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Has The Hillary Clinton Campaign Been Lucky Or Good?

In this week’s politics chat, we talk about whether Hillary Clinton has run a “good” campaign. The transcript below has been lightly edited.


micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, everyone. Today’s topic: Has Hillary Clinton’s campaign been lucky or good? Or, if both, in what proportions? For instance, you could describe the election so far like so:

  1. Hillary Clinton was such a formidable candidate that she cleared most of the field for the Democratic primary. Her main opponent, Bernie Sanders, fell behind in the delegate race in the third contest and never recovered. Then, once she was the nominee, she opened up a pretty big lead over Donald Trump despite the fundamentals suggesting the race should be close or should even favor the GOP slightly.

Or, you could summarize the election to date thusly:

  1. Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary by default. Her main opponent was a 74-year-old Democratic socialist, from Vermont, and he still managed to get 43 percent of the vote. Now, she’s running against perhaps the worst presidential nominee in modern history and isn’t even leading him by that much.

So, which is it?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): To a first approximation, No. 1 is true for the primary and No. 2 is true for the general election.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Hah. It’s No. 2.

natesilver: Abso-fucking-lootley not No. 2 in the primary

clare.malone: You don’t think she was helped in some measure by the fact that Sanders struck a lot of Democrats as attractive but fundamentally untenable? Also, Nate segmented this out! I think if we’re going to pick a sweeping “good or lucky” she is more lucky.

natesilver: First of all, she deserves 100 percent credit for clearing the field of candidates other than Sanders. That reflects her formidability as a candidate, not just luck.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Yeah, Clinton was a strong primary candidate. The reason no one ran against her was because she locked down support from a majority of the party leaders before the primary started. That made it difficult for any opponent to gain a foothold.

But it’s not only that. When her back was against the wall, she won. Consider the state of Nevada. If Sanders had won there, it could have created at least a momentary disaster for Clinton. But Clinton used her connection with Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, ensured the casino workers got time off to caucus, and won the caucuses by about 5 percentage points. That’s not lucky. That’s good.

natesilver: And the Bernie constituency consisted of people who are by and large not Democratic base voters. Instead, lots of independents and young voters. Those voters might be important to the future of the Democratic Party and/or the future of left-wing politics, and it was really impressive that Sanders was able to mobilize them. But Clinton crushed Sanders with the voters she needed to win.

micah: OK, but you think she’s gotten lucky in the general? Hasn’t she run a pretty top-notch campaign?

natesilver: Hold on, shouldn’t we talk about the primary more? Because I think the conventional wisdom is that she had a close call in the primary and was lucky to survive it.

micah: I don’t think we should talk about the primary that much … it’s over, and has been for a while.

harry: FIGHT FIGHT FIGHT.

clare.malone: I was under the impression we were talking about the general the whole time.

micah: Also, we already wrote about how the Democratic primary wasn’t all that close.

natesilver: Just wanted to get Sanders fans mad at us one more time, for old time’s sake.

clare.malone: Clinton is lucky in the general election in the sense that if she were running against a regular Republican candidate, she would be in the news a whooooole lot more for her email foibles. As it stands, she gets off the hook a lot because Trump has some campaign shakeup or does something out of the blue to take attention away from Clinton. And that’s obvious, but I think it’s a huge factor this year. She can disappear for a couple days at a time.

micah: Totally agree. I think the email thing is the clearest example of her not running a good campaign. They’ve handled that very poorly.

natesilver: You mean Clinton handled her emails poorly (agree) or the campaign’s handled the issue poorly (not as clear)?

micah: Both.

clare.malone: I think they have handled it poorly, yeah. The campaign hasn’t helped her hone her answer about the emails, or to be apologetic in any genuine way. I just think it’s a failure of crisis management in a major way.

micah: Clare and I are on the same page (the correct page). What’s the argument that they haven’t totally botched the email issue?

natesilver: I think she was going to get shit about it either way. “It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” is one of those political clichés that political reporters think to be true, but which actually isn’t true a lot of the time. And it’s partly because they can judge the campaign’s handling of a problem as sort of a performance, whereas the underlying issue requires deeper reporting and analysis.

clare.malone: Uh, I think the deeper analysis concluded that her activities were irresponsible and unethical?

harry: Most voters think Clinton has not been honest with how she handled the email situation. In fact, 64 percent in the recent Monmouth poll said so. That speaks to her handling of the controversy more than her handling of the emails. And just 38 percent in the most recent ABC News/Washington Post polls say Clinton is honest and trustworthy overall.

natesilver: But I’m saying that her sins were committed as secretary of state, and alternate ways of handling it on the campaign might not have mattered very much. There are also lots of other Clinton “trust” issues, like the Clinton Foundation and her paid speeches and — for her Republican critics — Benghazi.

micah: Even so, I still think the fact that her answers on the email issue haven’t really improved in a year — whether improved answers would make a difference or not — goes in the “not a great campaign” category.

natesilver: But what’s the “right” answer on email?

micah: “I messed up. It won’t happen again.” FULL STOP

natesilver: Micah, I watched the Anthony Weiner documentary the other day. And when he began running for New York City mayor, that’s exactly what he did. I messed up, full stop.

And by the way, he was running close to the top of the polls for a while.

micah: And wasn’t it working until new transgressions came to light?

natesilver: Right. And the contrition was a disaster, because the story was ongoing.

micah: OK, Nate, but then that precedent only holds if Clinton is currently doing something similar, emailwise.

harry: Let this be a lesson: Don’t take pictures of your naked self and send it to other folks. This goes for all of you out there.

clare.malone: I think the “right” answer for other candidates if they had an email problem would be really opening up on a different front — trying to sell a narrative of the candidate as a full human being, a person with a great personal story. A person who can command a crowd. Clinton can’t or won’t do that. She has basically made it clear that we only get to know her so much, and in some ways I think that inaccessibility (which is central to her persona now) has made the emails worse than it would for another candidate.

harry: Could it be argued that Clinton has run a good campaign, but isn’t a good candidate?

clare.malone: Yes.

micah: Interesting. I think that’s right, although — and this is my personal opinion — I think the things that make Clinton a “bad” candidate are mostly not within her control and largely gender-related (i.e., sexism).

clare.malone: Some for sure, but not all.

micah: Not all. But the hatred of Clinton is hard to explain otherwise.

clare.malone: I think her issues with the press date back to her husband and obviously, I suppose, a lot of her mistrust of the media centers around her feeling buffeted around by them, stereotyped as nontraditional … OK, maybe the root causes are a lot of gender stuff!

But she still decided to develop calluses rather than try to start anew with her persona. She sort of retreated into this world with a lot of locks and keys around her, and voters are smart enough to know that she’s been living this way for a long time.

natesilver: It might be worth considering Clinton’s poor ratings among millennials. If they liked her as much as they liked President Obama, she’d be running — I haven’t run the math so I’m estimating — at about break-even favorables instead of being more than 10 points underwater.

harry: Here’s what I know: Clinton currently has a favorable rating around 43 percent, and she is winning rather easily. That, to me, indicates that she’s doing something right. Part of that may be that Republicans selected Trump. Fine, OK. But she also raised a ton of money and has spent it wisely.

micah: So, would she be losing against another, more traditional Republican?

clare.malone: I mean, I think that was John Kasich’s whole argument for his existence in the race, right? That he was a general election threat, even though he couldn’t get out of the primary cage match alive.

harry: I think Kasich would be doing better than Trump, but Kasich too would have faced an onslaught of ads from the Clinton campaign.

natesilver: It’s impossible to prove, but yeah, I tend to think a race against a different, non-insane Republican would be a toss-up, although Kasich would have a nice advantage from having a big home-state effect in Ohio. Not all that many politicians have been through the ringer and survived with above-average favorability ratings these days. Kasich — like Sanders — benefited from sort of being this hypothetical candidate that nobody really had reason to scrutinize too closely.

clare.malone: Yes … I mean, to go back to our initial question, is she more lucky or good, the woman is currently leading the polls by a pretty steep margin; this is just a thing that wouldn’t have happened without Trump. This election has taken on contours that default to her advantage. She would be fighting really hard right now if it were a moderate Republican.

micah: Here’s another test: If Clinton vs. a generic Republican would be a toss-up, how about Trump vs. a generic Democrat?

natesilver: I guess I’d just say that Clinton won her primary big and now it looks like she’s going to win the general election, possibly also big. And, by the way, she’s going to be the first woman in American history to accomplish this in 240 years of the republic.

Obviously, she’s helped by the presence of Trump in the race. But I think the burden of proof is sort of on the lucky side.

clare.malone: I mean, she’s been good in the sense that, she’s qualified as hell. She’s just not a natural at campaigns.

micah: Yeah, obviously you can’t become president without being both lucky and good. That’s doubly or triply true for a woman trying to become the first female president.

clare.malone: Right.

micah: So, is this whole line of questioning sexist?

clare.malone: No. I don’t think anything is that black and white — when we say “is she good or lucky?” we’re talking about as a campaigner, as a political character. She’s obviously qualified.

BUT

I think we do have to acknowledge that when we say that Clinton is a historically disliked candidate (as measured by her unfavorables), she’s historically disliked in no small part because she’s lived a life antithetical to what a lot of Americans expect out of women. She’s not here to make you feel good and cuddly — she’s a woman of ambition who makes a lot of men feel emasculated, quite frankly (and to be clear, that’s their problem).

She’s also, in the past, not done a great job about waving the flag for choice feminism (remember that comment about baking cookies? You can be damn sure she offended a lot of stay-at-home moms … and their now-adult kids who were grateful for those moms). In short (though this is long for a chat) Hillary Clinton is not a woman who’s lived a life amenable to anything other than a complicated retelling of it; she’s lived a lot of shades of gray. But I think she’s lived a remarkable life — as have most candidates for president, regardless of gender.

But yes, to distill it: A lot of people hate women who have their shit together.

harry: I want to build off of what Clare said. Let’s take a look at Clinton’s candidate record: She cleared the Democratic field in her 2000 Senate race. Then Rudy Giuliani, citing health concerns, left the race after Clinton took a lead in the polls. Clinton then beat Rick Lazio by double digits. In 2006, Clinton won re-election by more than 35 percentage points. Then in 2008, she lost to perhaps the greatest politician of our era in Obama and actually got more votes than he did. This year, Clinton cleared the Democratic field and now she leads Trump by a considerable margin in the key swing states. To me, she’s either the luckiest politician since Chris Coons or she may actually be pretty damn good.

natesilver: I think she’s definitely very fortunate to have drawn Trump as an opponent, but otherwise I think she’s underrated as a politician. And I don’t necessarily buy that she’d be losing to Kasich or Marco Rubio or Mitt Romney right now, although that’s a whole ’nother discussion.

Obviously if she loses to Trump, though — still a chance of that — we’ll need to revisit our assessment. And same probably goes if she only wins by a point or two.

micah: Final thoughts?

clare.malone: Just one thing for the road: It’s an interesting thing that people seem to like Clinton a lot more when she’s not running for office. She was seen as a pretty good secretary of state.

micah: Yeah, Clare, to me that’s pretty clear evidence of 1. Sexism (resistance to an ambitious woman, as you were saying), and 2. Clinton’s clumsiness as a campaigner.

clare.malone: So, she’s good at politics … just not great at campaigns, and I would say that a big reason behind that is because in campaigns you have to be a little confessional. I’m sympathetic to not wanting to tell the world some scripted version of your emotional interior. Which is why I will never run for office!

But also … she should have more press conferences. That is my move of solidarity with journalists out embedding with the Clinton campaign.

natesilver: But she also doesn’t satisfy the media’s itch for making news every day. She’s sort of playing a long game, in somewhat the same way that Obama did. (Although — let’s be clear — the media is/was VERY fond of Obama, for the most part.)

On the press conference thing — I mean, I think it’s fair to say that the Clintons have this habit of pushing boundaries when it isn’t necessarily smart or rational to do so. Like, why give all those speeches on Wall Street when you know you’re going to run for president? You don’t need the money. All of that seems incredibly stubborn.

But I’m not sure if it has to do with her campaign per se.

harry: I mean Clinton has flaws like many other people, but she looks like she’s about to do what 16 other Republicans couldn’t do, and do it rather easily.

clare.malone: Unless Wikileaks wikileaks something bad?

natesilver: Harry, we were right last summer when we said Trump would be in trouble once the field winnowed!

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is the politics editor.

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