This piece was first published in Jacobin under the headline ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out.’
It is now becoming clear that Clinton’s ground game — the watchword for defenders of her alleged competence — was actually under-resourced and poorly executed. Like so much else in this election, her field strategy was hostage to the colossal arrogance and consequent incompetence of the liberal establishment.
At the heart of the failure was the notion of the “new emerging majority.” According to this argument — pushed by, among others, John Judis and Ruy Teixeira — women, Latinos, blacks, and skilled professionals who support the Democrats were becoming the demographic majority. Thus the traditional white working-class base of the Democratic Party could be sidelined.
Back in July Chuck Schumer summed it up: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.”
From this theory and strategy flowed a deeply flawed set of tactics, and a badly fumbled get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort.
A labor organizer in Ohio, who wished to remain anonymous, reports that Clinton’s early GOTV effort there focused on Republicans in the mistaken belief a significant number of them could be peeled away. This play largely failed. And it also involved serious opportunity costs: traditional Democratic constituencies like African Americans and the white working class were neglected, and Clinton ended up badly under-performing Obama among both groups, especially in the Rust Belt.
Only in the last two weeks, according to this labor source, did the Democratic Party outreach effort really switch back to traditional Democratic voters. By then, it was too late. Due to lack of preparation, the voter lists guiding the effort had not been updated. Because poorer voters tend to relocate more frequently than home-owning suburbanites, many addresses were wrong. And for lack of more frequent contact the campaign was often unsure about the voters’ current political attitudes.
And when the campaign finally showed up in the African-American, Latino, and white working-class areas they got lots of “so you only come by once every four years?”
A union staffer in Pittsburgh reports a similar pattern, saying that Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters failed to invest in a locally generated plan to reach out to African Americans who lived in parts of Pennsylvania other than Pittsburgh and Philly. There are, of course, black communities all over the state. However, without money from the campaign this local effort struggled for lack of literature, vehicles, etc. And with no resources, enthusiasm faded.
The same geographical tone deafness was seen in the campaign’s decision to place its Pittsburgh headquarters in an upscale part of town. At one point this fall, a group of immigration rights activists even staged a sit-in at the campaign office to protest their community’s marginalization within the effort.
The Clinton campaign’s assumption seems to have been that actual people living on the ground in actual places knew less about the population around them than did the data-savvy professionals at campaign headquarters in Brooklyn.
Another labor organizer lamented in an email about the awful campaign Hillary ran in the northern Midwest. When local leaders started to panic at the apparent traction Trump was gaining in these regions and urged the Clinton campaign to send the candidate into the Rust Belt, the geographic ulcer of corporate globalization, nothing happened. Clinton largely stayed away from the counties she lost; but Trump was all over them. Counties that Obama had carried four years ago experienced fifteen- to twenty-five-point swings in Trump’s favor.
In Nevada, by contrast, where organized labor has Las Vegas on lockdown, high rates of union density and regular contact between unions and their members translated into a successful Democratic Party get-out-the-vote effort and a handy Clinton victory.
Even Obama has taken a shot at the Clinton campaign ground game and its flawed “demographics as destiny” theory. At a press conference earlier this week, he said: “I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated it, but because I spent eighty-seven days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW hall.”
By mid-October, the bad news from the field had filtered up into some sections of the party leadership.
South Carolina representative Jim Clyburn told the Daily Beast in an October 16 story: “I’ve seen some good GOTV plans. On paper they’re great. The question is what about implementation? It’s one thing to see what you need to do, it’s something else to execute.” He cited Colorado in particular.
Similarly, G. K. Butterfield, chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, worried out loud about the lack of campaign investment in African-American communities in his home state of North Carolina, which Obama lost by fourteen thousand votes in 2012.
“I don’t know why we have been unsuccessful in being able to make the case for a significant investment in grassroots get out the vote,” Butterfield said. “On the Clinton side and on the DSCC side, I’ve been trying to get them to increase their commitment. They have made some investments, but it’s not enough.”
Instead, the Clinton campaign went all in on TV ads. Meanwhile, field offices suffered. In 2012 the Obama campaign had 789 field offices; this time around, Clinton only had 489 nationwide.
It gets worse. With too few people on the ground and the local knowledge of grassroots activists being shunned, the campaign apparently started feeding garbage to its computers and thus got garbage in return.
The computer-obsessed Clinton campaign — having lost touch with people but not big data — seems to have inadvertently turned out Trump voters!
Writing in The Huffington Post last week, Becky Bond and Zack Exley, both veterans of the Sanders campaign, noted: “Volunteers for the Clinton campaign in Pennsylvania, Ohio and North Carolina,” working from computer-generated lists, “have reported that when reminding people to vote, they encountered a significant number of Trump voters. Anecdotal evidence points to anywhere from 5 to 25 percent of contacts [being] inadvertently targeted to Trump supporters.”
So much for those brainiac, glued-to-the-screen whiz kids. They lacked nouse, street smarts, soul, real-world experience, a grip on reality.
As one union staffer told me: “What they seem to have missed is that the way to reach blacks, Latinos, and women is the same way you reach the white working class: progressive economics, and knock on their doors. And guess what? The allegedly ‘racist’ and ‘sexist’ white working class is cool with a multicultural coalition as long as you give them the progressive economics. On the other hand, it turns out that downplaying the progressive economics loses everyone except the skilled professionals.”
Connected to the theory of the new emerging majority and its distorting effect on the GOTV effort was the recently revealed “Pied Piper” strategy, in which the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee deliberately sought to boost Trump’s profile. A memo attached to a hacked email from April 2015 cited Trump as a possible candidate who the Clinton campaign wanted the mainstream media to elevate, mistakenly believing he would be easy to beat.
Few personify this arrogance-breeds-ignorance-breeds-incompetence concatenation better than John Podesta, chair of Clinton’s campaign. Podesta blames Russia for hacking his emails. That may or may not be what happened; the CIA, NSA, and Defense Intelligence Agency have not corroborated the claim.
But what we do know, thanks to digital forensics of the hacked emails, is that Podesta clicked twice on a not-so-sophisticated fishing email asking for his password. We also know from the same emails that John Podesta lost his cellphone in a taxi on January 19, 2015; and that his password was “p@ssword.”
With leadership like that, the rest makes sense.
A point for the Left in all this: the DNC’s ideas are not only bad because they don’t advocate the social-democratic redistribution we would like to see — they are also bad because they don’t work at a purely technical level.
Their arrogance and contempt for the working class produced a flawed political theory, which in turn produced a bad strategy, which in turn produced a tactically inept ground game.
Too busy congratulating themselves and concurring with each other, the Clintonites couldn’t even get the rudiments of the campaign correct.