Hillary Clinton is still in denial about how she lost the Midwest

Midwest Democrats push back against Hillary’s election claims

The 2016 presidential election is more than 10 months old, but Hillary Clinton is still in denial about how she lost it. 

In her new book, What Happened, Clinton is unsparing in her criticism of her vanquisher, Donald Trump, and blames a host of people for her historic loss, including primary foe Bernie Sanders, former FBI Director James Comey, former Vice President Joe Biden, former President Barack Obama, and even the media.

One thing Clinton doesn’t blame is her own campaign strategy, particularly her campaign’s approach to the Midwest. “Some critics have said that everything hinged on me not campaigning enough in the Midwest,” she writes. “And I suppose it is possible that a few more trips to Saginaw or a few more ads on the air in Waukesha could have tipped a couple of thousand voters here or there.”

Clinton writes that her campaign was fully aware that winning the industrial Midwest was crucial for her, and that she in fact didn’t ignore those states.

I’ve spent the last three months living in and reporting from four crucial counties in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania for The Race To 2020. All four counties voted for Obama and then flipped to Trump. Clinton’s dismissive comments contradicted much of what I’ve been hearing, so I reached out to Democratic leaders in those counties to get their reactions.

Steve Bieda, who represents part of Macomb County in the Michigan state Senate, said that while he didn’t think Clinton ignored southern Michigan, he suspects that “more of a presence, and perhaps an earlier presence, could have made the difference” in a state Trump won by fewer than 11,000 votes. Bieda mentioned that Trump held two rallies in Macomb County within 10 days of the election; Clinton didn’t hold any there.

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Clinton’s bigger problem was that she didn’t market her policy prescriptions very well, Bieda said, and that “Trump’s anti-NAFTA message resonated.” When I met with Bieda in Warren in August, he said that Clinton speeches were too wonky while Trump’s were like “a 2×4 over people’s heads.” The implication was that Trump’s straight talk worked with Macomb’s working class voters.

James Fouts, the mayor of Warren, the largest city in Macomb County, also thinks Trump’s anti-free trade position helped win him the county and the state. That message clearly resonated, he said, because the same message helped Bernie Sanders defeat Clinton in Michigan in the primaries.

Fouts, an independent who backed Sanders in the primary, said Clinton came across as too calculating and robotic. “Had she focused on issues like unfair trade, speaking her mind rather than being programmed, it might have made a difference,” he said. “She’s intelligent, knowledgeable and bright, but she’s programmed and people tend not to respond to programmed candidates.”

Bill Cole, who heads the Democratic Party in Erie County, Pa., said that while Clinton did campaign in Pennsylvania, “we didn’t get enough of her. We wished she would have mixed more with the locals. 

Todd Mensink, a sociology professor who lives in Howard County, Iowa, said Clinton “definitely could have done more. In Iowa, we didn’t see a heck of a lot of her.” Mensink supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary then voted for Green Party candidate Jill Stein in the general election. Mensink thinks Clinton figured that “since Obama won those states, they would automatically go for her. 

Laura Hubka, who heads the Democratic Party in Howard County, agreed, writing in an email that she believes “Democrats have taken the industrial Midwest for granted. I have lived here for many years and most Democrats just assume that we are in their pocket. The people want something more. Something to vote for rather than against.”

Hubka made a similar reference to Clinton’s messaging when I met with her in Cresco, Iowa, in June. While participating in several post-election listening sessions with voters across the state, she learned that people liked Trump’s policy-oriented message. Meanwhile, Clinton’s message — “I’m not Trump. I’m not a Republican. They’re going to kill you”— just didn’t resonate. 

In What Happened, Clinton also blames white resentment for her loss, writing that Trump was “quite successful in referencing a nostalgia that would give hope, comfort, settle grievances, for millions of people who were upset about gains that were made by others … millions of white people.”

Most of the Democratic leaders I spoke with said they thought white resentment played a role in Trump’s victory but that it was much less of a factor than other things. Voter anger was “not based on color alone,” said Erie County’s Bill Cole. “Race was a component, but not the whole thing.”

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In Iowa, Mensink agreed, saying he thinks economic populism was the key to Trump’s victory and Sanders’ success.

I also asked my group about Clinton’s criticism of Bernie Sanders for “resorting to innuendo and impugning” her character. Clinton writes that those attacks “caused lasting damage, making it harder to unify progressives in the general election and paving the way for Trump’s ‘Crooked Hillary’ campaign. 

”That’s ridiculous,” said Mensink. “I don’t remember [Sanders] calling her ‘Crooked Hillary.’ He even campaigned for her. She is just making stuff up. She’s gotta blame somebody. I don’t even remember what she stood for, to be honest, as a Democrat, except more of the same.”

State Sen. Bieda from Michigan said that the attack lines against Clinton had been  “floating out there way before Bernie” and mentioned that Sanders defended Clinton from Trump’s ongoing attacks about the email scandal.

Hubka said, “I don’t think Hillary Clinton should be blaming Bernie Sanders for anything. He had a huge following.”

One thing I’ve learned while reporting from the Midwest is that some Democrats feel that the party has moved too far to the left, especially on social issues, such as guns, abortion, and other sexual issues. 

Bieda said that Clinton’s “anti-gun message may have turned a lot of people off,” which echoed the message I heard from Wisconsin State Sen. Kathy Vinehout, who told me in July that during the campaign she had heard from a lot of people who felt that if Clinton won they would no longer be able to “fill their freezer.” “It’s not just Republicans,” Vinehout said about how important gun rights are to people in the rural Midwest. “That’s the way people live, so I think that’s an important part of the culture.”

Some Democrats are urging party leaders to adopt more flexibility on contentious issues and to consider running more moderate candidates in conservative areas. But Clinton shows no signs of flexibility, especially on abortion. In her book, she criticizes calls for the Democratic Party to be open to nominating abortion moderates. Clinton writes that the Democratic Party should have a litmus test for candidates on abortion, and calls the right to unfettered abortion “sacrosanct.”

Abortion litmus tests are exactly the sort of thing voters in the Midwest recoil against. Hillary Clinton’s inability to understand this is why she’s spending her time signing books in Barnes & Nobles instead of legislation in the Oval Office.

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