Five weeks after the election, the harshest criticism yet of the Hillary Clinton campaign’s loss in Michigan has been revealed, with veteran Democratic Party operatives across the state complaining bitterly about arrogant and condescending attitudes from the Brooklyn headquarters even as everyone working the ground game saw Michigan slipping away.
A lengthy report published today by Politico, based on dozens of interviews with key players in the Michigan campaign, portrays a dysfunctional campaign plagued by infighting to such an extent that top Clinton strategists in Michigan and other battleground states were not allowed to talk with officials at the Democratic National Committee. Those who tried to dodge those rules were scolded by the campaign team in Brooklyn if they placed a phone call to the DNC.
The entire effort in Michigan, formerly a reliably Blue State, was based on an unorthodox, one-size-fits-all digital strategy out of Brooklyn – “the plan” – that was to be followed religiously. A data-driven approach to turning out voters was the overwhelming focus.
Instincts were all wrong
As it turned out, the instincts of the Donald Trump campaign, and the candidate, outpaced those of the Clinton team. The result was a stunning 10,700-vote win in Michigan where the former secretary of state had led in the polls from start to finish.
Politico’s Edward-Isaac Dovere asserts that the faulty approach in Michigan, reflected in other states, cost the Democratic nominee the 100,000 additional votes needed in three hotly contested states to win the Electoral College and the White House:
“They (the national team) believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”
Flip Michigan and leave the rest of the map, and Trump is still president-elect. But to people who worked in that state and others, how Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and lost by 100,000 in states that could have made her president has everything to do with what happened in Michigan. Trump won the state despite getting 30,000 fewer votes than George W. Bush did when he lost it in 2004.
GOP consultant Jamie Roe of Grand River Strategies told Politics Central that the Clinton campaign “cratered” while the Trump camp enjoyed a surge of enthusiasm based on his populist message. The vaunted Clinton ground game, he said, never showed up.
The Brooklyn plan shunned the standard door-to-door canvassing and distribution of literature. Those offering to help in traditional tactics were often shunned or ignored.
When the SEIU union decided in October to move their campaign troops in Iowa (based on polling) to Michigan, according to Politico the national team angrily told them to turn around and go back. Iowa, they were told, was a head fake to fool the Trump team into believing that the Hawkeye State was still in play.
This was just one example where labor backing was lacking in Michigan, and strategists here blamed Brooklyn.
Ineffective candidate with an ineffective plan
A “deep dive” into the Michigan numbers by Roe shows a dramatic turnaround from 2012 that the Clinton team never acknowledged until it was too late. Trump’s edge in many rural counties of northern Michigan and the Thumb Area tripled or quadrupled the margins posted by Mitt Romney four years ago. At the same time, African-American turnout was low in urban areas, particularly in Wayne County, where Clinton stumbled badly.
Roe acknowledges that his home base, Macomb County, and its 50,000-vote edge for Trump is credited for handing the state to the billionaire businessman by a razor-thin margin. But Clinton received more votes than did Barack Obama in 2012 in only one county, Washtenaw, and she trailed the president’s tallies by 10 points or more in about 50 counties.
According to Politico, the Brooklyn headquarters never strategized with Sen. Bernie Sanders about how to keep Michigan blue, despite Sanders’ surprise win here in the primaries, thanks in large part to lopsided margins in many rural counties. The Clinton weaknesses exposed in March were never addressed.
When Clinton and her surrogates (her husband Bill, daughter Chelsea, VP pick Tim Kaine) frantically began to flood the state in the final two weeks before the election, they tended to concentrate mostly on the Detroit area and Grand Rapids. The day before the election, Obama was brought in but he was sent to Ann Arbor (Washtenaw County) where he was least needed.
In his piece, Dovere tells the story of Election Day when at 1 p.m. a worried Clinton campaign operative in Michigan placed a call to Brooklyn. Despite prior orders, the Michigan team had built their own voter turnout tracking system and the numbers didn’t look good. Brooklyn brushed aside the numbers and concerns that get-out-the-vote efforts were failing in urban precincts.
“Nope, they were told. She was going to win by 5,” Dovere reports.” All Brooklyn’s data said so.”
It wasn’t until 9:30 p.m., an hour and a half after the polls closed, that the headquarters realized they were going to narrowly lose Michigan – and Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in a similar manner. It was then that they knew it was all over.