Did Hillary Clinton Lose the Presidency to Sexism?
In Short, no she did not. While it is true there was a small fragment of Americans that didn’t want a female president, the failure of her 2016 presidential bid was mainly due to poor campaign management. In fact, it was one of the most poorly run presidential campaigns in modern American history. Plagued by infighting, scandal, and poor strategy, the Clinton-Kaine campaign was doomed from the very start. However, one of the most significant errors made by the Clinton-Kaine campaign was their failure to connect with voters in the rust belt
The significance of the rust belt on the electoral map cannot be understated. Home to a slew of swing states, it is a battleground where both party candidates fight over electoral votes in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Illinois to secure the presidency. However, the true power of the rust belt wasn’t fully discovered until the 1992 victory of the Clinton- Gore presidential campaign.
Realizing the swing- ability of the rust belt and the combined 135 electoral votes the region had to offer, the Clinton- Gore campaign team embarked on aggressive, on the ground campaign tactics to win over the hearts of rust belt voters. The most notable of these tactics being the Clinton- Gore campaign’s made-for-television-bus tour that occurred in the summer of 1992.
At this time in politics, it was common practice in presidential campaign management to have the candidate fly from major city to city doing interviews with local T.V. stations, but out of a stroke of pure innovative genius, the Clinton- Gore campaign switched tactics. They theorized they would reach more voters if they did a bus tour through the states and stopped in big cities as well as towns that normally did not receive attention from presidential candidates, namely because they didn’t have airports. They tested their theory by inviting local reporters and T.V. stations to cover the stops on the tour, enticing them with “behind-the-scenes” sneak peaks of the bus tour and special scoops from the President and Vice- President themselves.
The fervor and excitement over the bus tour didn’t just allow the Clinton- Gore team to showcase their policies through the eyes of the rust belt news media, but it caused every movement by the bus caravan, and every action of Clinton, Gore and their wives to be monitored and reported on. The stops on the bus tour drew reporters, and subsequently voters, like moths to a flame, effectively making Clinton and Gore celebrities in 1992.
The Clinton- Gore campaign proved their theory correct: the bus tour was revolutionary. It was one of the most effective campaign strategies of the 20th century, and it is why most presidential campaigns still embark on bus tours to this day. As such, it was no surprise when Clinton won every single rust belt state in 1992, with the exception of Indiana, securing a slam dunk of a presidential victory. However, for the same reason campaign experts weren’t shocked when Bill won in 1992, they weren’t shocked when Hillary lost in 2016.
Aside from the exceptions of Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Clinton- Kaine campaign barely spent any time in the rust belt, a move that has been called “political malpractice” by pundits and experts, and rightfully so. What is particularly shocking about this failure was that Hillary’s campaign team knew they were not doing well in the rust belt, and they chose to do nothing about it.
Representative Debbie Dingell (D-MI) relayed to the Clinton-Kaine team with ferocity that rust belt voters were tuning against her, and the campaign needed to take action to secure Michigan. However, the cries for help were ignored, but why?
Part of Rep. Dingell’s warning to the Clinton-Kaine campaign came with advice that they needed to come out harder against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, as rust belt laborers feared further expansion of global trade would continue to cost them jobs. However, the campaign already knew that. Through polling, they had realized early on in the campaign that Hillary’s economic policies were not resonating with voters in the rust belt, as the messaging spoke highly of market globalization and free trade. The messaging was so bad that it was reported that Hillary complained about the messaging herself, but the messaging never changed, even though the campaign was facing similar issues in Wisconsin.
Robby Mook, Hillary’s campaign manager, believed their best strategy would be to rely on the proverbial, impenetrable “Blue Walls” that had been constructed in Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. After all, those states hadn’t gone red in over 20 years. Mook decided it was in the campaign’s best to hide Hillary from most of the rust belt. Instead of fixing her messaging, they hoped that “strong democrats” would overlook her economic policies and “vote blue no matter who.”
However, they didn’t anticipate Donald Trump pulling a page out of Bill Clinton’s campaign bible.
Following Bill Clinton’s strategies of touring, and then securing free air time with his ability to provoke the ire and obsession of reporters, Donald Trump made the 2016 campaign trail a reality T.V. show. Like Clinton and Gore in 1992, Trump was the most talked about celebrity of 2016.
However you view Trump, he had the nation’s attention, and he was campaigning in a region that had been losing thousands of manufacturing jobs due to labor being outsourced overseas. His promise to voters to “Make America Great Again” by combating free trade and therefore restoring jobs to the rust belt did resonate. Due to the media’s obsession with Trump, no one could escape his messaging. This is why the naivety of the Clinton-Kaine campaign relying on past history instead of present needs was so particularly lethal.
Not only was Trump’s messaging resonating, but the Clinton-Kaine campaign barely did anything to respond to Trump’s aggressive campaigning. They sat in silence as Trump engaged voters, costing her Michigan and Wisconsin. Her poor messaging also explained why she couldn’t even pull through in Ohio and Pennsylvania: at the end of the day, Trump was the only one promising voters to bring back American jobs.
What the Clinton- Kaine campaign failed to realize is a mistake made by many campaign managers. They believed Clinton was just a candidate, but in reality, the campaign was a business and she was their brand. Just like a company, in order to sell your products, you have to make sure what you are selling gives consumers value. More importantly, you have to communicate that value to consumers.
For example, let’s say you are the owner of an ice cream shop that has been in town for 20 years. Sales have always been good, but recently you switched to a new cream supplier, and as a result, the quality of your ice cream isn’t as good as it was. Customers are starting to notice, believing your reputation will carry you through a decrease in sales, you decide not to worry about switching suppliers immediately, believing your reputation will carry you through a decrease in sales. You also decide that to save additional revenues to switch suppliers in the future, you should cut back on advertising, especially since less people are likely to find out about the drop in quality, if they don’t know about it. However, this strategy will leave you open for a competitor to move into the market and steal your customers, which is exactly what happened to the Clinton- Kaine campaign.
Instead of selling ice cream, the Clinton- Kaine team was selling policy ideas. When they realized their customers didn’t believe their policies offered them value, they cut back on advertising and relied on the reputation of the democratic party to carry them through the election. This allowed Trump to enter into the market and put the Clinton- Kaine campaign out of business. He did in fact have tastier ice cream to offer.
This is why it is important to ensure that the people running your campaign have the experience to design tactical and innovative voter outreach strategies based on messaging that is polling well with voters. Had Robby Mook decided to fix Clinton’s messaging and aggressively pursue voters in the rust belt, 2016 may have turned out differently. However, the failure to connect with rust belt voters, in combination with the destruction of Hillary Clinton’s brand nationwide, cost the presidential hopeful her dream of sitting in the oval office (but we’ll talk about that more in part two).
If you are thinking about running for office, it is critical to make sure your messaging not only has value to voters, but also reaches them. The best way to ensure this happens is to hire a campaign team that is well- versed in branding and voter outreach strategies. Here at RPC we specialize in doing just that. If you want a campaign manager that can help lead you to victory, reach out today.