“It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.” ― Ian McEwan, Atonement
A Prelude to a Tragedy
On November 8, 2016, American voters took to the polls to elect our next commander in chief with a general consensus having pervaded public discourse that, love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton would become president. Her erstwhile opponent, Donald Trump, a reality television star viewed as crass and inept, having boasted about possibly sexually assaulting women in a now-infamous Access Hollywood tape, had all but forfeited the race.
In the weeks leading up to the election, Clinton exhibited dominance over her Republican challenger that lead some to speculate that she was running up the score as her campaign expanded into typically red states like Texas and Arizona. Following resounding victories in the election season’s presidential debates, Vox Editor-in-Chief Ezra Klein proclaimed to the world that “Hillary Clinton’s 3 debate performances left the Trump campaign in ruins.” Her polling numbers indicated a landslide was imminent. Pundits speculated that Donald Trump’s path to 270 electoral votes was slim to non-existent.
On Election Day, news outlets blasted footage of Donald Trump, morose, defeated, slumping across the finish line in his hometown of New York, knowingly awaiting his fate. The night before, Clinton seemed to shake the earth with massive, unified rallies in Philadelphia and North Carolina, first with the Obamas and her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and the second with Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen, and massive crowds of college students chanting “I believe that she will win!” well into the early hours of the morning. At 3:40 a.m., Clinton landed back home in Westchester, New York, where hordes of fans were lined up yet to wish her well and show their support.
The mood was electric.
Fast forward twenty-four hours. Stunned supporters, myself included, trickled out from the official Hillary for America election night party at the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan, where Clinton did not make an appearance, leaving many to wonder if she planned to wait out the counts. It wasn’t until around 3:00 a.m., as my Bros4Hillary colleagues Rance Collins, Jason Murray, and I sat silently in the cab ride back to our apartment in Brooklyn, that the news alert flashed across my iPhone.
“Fuck,” I muttered. “She conceded.”
As the three of us burst into tears of grief and rage, our bewildered cab driver, quiet and stone-faced till that moment, shook his head and pondered just under his breath, “how could this happen?”
The Vultures Circled
Just hours after the stunning upset that proclaimed Donald Trump president-elect, the vultures began to circle around the scene of Secretary Clinton’s political death, the body, so to speak, not even cold yet. Senator Bernie Sanders, her democratic rival in the primary, who spent the tail-end of that campaign impugning Clinton’s integrity and questioning her qualifications to lead, hit the talk show circuit immediately. Despite having begrudgingly supported Clinton following his primary defeat, he gloated now with a “told-ya-so” self-righteousness, openly implying that he should have been the nominee and offering prescriptions to the Democratic party.
“I’m deeply humiliated that the Democratic party cannot talk to [white working class people],” Sanders professed dramatically on CBS This Morning. “I think that there needs to be a profound change in the way the Democratic Party does business. It is not good enough to have a liberal elite.”
Sanders, a lifelong Independent who changed his registration status to Democrat in order to run for the party’s nomination, reverted his status back to Independent only days after the Democratic National Convention in July.
His online supporters reveled. “I think the DNC made a fatal mistake ganging up on him and being biased towards Hillary,” said one Facebook user. “Even now, after the Dems lost the election, he is still more popular in the news than Hillary is. As much as I’m nervous about Trump being president…I’m glad Hillary didn’t win only because her supporters made me want her to lose.”
The morbid pile-on continued for weeks: “She didn’t campaign hard enough in swing states,” “the DNC rigged the primary against Bernie Sanders,” “she lost the white working class,” ”she just wasn’t likable enough,” “she had no plan for the economy,” “voters just didn’t want her,” or my personal favorite, “she was a flawed candidate.”
The problem with these analyses is that they are painfully reductive, overly-narrow crimes of revisionist history. In fact, most of these arguments are just plain wrong. Entertaining them without looking at the broader systemic failure at play is contributing to a pattern of failure by the media to fulfill their journalistic responsibility as editorial gatekeepers and is an historic injustice against one of the most qualified and winningest candidates to run for the presidency ever. Most importantly, they allow a problematic narrative shift that holds us back from looking at, or solving, the real problem.
Hillary Clinton did not lose the 2016 presidential election.
Hillary Clinton Won More Votes. A Lot More.
Any discussion seeking to analyze the outcome of the election MUST begin and end with the following as its central premise: “Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million.” Or, put in another way, “Hillary Clinton won more votes than any other presidential candidate in history, second only to Obama.” (Note: Final tallies reported by Cook Political Report show Clinton virtually tied with President Obama’s 2012 total, for good measure.)
Hillary Clinton, the first female major-party nominee for president in American history, won more votes than any white male to ever run for that office, ever, including her opponent, the man who would go on to become the president-elect, Donald Trump.
The Sanders Effect
For posterity, while Hillary Clinton bested Donald Trump by nearly 3 million votes in an election where 136 million ballots were counted, she defeated Bernie Sanders in the 2016 democratic primary with an even broader margin of nearly 4 million votes (and about 1,000 delegates) in a primary where only about 30 million ballots were counted. The Sanders tribe who now insist he would have fared better than Secretary Clinton in the general election still ignore the fact that Bernie Sanders was never even close to overcoming her in the primary, where she won by a veritable landslide.
As early as March, Clinton pulled ahead with such a commanding lead that political insiders knew he had virtually no chance of winning. She quietly began implementing a general election strategy while publicly supporting the process, never once speaking ill of her opponent for wanting to see the primary through to completion, something she herself had done in the 2008 Democratic primary against then-Senator Barack Obama.
When she did it, however, she was at times within 100 delegates of overtaking Obama, and by some measures went on to win the popular vote. Even then, pundits said Clinton would never overcome Obama, despite a much smaller gap in delegates separating the two candidates.
Sanders knew this too, to be sure, but he let his frustration, ambition, and contempt for his rival in the final months of the campaign get the better of him, lodging all-too-familiar allegations against the Democratic National Committee of “rigging” and incessantly bashing Clinton, even calling her “unqualified.” He knew the harm that he could do to her with his impressionable and generally politically-inexperienced base, who didn’t realize that the primary was over. Democrats watched in horror as their presumptive nominee was attacked relentlessly for months by the Sanders campaign, who knowingly peddled the fiction that he could still win the primary to a fan base that simply didn’t know any better.
By May, an understandably annoyed Clinton told Chris Cuomo in an interview with CNN that she was going to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for president, prompting Sanders to call her “arrogant” on national television. Whether Bernie Sanders believed he could make a legitimate play for super-delegates (a system he spent months bashing until it became clear it was the only mechanism by which he could win), or wishful thinking that Clinton would be indicted for the fictitious criminal conduct he knew did not exist, he knew she had won the primary. But he fed his base the red meat. And they ate it up.
Soon enough the liberal progressive voter base supporting Sanders began to regurgitate the same right wing talking points and lies used to impugn Clinton’s integrity for decades. Once maligned for being a liberal harpy and socialist, Clinton was now subjected to the cruel injustice of having fellow progressives label her “too conservative,” a “war hawk,” a “criminal,” an “imperialist.”
This of course was the same lot who believed it an omen of their candidate’s rightful claim to the presidency when a bird landed on his podium at a campaign event in Portland.
Fun Facts, or Lack Thereof
The Birdie Sanders phenomenon was unsurprising in an election season that seemed to view facts as a nuisance, as merely an inconvenient afterthought. When Clinton supporters grimaced at the Birdie Sanders memes, the Sanders faithful were outraged.
“Paid shill!” they cried. “Hillbot!”
I myself was accused numerous times across social media of being a paid subsidiary of the Clinton campaign or David Brock’s Correct the Record, something that is categorically false and easily discoverable in a 10-second Google search.
A week before the election, I was caught completely off-guard by a close friend and fellow liberal who revealed that she refused to vote for Clinton. “She’s just corrupt. There’s too much evidence if you look out for it,” she stated, sending me this photograph to support her reasoning:
This photograph was shared extensively in the dark corners of the fake internet and by the Republican nominee himself to support claims that Clinton had ties to the KKK. To hear this propaganda from an educated, liberal-minded, millennial-aged woman who lives in California, however, was nothing short of problematic.
The photo depicts then-Senator Hillary Clinton of New York sharing an embrace with her colleague Robert Byrd in 2004. Byrd, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, passed away in 2010 as the longest serving Congressman in history. Senator Byrd was well-respected and a master parliamentarian. He did join the KKK in the 1940s, but then proceeded to quit in 1952, spending the rest of his life repenting for his brief involvement and acknowledging it was wrong. The NAACP even mourned Byrd after his passing. He had been out of the KKK for more than fifty years when this photograph was taken.
This is just one of literally hundreds of examples of lies that have been propagated about Clinton over the years that have been packaged as news, or that legitimate news sources will falsely equivocate with the truth. These items spread like wildfire through fake news channels. The time required to engage with and disprove each accusation point by point with each person who consumed it would be impossible.
“Fake news” is a major problem that has had an out-sized impact on our politics and our presidential election. It is not a new phenomenon, but it has reached fever pitch. Until legislation is passed that addresses the problem and/or the heads of various social media companies implement policies to forbid them, the proliferation of fake news will continue to meddle with our elections.
MAN, I FEEL LIKE A WOMAN
Democratic faithful thought by November that the damage done by Sanders’ hail-Mary strategy would soften and fade. A week before the election, “Benghazi” and “Hillary Clinton’s e-mails” were still ridiculous fodder being churned out by the mainstream media and consumed ravenously by the electorate. The media failed time and time again to call these stories for what they were: Outright lies.
The media failed to distinguish between false equivalencies, and Clinton’s adversaries subsequently were able to malign and abuse her unchecked and ad nauseam, for one obvious reason. No one wants to admit it, her adversaries scoff at it, and even women seem to downplay it’s significance in the election: misogyny. The 2016 presidential election, much like in 2008, revealed staggering gender biases, mostly in the constant and baseless scrutiny of Clinton’s character.
Women, after all, cannot seek power without being innately bad, evil, or corrupt. Gender studies experts have talked about this phenomenon at length, and yet we failed to highlight the way it was taking shape in the campaign before our eyes. Sanders and Trump both made habits out of interrupting Clinton during their respective debates, wagging their fingers at her, criticizing her voice, accusing her of “shouting,” of not “smiling enough.” Trump famously called Clinton a “nasty woman” when she got under his skin at the third presidential debate, and vowed to put her “in jail,” one of may campaign promises on which the president-elect has already reneged.
Indeed, both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders made campaign tactics out of implying or expressly stating that she was corrupt, she was bought out by the banks, she was a criminal, or she was under indictment, allegations that have never been substantiated by fact.
By campaign’s end, people genuinely believed some of the propaganda leveraged against her, even having never seen a piece of factual evidence to support it.
Studies show that then a woman excels in a job we praise her, but when she seeks to gain more power, whether through a promotion, a raise, or even running to be President of the United States, we punish her and criticize her character. We simply cannot get comfortable with the idea of a woman calling the shots. The electorate seemed to forget that when Clinton left the State Department in 2013 she was widely adored, celebrated as being the most traveled Secretary of State in American history, with soaring approval ratings well above normal for American politicians. In 2012, an unsurprisingly prescient Nate Silver opined that she would make a formidable candidate for president and enjoyed inordinately high approval ratings, but noted a puzzling historical trend in which said approval ratings inexplicably suffered whenever she was seeking office.
Indeed, Hillary Clinton has been named the most admired woman in the world by Gallup a record-breaking twenty times. And yet, Clinton’s likability and trustworthiness were constantly called into question throughout both the 2008 and 2016 campaigns to the point of being farcical.
The abuse culminated in a truly heart-breaking moment when Clinton became the first candidate in history to say “I’m sorry” during a concession speech.
Still, despite centuries of patriarchal gender norms at play, she won the democratic primary. She won by a landslide. And in the general election, she won nationally by around 2.1%. One can only imagine what these figures might look like had she been born with the benefit of being a man.
So if she won nationally, why didn’t she win the presidency? What happened? Of course, the popular vote doesn’t pick the president. So what does?
THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE DEMANDS REFORM
Clinton’s massive popular vote victory is important in that not only does it dispel shameful myths that this superb, historic candidate FAILED us in some way, but serves to highlight one of the real problems: the electoral college system of apportioning votes is no longer fair or representative. This is not to say that the electoral college must necessarily be abolished. But at the very least, it must see reforms that address the country’s vastly shifting demographics.
Donald Trump won the electoral college with 306 votes. 270 are needed to win the presidency. The states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, with their 10, 16, and 20 respective electoral votes, all went for Trump and gave him the edge he needed.
The chilling truth: Donald Trump won those three states with a total of 79,646 votes in an election where more than 136 million people cast their ballots. That’s less than a fraction of a percentage point.
How can this be possible? Let’s pretend for a minute that foreign intervention was not a factor, and that overwhelming evidence did not suggest Russia interfered, and ignore investigative journalist Greg Palast’s stunning revelation that more than 3 million absentee and provisional ballots were wrongfully disqualified and thrown away uncounted.
An honest assessment of this presidential election must look at the disproportionate power the Electoral College currently allocates to rural areas. Indeed, a vote in Wyoming has four times the power of a vote from New York, thanks to the way electoral college votes are apportioned in each state.
When the Constitution was written in 1787, the drafters conceived of it in an America that was 95 percent rural. Today, less than 20 percent of America is rural. Yet in the hundreds of years since the Constitution was ratified, or since the 12th Amendment was passed defining the application of electoral college votes, there has been no reform to reflect the massive population and demographic shifts in America.
Moreover, the winner-takes-all formula of allocating electoral votes in each state is a practice that Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig says is violative of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protections Clause, and a system of statewide proportional allocation of Electors would have rendered Hillary Clinton the victor in 2016.
HILLARY CLINTON WON THE WORKING CLASS
Hillary Clinton, accused of having lost the 2016 presidential election because she neglected to address the needs of the white working class, did in fact WIN the white working class. CNN exit polls out of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania showed that she fared better than her opponent on the economy throughout the rust belt and nationwide.
The truth is Hillary Clinton made the working class and middle class jobs a central tenet of her campaign. She talked about these issues, and she talked about them a lot. To claim otherwise is a troubling revision in history that overlooks 16 months of campaigning on this issue. From Derek Thompson’s piece in the Atlantic:
She detailed plans to help coal miners and steel workers. She had decades of ideas to help parents, particularly working moms, and their children. She had plans to help young men who were getting out of prison and old men who were getting into new careers. She talked about the dignity of manufacturing jobs, the promise of clean-energy jobs, and the Obama administration’s record of creating private-sector jobs for a record-breaking number of consecutive months. She said the word “job” more in the Democratic National Convention speech than Trump did in the RNC acceptance speech; she mentioned the word “jobs” more during the first presidential debate than Trump did. She offered the most comprehensively progressive economic platform of any presidential candidate in history—one specifically tailored to an economy powered by an educated workforce.
The truth is that white working-class voters did favor Clinton on the economy, but on issues of terrorism or immigration, defected to Donald Trump, indicating that his often-times xenophobic, anti-immigration, and racially charged message resonated with a certain portion of the electorate. Indeed, no one has been able to answer to which era Trump was referring when he campaigned on the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but it is clear that this was merely pretext for a message of white nativist protectionism.
These are the same voters who crave social democracy, just so long as it isn’t called socialism, a dirty word amongst the majority of the American populace, and a flaw that Sanders, untested on the national stage, would have seen exposed in a general election match up.
Moreover, the cumulative total of 79,646 votes by which she lost Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania cannot in good faith be conflated to represent the white working class as a whole, especially when she won a historic number of votes and virtually tied 2012 Obama. With a margin so narrow, isn’t it possible a variety of factors were at a play, any one of which might have shifted the outcome?
THE REST OF IT
There has been a real and demonstrable systemic failure to protect the integrity of our elections that Americans must wholly reject. This isn’t conspiracy theory. This isn’t conjecture. This isn’t poor sportsmanship. This isn’t even about Hillary Clinton anymore. This is about protecting our democracy. Free and fair elections are one of the cornerstones of American democracy and we have now seen credible reports that our rights thereto have been impeded upon by:
1) Voter suppression in North Carolina and Wisconsin*;
2) Russian hacking*;
3) FBI Director Comey’s willful and intentional release of documents meant to suggest criminal wrongdoing by the Democratic nominee a week before the presidential election;
4) The use of Wikileaks as an agent for a hostile foreign power to meddle with our election;
5) A systemic failure by the news media to serve as editorial gatekeepers, differentiate false equivalencies, or to report on falsehoods propagated about the Democratic nominee.*
6) A voter-cross check system that allowed millions of valid absentee, provisional, and machine-error ballots to be wrongfully disqualified.
Is it possible that any one of these may have contributed to the 79,646 votes across Michigan, Wisconsin, or Pennsylvania that contributed to Donald Trump’s victory?
Is it possible that FBI Director Comey’s letter to Congress affected the election?
Is it possible that third party votes spoiled the election?
Is it possible that any number of these issues, none of which are the fault of the superb candidate who won record-breaking votes, lead to Donald Trump skipping past her with 79,646 votes?
And what of exit polls conducted by Edison Research, which show that “Clinton won four key battleground states (NC, PA, WI, and FL) in the 2016 Presidential Election that she went on to lose in the computerized vote counts.”*
“Trump voters lied in the exit polls!” say Trump’s acolytes, the same core of online miscreants who are just now decrying fake news in opposition to very real reports of Russian hacking, but did not care to make the differentiation when lobbing accusations of being foreign-born against Barack Obama or murder and corruption against Hillary Clinton.
It’s true that exit polls are not necessarily reliable historically. But with the totality of the circumstances being as they are, and with some of these findings existing outside the margin of statistical error, enough doubt has been cast on the validity of the 2016 presidential election to keep at least 66 million American voters up at night.
Allowing revisionists to shape the narrative and lay fault at the feet of Hillary Clinton for losing, whether expressly or impliedly, is a historic injustice that, if allowed to continue, only hurts us as a nation and as a democracy. It allows a shift in conversation away from crucial global and sociopolitical issues facing our society, and towards petty partisan squabbles and the unproductive blame game. If we do not respond to threats to our democracy, the epidemic of fake news, the various interventionist forces in our election, and demand action be taken, we are more culpable than either of the candidates in this election. Indeed, we are complicit in the downfall of democracy itself.
The truth? Hillary Clinton did not lose the 2016 presidential election. We did.
Alex Mohajer is a contributing political writer and commentator for the Huffington Post. In 2016, he served as Political Director of Bros4Hillary, a political advocacy organization, and is the Co-Founder of Bros4America. Named to LGBTQ Nation’s Top 8 Organizations Working to Elect Hillary Clinton. Follow him on Twitter @alexmohajer.