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A very popular politician from a small New England state, a liberal icon in the Senate, runs a bruising, passionate primary campaign against the party's establishment favorite. He claims the "inevitable" choice of the party is too centrist, insufficiently liberal, weak. He pursues his insurgency campaign to the bitter end but fails to win a majority of primaries. Feelings are hurt all around, and the challenger and his followers dispute the results claiming he was cheated by the winner's insider cronies and a rigged primary system. At the national convention, the challenger seeks to change the rules to free up delegates pledged to the primary winner. There is even talk of drafting an "anybody but" the winner candidate. Eventually, though, in a grudging show of party unity, the challenger endorses his opponent—but in a less-than-wholehearted manner. And many of his followers vow they will never vote for the nominee. During the general election, the challenger's fervent, die hard supporters fail to support the party's nominee enthusiastically and do not show up in numbers to vote for the party's nominee. Ultimately (and partially due to third party candidacy support) the Democrat suffers a devastating loss to an outsider Republican in an election that resounds for a generation.
Does this narrative sound familiar? It should. The year was 1980. The establishment candidate was incumbent President Jimmy Carter. The liberal lion was, of course, Teddy Kennedy. John Anderson was the third party candidate, and Ronald Reagan was the eventual winner.
It is a fair narrative summary of the 2016 election as well—with, of course, some minor differences.
This was not, however, the narrative the Hillary Clinton campaign wanted to convey. After the conventions, I laid out my analysis of both campaigns' strategies, tactics, and messages.
In a nutshell, Clinton's was what I call an "all things to all people" campaign strategy. She used demographic data to microtarget various and diverse constituencies, deploying multiple surrogates to reach out to the groups she felt she needed to win. She aimed for a broad middle of the spectrum, believing she could attract some moderate or centrist Democrats and Republicans who, along with a growing Democrat base, would propel her to the Presidency. And, in fact, she won the popular vote by some 2.8 million votes—48.2% to 46.1%—but lost the Electoral College vote.
Her plan was derailed, somewhat, by having to cater to the Sanders primary insurgency, however. She capitulated to the policy demands of Sanders and his base—by some counts on nine out of ten key issues. But still they found reasons—often niggling—to reject her: for example, she's not trustworthy on TPP, she's in league with interventionist neo-Con hawks, she's in bed with neo-Liberal globalist economists.
Their lack of enthusiasm for her caused her to have to devote campaign resources to shoring up voters to her left; this took away from her targeting efforts aimed toward the moderate center. Simple subtraction; limited resources. And it was some 50,000 votes (less than 3% of her popular vote victory margin) in three battleground, rust belt states—Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania—that sealed her defeat in the Electoral College.
Clearly, when you try to be all things to all people, you are going to create tensions among diverse sets of constituents. If you appeal to the socialist left, you are going to alienate moderate conservatives. If you try to appeal to rational centrists, you are going to lose radicals and extremists. It is inevitable.
It is arguable that had Clinton not been forced to target wavering or lukewarm or rejectionist Sanders supporters in an effort to shore up her left flank, she might have been able to devote more precious campaign resources to target these working class areas. Arguable but by no means certain. It is, likewise, arguable that if she had sought to appease these Rust Belt, blue collar voters, she would have been vulnerable elsewhere. This is mere speculation, however. I will leave it to others, insiders with more empirical data and actual knowledge of the campaign's resource allocations, to determine whether Sanders poisoned the waters for her the way Ted Kennedy did for Jimmy Carter; but, nevertheless, from the outside, the narrative parallels are striking.