnstown), a down-on-its-heels working-class area that leads the state in population loss and has a 15-point Democratic registration advantage, Toomey won by 24 points and Trump by a whopping 38 points, 67 percent to Clinton’s 29. Cambria County is an extreme example of Democratic decline in the Rust Belt. Obama carried the county by a single point in 2008 and lost to Romney by 12 points in 2012.

There are many other examples, of which I will spare the reader, of communities that voted for Obama but turned to Trump in 2016. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but what happened to Clinton in 2016 reminds me of what happened to Reagan at the outset of his 1980 presidential campaign. Reagan was a heavy favorite for the GOP nomination on the strength of his strong showing in 1976, when he nearly wrested the nomination from President Gerald Ford. But his strategists adopted an above-the-fray “Rose Garden strategy,” in which Reagan flew from place to place, and was everywhere and nowhere. He didn’t campaign on the ground in Iowa, where George H.W. Bush spent so much time that reporters joked he could qualify as a  resident.

Bush won the Iowa caucuses, forcing a Reagan reappraisal. Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada, Reagan’s closest friend in Congress, bluntly told Reagan he had to spend time on the ground in New Hampshire. Lyn Nofziger, a longtime Reagan operative then on the outs with the campaign, added tartly that anyone who wanted to run a Rose Garden strategy had better have a Rose Garden, meaning the White House. Reagan listened and spent the next two weeks campaigning from town to town in New Hampshire. Days before he bested Bush in a celebrated debate in Nashua, Reagan’s polls showed him winning the primary that launched him to the White House.

“Being there is crucial,” Laxalt told me. He had won and lost close races in Nevada, where I also grew up. Even in campaigns where he was far ahead, he never took the outcome for granted.

Nevada in 2016 provided a glimpse of the campaign that might have been. Clinton preached an economic message in Las Vegas and did so alongside leaders of the politically adept culinary union, which pushed early voting and followed up with an effective GOTV effort on Election Day. This effort put Clinton over the top in the state and also elected the underdog Democrat, Catherine Cortez Masto, to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Harry Reid. What’s more, Democrats flipped both chambers in the legislature, the only state in which either party did this.

The value of being there was also quietly demonstrated in the 2016 campaign by the Republican National Committee, which worked with various Senate campaigns to turn out Republicans, including some who may have been disillusioned with Trump.

On October 7, The Washington Post released a video and accompanying article about Trump and Billy Bush having “an extremely lewd conversation about women" in 2005. Michael Scherer of Time magazine has written that this tape persuaded the Clinton campaign to abandon its economic message in favor of an all-out attack on Trump, in the belief he had been shown unfit for the presidency.

Republican sources have told me this tape worried the RNC as much as it elated the Clinton team because of concern that disgusted Republicans might not go to the polls. The RNC’s get-out-the-vote effort, which was supposed to be inferior to its Democratic counterpart, focused on getting Republicans to the polls whether they voted for Trump or not. In fact, most did vote for Trump, who on his own secured the votes of working-class Democrats who made the difference in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

We still have much to learn about the 2016 campaign. Perhaps enterprising journalists or social scientists will track down a representative sample of voters who cast ballots for other candidates but refused to vote for anyone for president. There are more than 85,000 of these blank-at-the-top ballots in Michigan alone. Were a majority of these voters Republicans who couldn’t stand Trump or Democrats who refused to vote for Clinton? We don’t know, and the answer would be illuminating.

We also don’t know the full extent of Russian cyber interference in the campaign. We’re likely to get the answers eventually, however, since Senate leaders of both parties are supporting a bipartisan investigation despite Trump’s resistance.

But what we do know suggests that Hillary Clinton might now be preparing to take the oath of office if she and her team had been less confident of victory and campaigned full time in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the firewall states that weren’t. Instead of blaming Putin or Comey for their discomfort, Clinton and her advisers should take a peek in the mirror.

Lou Cannon worked 26 years for The Washington Post and is the author of “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”

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