For a decade, I was a political reporter in D.C. and served as chief White House correspondent for CNN. I was one of those people who stayed up way too late on election nights trying to give instant analysis to TV viewers while the votes were being counted. I’ve covered Hillary Clinton in victory and defeat. So it’s no surprise my inbox has been flooded with emails from friends who are trying to make sense of Donald Trump's victory. They want to know what went wrong. Here’s my take.
Trump’s margin of victory among white voters overall is eye-opening. According to exit polls, he won nearly 60% of the white vote. That includes white men and women of all ages, economic strata, and education levels.
It was CNN’s Van Jones who used the term “whitelash” to explain Trump’s soaring success with white voters. He argued that their support was powered by a fear of an increasingly Black and brown America, and resentment of a Black president. I’d add one further wrinkle. The Trump whitelash was also a rejection of educated urban elites by less educated whites who feel left behind by a global digital economy. It’s unclear what Trump can deliver as president that will quiet what is essentially these voters' fear of ineluctable change.
Hillary Clinton was never able to become this kind of inspirational figure. In part, it’s because she’s simply too familiar. Her personal story has been picked over for years.
Democrats knew Clinton would lose the male vote. But they believed she’d make up for it by winning a big margin with women. Surely, the thinking went, women would turn out to ensure she shattered the glass ceiling. At the very least, they'd back her just to keep Trump’s gropey sexism out of the Oval Office. In the end, Latino and African American women overwhelmingly turned out for Clinton.
But white women kept her from victory. Overall she lost white women by 10 percentage points. And she lost working-class white women by a staggering 28 points. Why? It’s possible they couldn’t relate to Hillary Clinton the candidate, and think that the first female president will have to be a more gifted politician. It’s possible their class or race-based fears outweighed any allegiance they might have felt to a woman. A more troubling option: Sexism has become so normalized many women are ambivalent about elevating one of their own to leadership.
Clinton was unable to make this election about something bigger than herself. Think about Barack Obama in 2008 and Donald Trump in 2016. Both became Rorschach tests for their voters, each candidate standing as a symbol for the ideals and values of a movement.
Hillary Clinton was never able to become this kind of inspirational figure. In part, it’s because she’s simply too familiar. Her personal story has been picked over for years. Add to that her own limitations. It’s an axiom of American politics that the most charismatic leader wins. (Think of every general election matchup going back to Nixon. Charisma won every time.)
Trump had her beat on that count. But still, she could have built a movement. She could have made the election about an idea, or an issue: the historic first for women, a clear vision for an economic “revolution.” She didn’t. Without any of these larger tides to carry her forward, she was defined by Trump and rocked by every scandal of the day.
Bottom line: TV news executives blew it by letting celebrity, spectacle, and ratings drive their decision-making at a crucial stage of the campaign.
In the very early days of the campaign, broadcast media — and cable in particular — handed Trump a microphone with unfiltered access to voters. It elevated and gave credibility to his candidacy at a time when other candidates were scrambling to be heard.
Don’t blame the reporters and journalists inside these news channels. They do exceptional work under hard circumstances. The blame goes to the news managers and executives who determine the programming and editorial direction of their networks. Despite all this free early publicity, Trump turned on TV news outlets, blasting them as "biased." He wasn't wrong. When the news executives realized Donald J. Trump had a chance at the nomination, their coverage got “tough.” It felt contrived because it was. If only they'd practiced journalism from the start. Bottom line: TV news executives blew it by letting celebrity, spectacle, and ratings drive their decision-making at a crucial stage of the campaign.
Surely, the thinking went, women would turn out to ensure she shattered the glass ceiling. At the very least, they'd back her just to keep Trump’s gropey sexism out of the Oval Office.
It’s impossible to look at the last two weeks without concluding that James Comey’s announcement of a new FBI investigation hurt Clinton badly. According to FiveThirtyEight, one of the most reliable election watchers, Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the election dropped 16 points after Comey's announcement. Even the GOP’s polling showed Trump losing, just weeks before the election. The Trump team saw one path to victory: Suppress the Clinton vote and drive up turnout among rural white voters. It’s just what happened. GOP internal data reportedly show the rural white vote gained momentum post-Comey.
On Election Day, an astounding 12.5% of the electorate was still undecided. And the headlines were all about Clinton’s emails. With voters so deeply dissatisfied and already viewing Clinton as less than trustworthy, it makes sense that the Comey announcement would tip some voters to Trump, and prompt others to just stay home.
One data point that’s stuck with me all year is from a survey the Rand Corporation conducted during the Republican primaries. It showed that Trump was favored by 86% of GOP primary voters who identified with this phrase: “People like me don’t have any say about what the government does.” Trump was able to capitalize on that sense of alienation. Together, with the media, his opponents' weaknesses, and the FBI’s late October bombshell, it’s carrying him all the way to the Oval Office.