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Is Hillary Clinton Right About Why She Lost?

In this week’s politics chat, we talk about Hillary Clinton’s new book. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today’s chat topic: The media reaction to Hillary Clinton’s new book, released on Tuesday, “What Happened.”

We’re going to do this in two parts. First, we’ll talk about how the media has covered Clinton’s book. Then we’ll go through the various factors that Clinton points to in the book to explain her loss in 2016.

Sound good?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): So we’re covering the coverage of the coverage? Got it.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): We will tell you WHAT HAPPENED — no question mark.

micah: The headline for this will be WTF Happened!

OK, so first up: How would you describe the general coverage of Clinton’s book? As an opener (and Clare has talked about this): I’ve been struck by how much coverage there’s been of the very fact that she wrote a book.

clare.malone: Yeah, I tweeted about this.

But I’ll say again here: People who are out there saying that she should go quietly into the night are sort of being intellectually dishonest about what happens after campaigns. She was one of the major players in the election, she’s entitled to her telling of things, she is the Democrat who got more votes, so she represents a sizable ideological chunk of the party, etc. etc. etc.

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): I expected there would be a lot of coverage. There are lots of reporters who covered her. Lots of opportunity for reporters who have slammed President Trump to now slam Clinton to show that they are balanced, will criticize both sides, etc.

clare.malone: Yeah, it’s totally fashionable to slam her on Twitter in a way that I do understand — she’s been around a long time, etc. But it’s out of whack.

natesilver: Are we talking about coverage of Clinton overall? Or, like, reviews of the book itself?

micah: Well, the latter has ballooned into the former, right?

natesilver: On the latter front, The New York Times published a review that was fairly gracious — considering that Clinton (mostly deservedly, IMO) criticized the NYT a lot in the book. Although, that review mostly sidestepped the media criticism parts of Clinton’s book, I think that this quote from Clinton — via Brian Stelter — gets at a key dynamic here:

micah: Clinton’s book may be a more accurate 2016 postmortem than most media postmortems.

Before we get to what the book itself lays out, though: How much of the “why won’t Clinton go away?” convo would be happening if Clinton were a man?

That has felt to me like it infuses a lot of the chatter surrounding the book.

clare.malone: Yeah, so I have some thoughts! Some of it has to do with political reporters explicitly; she’s been around a long time, it’s fashionable to hate her, etc. And I think she gets less respect from political reporters than say, John McCain or John Kerry did in the aftermaths of their campaigns. Female reporters play into this too.

But, in part, that’s because politics in general and political journalism in particular has a really … how you say? … masculine energy.

It picks up the inherent biases that we all have — women included — from being shaped in a patriarchal culture.

micah: I mean, Al Gore made a freaking movie after he lost and no one was like, “Why is he making this movie?” (At least, as far as I can remember.)

And Gore is a good comp because he too won the popular vote.

natesilver: There’s something about the overlap between Clinton being representative of the establishment — she is nobody’s idea of an underdog — and her being a woman makes it especially tough for her.

perry: The “she should not write a book because she is distracting from the Democrats’ strategy” crowd is making such a dumb argument that it’s not really worth debating it.

micah: A lot of the criticism of the book goes something like “Clinton is blaming everyone else for her losing” instead of taking responsibility. Now, she very much does take responsibility for losing in the book. But she also points to other factors that helped Trump and hurt her.

clare.malone: “natesilver is typing”

natesilver: That criticism is such a dumb argument that it’s not really worth debating it.

To repeat the quote I linked to above, the media doesn’t want to debate the reasons for Clinton losing because it potentially makes them look really bad. Or some of them, anyway, since there was a lot of variation in how Clinton was covered from outlet to outlet.

micah: Let’s take this tweet from a Washington Examiner reporter:

clare.malone: It’s the tenor of these tweets that are the problem. Because, to use a favorite Nate Silver metaphor, it takes a lot of things to go wrong in order for a plane to crash.

micah: How dare Clinton do a reasonable postmortem on the 2016 election instead of nailing herself to a cross!

clare.malone: “Blame” vs. “causes of loss” are tonally different.

natesilver: Yeah. Tweets like these are implicitly (or sometimes explicitly) mocking Clinton for blaming all these other factors, apart from herself. And yet, if you look at the list — it’s a pretty darned good list! A lot of those factors were really important!

clare.malone: So, I used to be a fact-checker, and one of the things we would do when we would call around and make sure information was correct was include the context of a quote in a piece, give a person a fair shot at saying, “Hmm, that could be out of context.” And that’s what is really irritating about this kind of coverage — it’s really disingenuous to say she’s not taking responsibility AND it makes the discussion dumber and more boring.

micah: Co-sign.

But let’s go through each of the reasons for Clinton’s defeat listed in that tweet and answer this question: How big of a factor was this?

natesilver: Do we want to use a scale? Like 1 to 5?

perry: Can I reject the premise of this scale and propose my own? (kidding)

micah: lol

OK, first up: “The audacious information warfare waged from the Kremlin.”

There’s been some recent reporting fleshing out the extent to which Russia was playing a media game.

perry: 4. I feel like the whole Russian interference, the release of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s hacked e-mails was a huge factor in October. Maybe a 5 even.

Podesta’s emails were covered massively.

clare.malone: There’s almost two levels to this, right?

  1. The effect of media coverage.
  2. The effect that Russian interference/hacking/bots or whatever might have had on influencing disinformation to voters, etc.

micah: Yeah, we probably have to include the media’s amplifying effects for each of these.

clare.malone: I would agree with Perry that it was important from that email coverage angle.

natesilver: I’d say more like a 2.5 or a 3, on the Kremlin.

perry: Interesting. Say more, Nate.

natesilver: It’s certainly hard to prove the connection, in part because it may have occurred in a lot of small ways, not all of which are necessarily uncovered yet.

Harry wrote about this in December.

clare.malone: I’m not sure that we know enough yet to know how influential the bots actually were in changing votes.

micah: But it being hard to measure doesn’t mean it didn’t have a big effect.

That’s some version of the availability heuristic, right? We’re assigning importance to the things we happen to be able to measure well.

natesilver: I mean, I agree. And giving it a 2.5 or 3 isn’t saying it’s nothing.

clare.malone: Now I’m interested to see what Nate gives a 5.

natesilver: I’m just saying — there are a lot of things that had a much clearer effect on the outcome.

clare.malone: Yes, I agree.

natesilver: Some of which are also … problematic. Problematic in the sense of implicating other people’s judgment.

clare.malone: But this is the problem with numbers! (She says to numbers people.)

micah: Clare has always hated numbers.

clare.malone: There are some squishy things that affected people in this election that we can’t quantify.

natesilver: Russia could have been a 1.5, or it could have been a 4.5. I suppose we don’t know. Maybe we’ll never know.

clare.malone: Nate’s gonna give the Comey letter a 5.

micah: Speaking of … next: “The unprecedented intervention in our election by the director of the FBI.”

Nate: 5

natesilver: 4.5

micah: lol

clare.malone: Contrarian

perry: 5

natesilver: It was a big deal. And because it was a discrete event — it happened at one time — it’s relatively easy to measure.

There’s still a range of impacts, from maybe 1 percentage point of the national popular vote on the low end to 3 or 4 points on the high end. But you really have to twist yourself into a pretzel to conclude that the impact wasn’t large enough to cost Clinton the election.

clare.malone: I cosign with the above views.

natesilver: With that said, if the impact was only like 2 points in the polls — that was enough to swing a close election, obviously, but it also isn’t that large. Clinton’s gender could have had a larger impact, for instance. But that’s harder to quantify.

micah: We’ll get to that!

OK, next: “A political press that told voters that my emails were the most important story.”

For context, from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard, here’s the amount of coverage of various topics on social media and top media outlets:

natesilver: 5

clare.malone: 4


(I hate the numbers scale.)

natesilver: Granted, this overlaps with the Comey letter. The Comey letter was a huge story in part because of the importance the press placed on “email stuff.”

clare.malone: It was important, in part because we have a media environment fed by social media that plays up the easily understood, salacious stories, and this was the salacious story for Clinton, although it obviously didn’t compare to the norm-busting GOP nominee.

perry: 3.5

Yeah, these things are all related. But I happen to think the Russia-related stuff (bots, Podesta emails) and Comey were more damaging than the controversy over Clinton’s private email server as secretary of state. She would have won, I think, if Podesta/Comey hadn’t revived the Clinton e-mail/scandal in the final weeks.

But I could be convinced otherwise.

natesilver: I don’t know. The email story completely dominated media coverage of Clinton.

Every week, it was the thing people heard by far the most about. Here’s a word cloud from Gallup of what people had read/heard the most about Clinton in the media from July 11 through Sept. 18 last year:

And here’s Trump:

clare.malone: I would argue that it was the accelerant on an image problem Clinton already had, which is why I wouldn’t rate it a 5.

natesilver: But, Clare, I think a lot of that image problem was a self-perpetuating media narrative. We wrote about this way back in September 2015. It was apparent even back then.

clare.malone: Maybe you’re right, but this was an election cycle about crusty insiders vs. outsiders, and Clinton certainly falls into consummate insider camp, someone “above the rules.”

natesilver: She certainly doesn’t color strictly within the lines.

clare.malone: And that’s just because of years in the public eye, often not being viewed favorably — and, again, this is where you have to factor in some sexist societal views. But many critiques of her history in public life were also valid. We’re parsing here, I would note. I rate the emails as highly influential.

natesilver: Clinton has been viewed favorably at several points in her career. But usually they were points at which she didn’t threaten a man’s job or wasn’t otherwise being too ambitious.

clare.malone: Right.

natesilver: I’m just saying — there’s a lot of circular reasoning on the part of Clinton’s critics.

They’ll say, “She has a trust problem; therefore the public had a strong reaction to the emails.” But part of the reason that she has a trust problem is because stories are constantly framed as presenting a trust problem for her.

The Comey letter in October was a good example of this. Outlets jumped way out ahead of the story and presented it as “raising doubts” or “casting shadows” over her campaign even though it wasn’t clear what in the hell the letter was all about. It was a triumph of narrative over substance.

perry: I think we all agree about this. And my suspicion is that a lot of the bad coverage came from a desire to find a way to balance the sharp coverage of Trump with coverage that was negative about Clinton. The both-sides model of political journalism left you with 15 Trump scandals and 1 Clinton scandal, so you have to pump up the Clinton scandal/controversy/whatever to make up for that big gap since all of these outlets are obsessed with attacks from the right.

natesilver: Yeah, no doubt a lot of this stems from false equivalence.

clare.malone: Yessss … but can I say that Hillary Clinton also didn’t endear herself to a lot of “women in the center” when she made her first forays onto the national stage? She was not a very good “choice feminist” (the whole, “I suppose I could have stayed at home, baked cookies and had teas” thing), and I think, yes, people didn’t give her credit for evolving … but that’s just the breaks in public life. First impressions last.

natesilver: Basically, half the media’s problems in covering the election stemmed from actual liberal bias. And the other half stemmed from overcompensating for perceived liberal bias.

micah: Next: “Deep currents of anger and resentment flowing through our culture.”

clare.malone: Oh gosh.

natesilver: I’m not quite sure what that means — is she referring to racial resentment? The “deplorables”?

But Trump clearly became an effective conduit for people’s anger, so I have to give this one at least a 4.

clare.malone: I think it refers to that, but maybe also partisanship, right?

natesilver: Maybe that’s too low. Maybe it’s obviously a 5.

perry: 3? Those currents exist. I’m having a hard time seeing them as particularly unique or important to 2016, as opposed to being a part of every event in politics, Obama’s presidency, etc. Racial resentment may have gotten Trump the Republican nomination, but I’m not sure about the general election. (But again, I’m thinking this all through.)

micah: Let’s go to the next one!

“The media gave [Trump] free wall-to-wall coverage.”

clare.malone: 5

natesilver: A 5 in the primary, but like a 2 in the general election. Here’s primary coverage from the Shorenstein Center:

perry: 3. If I were Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush, I would say 5.

Right. What Nate said.

clare.malone: Well Nate … howdya think he got to the general?

natesilver: That’s why I said a 5 in the primary!

micah: Trump also got far more news coverage than Clinton in the general, according to another Shorenstein study:

Though a lot of Trump’s coverage, just like Clinton’s, was negative:

clare.malone: The fact that Trump was Trump is more precisely what I’m talking about —

i.e., free coverage, but also a free pass when he says things about women, doesn’t release his taxes.

natesilver: I’m not sure the media’s constant focus on Trump was necessarily a bad thing for Clinton from day to day, although it did make it hard for her to drive a message. Slightly paradoxically, however, the fact that the media spent so much time focusing on Trump made it hard for anyone to focus on any one aspect of Trump’s behavior.

As you can see from the Gallup charts I posted earlier, people had lots of different feelings about Trump and heard lots of different negative stories about him. But none of them as persistently as Clinton and trust and emails.

micah: Next: “Fox News was turning politics into an evidence-free zone of seething resentments.”

(I don’t know what to make of this one.)

natesilver: Yeesh. I guess like a 2.5? I think Fox News is pretty darn important to the history of American politics since 2000 or thereabouts. I’m not convinced they were particularly important in this general election, since they had a somewhat weird relationship with Trump.

perry: 2. Just if we are ranking things, I rank this lower. Fox’s highest-rated show gets 4 million viewers; more than 60 million people voted for Trump. There is a whole apparatus of Fox-like media that has the ethos of Fox, but if Fox closed tomorrow, that ecosystem would still thrive.

clare.malone: I think Facebook probably had more influence.

micah: Next: “Maybe it’s because I’m a woman, and we’re not used to women running for president.”

clare.malone: I’m sick of defending this, so someone else try.

natesilver: Shit, I was going to defer to you, Clare!

micah: I’ll happily do so. I’d rate this a 20, tbh.

perry: 4. I left this election thinking that many of the things said about Clinton would have been said, with different phrasing, about Elizabeth Warren, for example. Or any other woman.

So maybe I’m a 5.

micah: If you spent any time at Trump rallies, or watching Fox News, or reading the political web, or talking to voters at all, gender suffused EVERYTHING. You could see it in what people wrote on their signs, in the reasons they gave for disliking her, in the coverage of her speeches. It was implicit and explicit. Subconscious and conscious. I mean … good god.

perry: Exactly

micah: This is, again, an example of something that’s hard to measure, so people don’t talk about it enough.

But like … I’m as confident as I can be about anything that if not for misogyny/sexism, Clinton wins. It’s almost prima facie true. But there’s also lots of evidence for it.

natesilver: I’ll give a range of 2.5 to 5. I’m just not sure how to measure it. Which doesn’t mean it’s not important. Keep in mind that Clinton’s gender could have had some positive effects too — e.g., inspiring women to turn out. But obviously, the prior here is that it’s hard for women to advance, especially in traditionally male-dominated occupations, and no occupation has been more male-dominated than the presidency of the United States.

perry: I don’t think it’s worth ranking racism vs. sexism, but Obama, at least in 2008, was able to generate coverage that was not always infused with his race. He was inexperienced, but that was true and not really a racial critique. The things Clinton was criticized for (secretive, ambitious, untrustworthy, craven) were things that male politicians aren’t often criticized for.

micah: Yes.

perry: I want to emphasize, though, that I think a woman can be elected president, maybe as soon as 2020 and maybe in 2016 but for Russia/Comey.

clare.malone: It’s obviously a 5. And by the way, I would really urge men to think about the way that you interact with women on a daily basis as a stand-in for how you might have reacted to Hillary Clinton. Not even the women in your personal life, just take it professionally. How do you talk to women during meetings? Do you talk over them? Are you listening to what they actually say in meetings or just waiting to talk yourself? Do you take their ideas and fashion them as your own? Do you think their voices are kinda annoying sometimes because they remind you of a teacher? Are they always bringing up institutional sexism as part of the problem that they might face in day-to-day life? Do you secretly find that a little annoying to hear? It might be annoying to hear, but it’s annoying because it’s true!

Anyhow. It’s a 5. And by the way, lest anyone misunderstand me — this sexism applies to the portrayal of conservative female candidates as well. They get treated differently than men.

perry: And a 5 should be interpreted as America needs to do a lot of work on sexism — not that Democrats should run Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Tim Ryan, etc., in 2020. And I feel like there has been a bit of a move in the party toward the latter.

clare.malone: For sure.

perry: If Biden was so electable, maybe he should get elected president instead of sniping about Clinton.

micah: Bam!

Second to last from that tweet: “The problems started with history. It was exceedingly difficult for either party to hold onto the White House for more than eight years in a row.”

natesilver: So, I’m gonna give this like a 4.25.

It’s not clear to me whether a party is actually at a disadvantage after holding the White House for two straight terms. But it’s certainly not at an advantage either, and Gore lost in 2000 under highly similar circumstances to Clinton.

perry: 3. I think this is generally true. But once the candidate was Trump, that changed the calculus a lot. Trump has governed like a traditional Republican in most ways. But it wasn’t clear that would be the case during the campaign.

natesilver: Fundamentally, the media treated the election as being Clinton’s to lose, but it wasn’t. She actually overperformed the consensus of fundamentals-based political science models by a point or two. Now, those models are very blunt instruments. But they’re worth something.

micah: OK, last one from the tweet: “There was also a ‘Clinton fatigue’ to consider.” Then I have two more quick ones (Bernie Sanders and not visiting Wisconsin).

But fatigue first.

perry: 2. This may have hurt Clinton in 2008 and in the Democratic primary in 2016. The broader electorate views her husband and his tenure pretty positively, though.

natesilver: I’m not sure about Clinton fatigue in particular, but I buy something to the idea that it was an anti-establishment/anti-incumbent climate. This is sort of tied in to the point above, actually, about it not being an advantage to run as part of the incumbent party once your party has been in power.

clare.malone: Yeah, the establishment vs. outsider zeitgeist was real.

natesilver: Also, it seems important to me that voters who disliked both Clinton and Trump — about 20 percent of the electorate — went mostly for Trump. That was worth a net swing of about 3 points to him, compared with if they’d split evenly.

Anyway, I’m giving this one like a 3.75.

clare.malone: And in that sense, she’s just been around too long if you’re, say, an Obama-Trump voter who’s telling people you’re voting for change to shake up the system.

natesilver: In practice what probably happened was: The environment was pretty neutral or maybe slightly negative for a Democratic candidate. Clinton was a below-average candidate, but not terrible. Trump was also a below-average candidate, but his weaknesses weren’t as much of a liability as the media assumed. All of those worked out to Clinton winning the popular vote, but only narrowly. And Trump benefited from the Electoral College, of course.

micah: OK, now two other “reasons Clinton lost” that have been bouncing around and which Clinton talks about in “What Happened.”

First: Bernie Sanders.

Tread carefully, folks.

natesilver: Anything about Sanders in particular?

I’d basically say like a 2, though.

micah: His “system is rigged” argument against Clinton during the primary set Trump’s message up perfectly in the general.

That’s basically what Clinton says in the book.

perry: 1. I think Sanders was simply the vessel for criticisms of Clinton from the left, the media and Republicans that would have emerged anyway.

natesilver: I agree. On that particular point, you could go to like a 3 or a 3.5. Still, almost every candidate has primary opponents, and those primary opponents usually say a few things that wind up damaging their opponents. I don’t think what Bernie did or said in the aggregate was atypical.

clare.malone: I think that’s underrating it a little. I’d call it a 3.

natesilver: He could have stood down a little earlier, once the delegate math had become hopeless for him. That period — and all the arguing over superdelegates, etc. — seemed to give more resonance to the “system is rigged” arguments.

clare.malone: Without Sanders as the personification of a movement, an explicit anti-establishment foil to Clinton, I’m not sure those feelings would have been so directly expressed. They would have been there in the electorate, but more inchoately expressed.

natesilver: At the same time, like 80 percent of Sanders voters wound up voting for Clinton — which isn’t perfect but is fairly typical for a primary opponent.

micah: Last one!

Clinton’s Midwest strategy. In the book, Clinton says her campaign did not underinvest in the Midwest.

natesilver: So, I don’t totally buy that claim. Clinton definitely did underinvest in Michigan and Wisconsin (and Minnesota).

micah: Here’s the quote:

Some critics have said that everything hinged on me not campaigning enough in the Midwest. And I suppose it is possible that a few more trips to Saginaw or a few more ads on the air in Waukesha could have tipped a couple of thousand voters here or there.But let’s set the record straight: we always knew that the industrial Midwest was crucial to our success, just as it had been for Democrats for decades, and contrary to the popular narrative, we didn’t ignore those states.

clare.malone: She also brings up outspending Obama in those states.

perry: If it is really about going physically to Wisconsin, I rank this a 1. She went to Pennsylvania plenty and lost there in a similar way to Wisconsin. If it is about writing off too many white working-class voters, then I think that’s more valid.

natesilver: Well, it wasn’t about the Midwest per se — it was about campaigning in too narrow a range of states. She could also have campaigned more in Colorado and Arizona, for example.

But in terms of evidence of this mattering? There’s very little of it, actually. There’s basically no relationship between how much the candidates campaigned in a state and how well they did there.

perry: I see their mistake in being too focused on certain kinds of voters (non-white, college-educated, suburban). That is what I came away thinking might be the case after reading the Jonathan Allen-Amie Parnes book. But her staff, when I talked to them, and maybe this is self-serving, said that Clinton visits to some areas in rural Pennsylvania turned off voters. Her campaigning more there would not have helped and may have hurt.

natesilver: Things like advertisements and rallies don’t move the needle all that much, in a race where the issues are as momentous as the ones being debated in 2016.

Also, the math doesn’t really check out. Even if Clinton had won Wisconsin and Michigan, that wouldn’t have been enough to win the Electoral College. She’d also have needed to win Pennsylvania or Florida, where she campaigned extensively.

Anyway, I give that one a 1.5. A good litmus test is that if a reporter says “But Wisconsin” when someone brings up another cause of Clinton’s defeat, that reporter doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

micah: OK, to wrap …

It seems like we thought most of these were real factors in Trump winning and Clinton losing?

clare.malone: Yes.

natesilver: You might even say, Micah, that Clinton got closer to … The Real Story Of 2016 than most of the media’s postmortems have.

perry: Ha. Yes.

micah: So, to bring things full circle, the objections to Clinton pointing them out — in addition to taking responsibility herself — aren’t about substance, they’re about theater … or “manners” … or what Clinton “should” be doing?

perry: I think Clinton, like Obama, should do whatever makes her happy and keeps the checks coming in. And if that is a book, fine. In terms of the party moving forward, fair or unfair, I’m not sure people are listening to her.

natesilver: I’m repeating myself here, but a lot of the admonitions that Clinton is getting from the press are about the media pre-empting discussions that could make them look bad and call into question their editorial decision-making.

perry: We should talk about that. Why can’t The New York Times say “we covered Clinton’s e-mails too much”? The Times admitted at some point that the weapons of mass destruction coverage ahead of the Iraq War was bad. The paper survived that, and my guess is gained credibility from it.

It’s obviously true. They must know that.

We are hinting around about the media stuff so much here that we may want to get just to the issue. I think we are really saying the Times, Politico, NBC News, etc., can’t say “Clinton is right in some ways” without saying “we were wrong.” But journalists are supposed to be for truth, not defending themselves at all costs like businesses or politicians. I should note: I covered the 2016 campaign for NBC News. In my writing and television appearances, I was critical, at times very sharply, of how Clinton handled the email controversy. I haven’t gone back and examined all that coverage, but I’m generally of the view that I personally covered the Clinton e-mails too much.

micah: To that point, and not to end on a self-deprecating FiveThirtyEight brag, but we have a history of saying “we fucked up” when we fuck up. While painful in the moment, it’s really not that hard and has long-term benefits. It’s like eating salad.

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.