Ten Reasons Why Donald Trump Won and Hillary Clinton Lost


1.  The historical context favored Trump.  Clinton's candidacy was seen as largely advancing a continuation of President Obama policies or, as shorthand put it, "a third Obama term."  The last time a Democrat was elected on his own to succeed another Democrat occurred in 1856 when James Buchanan succeeded Franklin Pierce (this excludes Harry Truman and LBJ, who both ascended to the White House following the deaths of the incumbent presidents).  For Republicans, Vice President George H.W. Bush was elected to succeed Ronald Reagan in 1988 and Herbert Hoover followed Calvin Coolidge in 1928. (+)  The 2016 election occurred when President Obama's job approval ratings were peaking (53-percent according to Gallup (>).  Obama and Vice President Biden put in unprecedented work on the campaign trail on behalf of Clinton (+), but Clinton was the establishment candidate, and the pendulum swung to change.

2.  Trump proved to be the better candidate.  This was a race between and "unfit" candidate and an "unlikeable" candidate1; both candidates had significant flaws.  Robert Deutsch's analysis that a successful candidate should convey three attributes is useful here.  Deutsch argues the candidate needs to be seen by a voter as being like him or her (in other words the voter needs to be able to relate to or connect with the candidate), caring for him or her, and more powerful than him or her (that is able to solve problems) (+).  One this last point, Trump likely had an edge with his argument that as a businessman he would be able to tackle the nation's problems where traditional politicians have failed, although his temperament raised questions about his ability to govern effectively.

Focusing on the first attribute, the question of whether a typical voter could relate to the candidate, neither candidate fared particularly well.  Trump, a billionaire, lived in a skyscraper in Manhattan; Clinton, the former First Lady and Secretary of State, had moved around in bubble for years; she noted in 2014, for example, that the last time she drove a car was in 1996. 

Two related attributes come into play here: authenticity and trustworthiness.  Very importantly Trump came across as the more authentic candidate.  Trump did have one trait in common with many Americans; he is junk food aficionado.  More seriously, despite all the charges leveled at Trump (racist, misogynistic, unfit...), despite the fact that he was prone to making occasional outrageous, offensive and over-the-top statements or Tweets, and despite the fact that he had never served in public office or the military, he was an engaging figure who seemed to say what he thought.  Trump's persona was such that he brazenly rode out the furor over the Hollywood Access outtakes (+), which led even members of his own party to call for him to withdraw from the race.  A longstanding critique of Clinton, seen also in her 2007-08 campaign, was that she is unlikeable and an "awful campaigner."  Clinton was indeed a highly scripted candidate, and that came across.  There were all too few unscripted moments in Clinton's campaign.  If she had gone out of her comfort zone, and made unannounced stops in diners to schmooze with ordinary voters a la Joe Biden she might have made some mistakes but also been a stronger candidate.  Clinton was the opposite of a glib politician, and never was able to shake the questions over her paid speeches or her emails; she was seen to be hiding something.  Meanwhile Trump showed little regard for the truth, had been involved in a number of  shady business dealings, and did not adhere to basic campaign norms such as releasing his tax returns, yet he was able to pin the "crooked Hillary" label on Clinton and make it stick.

Some have argued that the fact that Clinton was a woman contributed to her defeat.  Indeed that is the main premise of Susan Bordo's book The Destruction of Hillary Clinton.  Certainly there were instances where sexism and miscogyny came into playTrump's "nasty woman" comment during the third debate comes immediately to mindbut Clinton's problem was not that she was a woman, but that she was a woman with baggage.

Finally, regardless of what one thinks of the man or his views, Trump really worked the campaign, doing rally after rally.  Compare, for example, his level of activity to Clinton's in the closing week; one forgets that Trump was actually the older candidate. 

A campaign organization can compensate for some of a candidates' deficiencies.  Clinton had in most respects a far better campaign organizationdeep, thoroughly professional, highly educatedwhile the Trump campaign often seemed held together with tape and string.  Countless stories were written about the deficiencies of Trump's ground game.  If Clinton lacked pizazz her campaign certainly recruited a raft of celebrities to hit the trail for her, but ultimately it is the candidate that matters.  Trump's seemingly ramshackle campaign prevailed because he was the stronger candidate.

3.  The Clinton campaign did not provide a clear enough rationale for voters to vote for her.   The campaign and its allies (+) highlighted a lot of reasons for voters to reject Trump, hammering away at his many deficiencies, but the campaign's main message, that it offered a more positive and inclusive vision, that we are "stronger together" and that "love trumps hate" were nice sentiments but somewhat meaningless (+).  The campaign had an impressive policy shop and introduced myriad policy proposals from start to finish but didn't bring them together as well as it might have.  Some more specifics, such as what a Clinton administration would do in its first hundred days might have been helpful in the closing argument instead of the amorphous "stronger together."  Another rallying theme was the historical nature of Clinton's candidacy as potentially the first women president; this no doubt motivated some people to vote, but gender alone is not a sufficient reason for most people to vote.  The country had already elected the first black president with mixed results.

4.  The campaign revealed the shortcomings of identity politics.  The Clinton team did seemingly everything possible to court African-American and Latino voters, working hard to ensure that members of these groups were well represented among the campaign staff, and including in her message elements such calls for a "path to full and equal citizenship" on immigration and her highlighting of the "Mothers of the Movement" to appeal to black voters.  This was true from the very beginning of her campaign; her announcement video (+) included individuals representative of most major Democratic constituency groups: women, seniors, Latinos, African-Americans, youth, gays, Asian-Americans, working moms, and blue collar workers [a disability advocacy group pointed out that the campaign had neglected to included any disabled people (+)].  Meanwhile Donald Trump's efforts to appeal to these groups were awkward, clumsy and inelegant at best— indeed some observers opined that they were actually intended to assuage white voters—but he kept at them (1, 2, 3).  While the Clinton campaign was pitching to blacks and Latinos, rural voters did not hear much from the Democrats, and that showed in the results.  AP reported in Dec. 2016 that Clinton carried just 487 counties to 2,626 counties that went for Trump.  Despite the Clinton campaign's outreach efforts to minority communities, the black voter turnout rate declined and the Latino voter turnout rate was a tad lower than in 2012, while white voter turnout increased (>)2.

5.  Donald Trump successfully appealed to faith voters despite his shortcomings in this area.  During the primary campaign Sen. Ted Cruz, a favorite of Christian conservatives, characterized Trump as "utterly amoral" and a "serial philanderer."  Trump was not a regular churchgoer.  However, many members of the conservative faith community had deep concerns about what Clinton's win would mean for the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Trump's pick of Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate helped cement his support in this constituency.

6.  Immigration was a winning issue for Trump.  Trump launched his campaign pledging to build a wall and denigrating Mexicans.  Throughout the campaign Trump played into people's fears of the other, of the country turning brown, of terrorism.  Most famously in Dec. 2015 he called for a complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.  The Clinton campaign seriously mishandled the immigration issue.  When talking about immigration Clinton always mentioned a "path to citizenship" but largely did not discuss other aspects of the immigration question such as the people who have been trying to immigrate legally, or border enforcement (other than the fact that she supported border enforcement when she was in the Senate) or the appropriate level of immigration.   While she promised action in the first 100  days, details were in short supply.  An attempt to address the different facets of the issue  would have demonstrated leadership, but Clinton's approach seemed like a pander to win Latino votes.  The Clinton campaign also did not effectively respond to Trump's criticism that she wanted a 500-percent increase in the number of Syrian refugees (>).  The Trump campaign's attack on this went largely unanswered.  Clinton's immigration stance may have been pushed to the left during the primary contest with O'Malley and Sanders.  Although the Brexit vote in June in the United Kingdom gave a warning of the power of the immigration issue, the campaign did not adjust.

7.  The Clinton campaign's over-reliance on analytical models blinded it to late changes.  This was a campaign that broke the rules.  With no experience in elective office Donald Trump was able to defeat a large Republican field and emerge as the GOP nominee.  The success of such a non-traditional candidate and campaign should have raised red flags at headquarters in Brooklyn: be very careful about models and the assumptions upon which they are based.  Instead, as was reported later, the campaign actually dispensed with track­ing polls in a num­ber of states dur­ing the last month.  The models determined the deployment of resources.3  In Wisconsin, for example, Clinton did not make a single post-primary visit despite having lost the primary to Bernie Sanders, and she ended up losing the state.  The campaign has been roundly criticized for making a play in Arizona, while states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania "got away" from Clinton.  The Clinton campaign trumpeted success in early voting (+) only to be crushed by Election Day turnout for Trump in a number of states.  In contrast, the Trump campaign seemed at times to be guided by instinct.  The campaign made the decision to contest states such as Michigan and Pennsylvania, which seemed likely to end up in the blue column, and it stayed with that strategy despite the naysayers, putting in resources and making visits.

8.  August and the first two weeks of September.  Candidates often take off some time in August, and August is a time when candidates do a lot of fundraising (example, Romney in 2012), but Clinton's August schedule was far too skewed towards hobnobbing with donors in Beverly Hills and the Hamptons rather than meeting with regular voters (compare Clinton | Trump).  If August was a problem, the first two weeks of September were perhaps the most damaging to the Clinton's prospects of any point in the campaign.  Clinton's coughing episode in Cleveland on Sept. 5 and her wobbly departure from the 9/11 memorial service in New York put into sharp focus the question of her health, something that Trump and his allies had been raising for months but that the campaign and most in the media had dismissed.  Clinton's doctor had diagnosed pneumonia on Sept. 9, but she pressed on.  One must admire her determination, but not her judgment.  That very evening at a big LGBT fundraiser in New York, Clinton made a classic gaffe, stating, "To just be grossly generalistic, you can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables ...(+)"  How damaging that remark was can be debated, but there is no doubt that the video (>) of the unsteady Clinton being helped into her Scooby van after leaving the 9/11 event had a very detrimental effect.

9.  Emails.  Clinton has pointed to FBI Director James Comey's October 28 letter to congressional leaders as a major reason for her defeat.4  The fact that Comey followed with an exculpatory letter on November 6 did not help matters.  There is no doubt Comey's initial letter reintroduced a very awkward subject to the discourse and at very sensitive time, a time when the campaigns were making their closing arguments and millions of people were doing early voting.  Effectively the finish line was in sight and Clinton hit a bump.  But Clinton should surely bear some of the blame for setting up a questionable email system in the beginning.  Complete disclosure of the emails, while embarrassing in the short term, might have saved a lot of trouble for her as the campaign progressed. 

Wikileaks releases also contributed to Clinton's defeat, broadly feeding in to the email theme.5  First there were the DNC emails (44,053 emails and 17,761 attachments from Jan. 2015-May 25, 2016 released starting on July 22, 2016, just before the the Democratic National Convention) which led to the resignation of DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. bThen on October 7, conveniently about an hour after the Access Hollywood story broke, Wikileaks released a first batch of what eventually totaled more than 50,000 emails from the personal account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.  Although there were no particularly damaging revelations, the Democrats seemed to be careless with their emails, and it did not help Clinton's campaign to have a lot of dirty laundry floating around. 

10.  "We're going to win this."  Tim Kaine's words at a fundraiser at United Talent Agency headquarters in Beverly Hills on September 20 sum up the conventional wisdom throughout the Fall campaign.  The expectation was that Clinton would win.  How could she lose to the unfit Trump, a political novice?  Trump didn't even seem to be able to run a campaign.  He had a very uneven convention, his second campaign manager Paul Manafort had quit on August 19, there were widespread reports about the deficiencies of the Trump campaign's ground game, and  Democrats and their allies were markedly outspending the Republican side on television.  Then, to top it all off, on October 7 the Access Hollywood outtakes story broke.  A blowout win seemed quite possible.  The inevitability mindset colored some of the decision-making at Clinton headquarters in Brooklyn, leading her campaign to make mistakes, for example with rash decisions on ad buying3, while it was also playing it safe when it came to the substance of its message in the home stretch (+).

This page started on Nov. 9, 2016 and last revised on Aug. 23, 2017; also note added Nov. 5, 2017.

1. Given the unpopularity of both candidates, the 2016 campaign might have offered the perfect opportunity for an independent or third-party candidate.  The American political system places formidable obstacles to non-major party candidates, but Ross Perot's 1992 candidacy showed that a credible alternative candidate can heighten interest in the race.  The strongest potential alternative candidate, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, ruled out a run on March 7.  The Libertarian nominee, former Gov. Gary Johnson, had hopes of presenting a serious challenge to the major party nominees, but his campaign did not gel and his hopes vanished when he failed to make the cut for the debates.

2. Thom File. "Voting in America: A Look at the 2016 Presidential Election."  U.S. Census Bureau, May 10, 2017.

3. See for example: Jim Tankersley.  "The advertising decisions that helped doom Hillary Clinton."  The Washington Post, Nov. 12, 2016

4. Mark Murray.  "12 Days That Stunned a Nation: How Hillary Clinton Lost."  NBC News, Aug. 23, 2017.

5. As became clearer after the election, Russian interference may well have tipped the balance to Trump.

Pollster Stanley Greenberg has written one of the best concise analyses of "How She Lost" in an excellent article for American Prospect magazine.  Greenberg identifies four major flaws with the Clinton campaign, describing them as "malpractice."   He cites "the Clinton campaign’s over-dependence on technical analytics; its failure to run campaigns to win the battleground states; the decision to focus on the rainbow base and identity politics at the expense of the working class; and the failure to address the candidate’s growing 'trust problem' or to learn from events and reposition."  See Stanley Greenberg.  "How She Lost."  American Prospect, Sept. 21, 2017.