Skip to main content
ABC News
Jill Stein: Democratic Spoiler Or Scapegoat?

In this week’s politics chat, we check in on the Democrats’ search for someone to blame 2016 on. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Today, we’re looking for scapegoats. Or, more accurately, we’re talking about the Democrats’ search for a scapegoat to pin Donald Trump’s win over Hillary Clinton on. We’ll talk about some of the scapegoats people have proffered and then about whether this is even a useful thing for Democrats to be doing.

But first up: Did Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee, cost Clinton the election? (Harry, give us the case for “yes” first.)

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): The case, as far as I see it, is twofold: First, the number of votes cast for Stein in the three states that proved to be pivotal (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) exceeded Trump’s margin of victory over Clinton.

Second, a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters weren’t big fans of Clinton. So Stein campaigning on the idea that Clinton and Trump were similar made it harder for Clinton to win over those voters — even if Sanders voters didn’t vote for Stein, they may have stayed home out of disgust.

micah: And do we buy that?

harry: Not really.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Having hung out with you people for a year, I know better than to get into numbers depths I can’t fish myself out of. So instead, I’ll ask another question on top of this. Our colleague David Wasserman tweeted out that the Dems can’t blame turnout in Philadelphia for their loss:

And we’ve got those Stein/Trump margins in keys states being similar. What would all those would-be Democrats be doing, then, if not voting for Stein? Going to Clinton? Writing in their mother-in-laws?

natesilver (Nate Silver, editor in chief): I don’t really buy it. And the rub is Pennsylvania, which was close but not that close. You have to assume that almost all of Stein’s voters would have gone to Clinton. But both pre-election polls and the national exit poll suggests that a lot of them wouldn’t have voted at all, if they’d been forced to pick between the two major candidates. The breakdown might have been something like 35 percent Clinton, 10 percent Trump and 55 percent wouldn’t vote. That doesn’t wind up netting very many votes for HRC.

micah: But what about this idea that Stein helped keep the anti-Clinton flame on the left — first lit by Sanders — burning?

natesilver: Y’know, I covered the campaign. The 2016 campaign was a friend of mine. And Jill Stein was a pretty bleeping minor story in the 2016 campaign.

micah: OK, so let’s go to the OG Stein: Sanders. Can Clinton blame Sanders for her loss?

clare.malone: I think that’s a harder case to make by hard numbers, but ideologically, sure — he played a part in her loss.

natesilver: Don’t compare Sanders to Stein, please. For one thing, he didn’t troll sad Democrats into paying for a recount, and then sorta give up halfway through.

micah: He ran and raised money long past the point where it was clear he would lose. That’s beside the point, though.

clare.malone: He saddled her with establishment baggage, though, in a pretty effective way, right from the start. Talking paid Goldman Sachs speeches and all that. It played into the elitism idea that people developed around her. Too good for normal work email. Too caught up with the sycophants. Do we just ignore that?

natesilver: I think the last couple of months of Sanders’s campaign entrenched the notion that Clinton was corrupt and that the system was rigged. And that played into Trump’s message.

micah: Wouldn’t Clinton have had those problems anyway?

harry: I think there are two different versions of Sanders. There is the primary version of Sanders who barely brought up the emails, but who certainly made the case that Clinton was part of a corrupt system. There is also the general election version of Sanders, who fought like hell to get Clinton elected.

natesilver: The focus on corrupt/rigged may have been harmful. I guess I also think, though, that having an opponent in the primary is pretty darn normal. And Sanders didn’t necessarily go outside the bounds of what a normal opponent would do. He campaigned for a couple of months longer than when he really had a chance, but he also wasn’t the first guy to do that.

harry: Yes, though he was the first to have money to truly compete in a way I don’t think past candidates could. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

natesilver: But nobody has the right to their nomination unopposed. Or more than the right, nobody should have the expectation of winning their nomination without a fight. It should be priced into their chances, including whatever toll it takes on their general election odds.

clare.malone: I mean, it was the perfect storm of Sanders priming certain voters to distrust Clinton in certain ways — the way any primary would go –but then there was Trump there to scoop a certain set of them up into his arms after the primary. While in normal years they might have been met by a Brooks Brothers plutocrat, they saw a guy who looked like he was more a Men’s Wearhouse wearer who happened to have a lot of money. He picked up those disaffected Democrats that President Obama had kept hanging around by force of his charm, apparently. And his change message.

natesilver: My main point: Democrats should blame James Comey and WikiLeaks before Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, because what Comey did was highly abnormal.

clare.malone: Hm.

harry: When the election is so close, you can “blame” a lot of things.

clare.malone: That was the most immediate cause of the loss, but don’t you think a lot of people had been primed for months to leave?

micah: I think that’s true Clare, but I still think you can’t blame Sanders.

natesilver: The case that Comey swung the election outcome is pretty straightforward, and easier to disentangle from everything else than a lot of things. Clinton’s national lead was cut from about 6 percentage points to 3 points after the Comey letter. And while a 6-point lead is relatively safe, a 3-point lead just isn’t, especially given Clinton’s weakness in the Electoral College. Maybe not all of that was Comey, but the timing lines up pretty well and it was probably enough to make a difference given how close the election was. So could a lot of other things, of course.

clare.malone: I mean, not in the Comey sense of blame.

micah: Did Sanders supporters not turn out for Clinton at normal rates?

harry: Before Clinton lost her big lead, Trump was not getting the same percentage of Republicans to vote for him that Clinton was getting Democrats to vote for her. Then in the final few weeks that changed. I don’t think those voters were primed by Stein.

We’ll have to wait for voter files to know who did and didn’t turn out, but we had higher turnout than in 2012. We know that much.

micah: OK, so before we talk about the pro/cons of the search for scapegoats generally, any other prime scapegoat nominees?

Comey seems like the MVP.

clare.malone: For sure

Young people?

natesilver: I’m too exhausted to say the media.

The media.

micah: Voters.

natesilver: Clinton.

Facebook. Twitter. Instagram. Snapchat. Ello.

I blame Ello.

clare.malone: Her campaign.

harry: I think at the end of the day you have to realize Clinton lost a race against the least popular nominee since before any of us were born. And if that is the case, then you have to start with Clinton for losing.

natesilver: The Electoral College.

The Founding Fathers.

clare.malone: THE PATRIARCHY.

micah: Here’s my ranking of the causes of Clinton’s Electoral College loss:

  1. More voters chose Trump in the crucial states;
  2. Clinton didn’t play defense enough;
  3. Comey;
  4. The Electoral College;
  5. All the other crap.

natesilver: But Micah, that’s stupid. Because No. 1 isn’t a reason. It’s just a tautological statement, like “the Broncos won because they scored more points.” Well, duh.

micah: But that’s my point: Everyone is looking for acute reasons why Clinton lost after the fact, but it was everything. It’s always everything.

clare.malone: This is getting very freshman year philosophy.

harry: Here’s a question: Could Clinton have avoided a loss in the Electoral College through better resource allocation?

micah: I think so.

natesilver: My view is basically this. First, as a starting point, it isn’t surprising that this was a close election. Take the candidates’ names off the ballot, and the “fundamentals” suggested a close race or maybe a slight edge for Trump.

But second, look at the Electoral College. Clinton actually beat the fundamentals by a couple of percentage points in the popular vote, which is what those fundamentals models are designed to predict (some of them that had Trump winning the popular vote by 10 points or whatever were very, very wrong by the way). However, her vote was configured very inefficiently, in so far as maximizing her electoral vote. Is that her campaign’s fault? (And should Trump’s campaign get some credit?). Hard to say.

And third, the polls ebbed and flowed a lot over the course of the campaign. It was a volatile race. A lot of voters were undecided until very late and were affected by news events. And the last news cycle was a really bad one for Clinton.

harry: I still cannot believe she didn’t campaign in Wisconsin.

clare.malone: Yeah. Stuff like that. The imbalance of the vote she got is pretty telling.

natesilver: Well, yeah. Although, keep in mind that Wisconsin and Michigan would not have been enough for Clinton to win. She’d also have needed either Pennsylvania and Florida, and they campaigned in both states extensively.

harry: Sure. Still.

natesilver: Clearly the Democrats have been taking a lot for granted, particularly in terms of the strength of their electoral coalition.

micah: So is it helpful for Democrats to look for a scapegoat? Or, more generously, to spend a lot of time sifting through the causes of Clinton’s loss?

clare.malone: Causes of loss, of course.

Let us state for the record here — history has proved that scapegoating feels good in the short term, but will screw you up in the long term.

natesilver: They have the right to be angry about a few things, like about Comey, but that won’t really help their rebuilding process.

harry: I like scapegoating. I blame all of you for the Bills loss on Sunday.

natesilver: A big question is whether their problems in the Electoral College are permanent or temporary.

micah: I start from the presumption that all political problems are temporary.

harry: The Electoral College was in some ways an unlucky break for Clinton. And as we know from the past, that type of stuff usually ebbs and flows. Of course, it is tradition for tradition to change.

natesilver: There was a big spread — almost 3 percentage points — between the tipping-point state (Pennsylvania) and the national popular vote. If that carries over to 2020, it would lower their odds a lot. But historically, these Electoral College splits don’t carry over much from one election to the next. As we saw between 2012 and 2016.

clare.malone: I mean, now you’ve got this Joe Biden story out there about how he might run in 2020. He’d address one of the obvious problems that the Democrats had — not being able to connect to white blue-collar voters — but he’s also missing another big thing the Democrats have to deal with, which is that they need an outsider perhaps the next time around. Or someone younger, a bit more dynamic.

harry: One thing we should point out is that there’s a lot of energy on the progressive left. There were a lot more Democratic primary voters who identified as “very liberal” in 2016 than in 2008. We also saw more voters identifying as liberal in the general election exit poll than in any election since 1976. Whether it is Stein or Sanders, Democrats will have to deal with their progressive wing in ways they probably haven’t needed to in recent history.

natesilver: “Have to deal with” shows UR BIAS YOU TOOL.

micah: Corporate shill = Harry.

harry: I wish I were a corporate shill. I live in a tiny apartment.

natesilver: But you live in the greatest city in the world, Harry.

clare.malone: Democrats will also have to figure out how to make that progressive message more catholic — it needs to not just appeal to Berkeley types if they want to make it work. It needs to appeal to voters of color (a problem Sanders had at times) as well as white people in blue-collar jobs in, oh, I dunno, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

natesilver: It’s pretty likely that the next nominee comes from the party’s left flank.

clare.malone: The Boston butt of the Democratic Party.

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

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

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.