How Clinton lost Michigan — and blew the election
Across battlegrounds, Democrats blame HQ’s stubborn commitment to a one-size-fits-all strategy. Edward-Isaac Dovere
Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.
They started prepping meals and organizing hotel rooms.
SEIU — which had wanted to go to Michigan from the beginning, but been ordered not to — dialed Clinton’s top campaign aides to tell them about the new plan. According to several people familiar with the call, Brooklyn was furious.
Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.
Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.
“They 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.
Politico spoke to a dozen officials working on or with Clinton’s Michigan campaign, and more than a dozen scattered among other battleground states, her Brooklyn headquarters and in Washington who describe an ongoing fight about campaign tactics, an inability to get top leadership to change course.
Then again, according to senior people in Brooklyn, Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook never heard any of those complaints directly from anyone on his state teams before Election Day.
In results that narrow, Clinton’s loss could be attributed to any number of factors — FBI Director Jim Comey’s letter shifting late deciders, the lack of a compelling economic message, the apparent Russian hacking. But heartbroken and frustrated in-state battleground operatives worry that a lesson being missed is a simple one: Get the basics of campaigning right.
Clinton never even stopped by a United Auto Workers union hall in Michigan, though a person involved with the campaign noted bitterly that the UAW flaked on GOTV commitments in the final days, and that AFSCME never even made any, despite months of appeals.
The anecdotes are different but the narrative is the same across battlegrounds, where Democratic operatives lament a one-size-fits-all approach drawn entirely from pre-selected data — operatives spit out “the model, the model,” as they complain about it — guiding Mook’s decisions on field, television, everything else. That’s the same data operation, of course, that predicted Clinton would win the Iowa caucuses by 6 percentage points (she scraped by with two-tenths of a point), and that predicted she’d beat Bernie Sanders in Michigan (he won by 1.5 points).
“I’ve never seen a campaign like this,” said Virgie Rollins, a Democratic National Committee member and longtime political hand in Michigan who described months of failed attempts to get attention to the collapse she was watching unfold in slow-motion among women and African-American millennials.
Rollins, the chair emeritus of the Michigan Democratic Women’s Caucus, said requests into Brooklyn for surrogates to come talk to her group were never answered. When they held their events anyway, she said, they also got no response to requests for a little money to help cover costs.
Rollins doesn’t need a recount to understand why Clinton lost the state.
“When you don’t reach out to community folk and reach out to precinct campaigns and district organizations that know where the votes are, then you’re going to have problems,” she said.
The enthusiasm gap
From the day Clinton released her launch video, the campaign knew she’d struggle with enthusiasm. Yet they didn’t do many of the things voters are used to seeing to give a sense of momentum, insisting that votes didn’t come from campaign literature, door knocking, commitment to vote cards or the standard program of sending absentee ballot applications to likely voters rather than just appealing to the people once they’d already ordered the ballots.
“It was very surgical and corporate. They had their model, this is how they’re going to do it. Their thing was, ‘We don’t have to leave [literature] at the doors, everyone knows who Hillary Clinton is,’” said one person involved in the Michigan campaign. “But in terms of activists, it seems different, it’s maybe they don’t care about us.”
Michigan operatives relay stories like one about an older woman in Flint who showed up at a Clinton campaign office, asking for a lawn sign and offering to canvass, being told these were not “scientifically” significant ways of increasing the vote, and leaving, never to return. A crew of building trade workers showed up at another office looking to canvass, but, confused after being told there was no literature to hand out like in most campaigns, also left and never looked back.
“There’s this illusion that the Clinton campaign had a ground game. The deal is that the Clinton campaign could have had a ground game,” said a former Obama operative in Michigan. “They had people in the states who were willing to do stuff. But they didn’t provide people anything to do until GOTV.”
The only metric that people involved in the operations say they ever heard headquarters interested in was how many volunteer shifts had been signed up — though the volunteers were never given the now-standard handheld devices to input the responses they got in the field, and Brooklyn mandated that they not worry about data entry. Operatives watched packets of real-time voter information piled up in bins at the coordinated campaign headquarters. The sheets were updated only when they got ripped, or soaked with coffee. Existing packets with notes from the volunteers, including highlighting how much Trump inclination there was among some of the white male union members the Clinton campaign was sure would be with her, were tossed in the garbage.
The Brooklyn command believed that television and limited direct mail and digital efforts were the only way to win over voters, people familiar with the thinking at headquarters said. Guided by polls that showed the Midwestern states safer, the campaign spent, according to one internal estimate, about 3 percent as much in Michigan and Wisconsin as it spent in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina. Most voters in Michigan didn’t see a television ad until the final week.
Most importantly, multiple operatives said, the Clinton campaign dismissed what’s known as in-person “persuasion” — no one was knocking on doors trying to drum up support for the Democratic nominee, which also meant no one was hearing directly from voters aside from voters they’d already assumed were likely Clinton voters, no one tracking how feelings about the race and the candidates were evolving. This left no information to check the polling models against — which might have, for example, showed the campaign that some of the white male union members they had expected to be likely Clinton voters actually veering toward Trump — and no early warning system that the race was turning against them in ways that their daily tracking polls weren’t picking up.
People involved in the Michigan campaign still can’t understand why Brooklyn stayed so sure of the numbers in a state that it also had projected Clinton would win in the primary.
“Especially given what happened in the primary,” said Michigan Democratic Party chairman Brandon Dillon. “We knew that there was going to have to be more attention.”
With Clinton’s team ignoring or rejecting requests, Democratic operatives in Michigan and other battleground states might have turned to the DNC. But they couldn’t; they weren’t allowed to ask for help.
State officials were banned from speaking directly to anyone at the DNC in Washington. (“Welcome to DNC HQ,” read a blue and white sign behind the reception desk in Brooklyn that appeared after the ouster of Debbie Wasserman Schultz just before the July convention).
A presidential campaign taking over the party committee post-convention is standard, but what happened in 2016 was more intense than veterans remember. People at the DNC and in battleground states speak of angry, bitter calls that came in from Brooklyn whenever they caught wind of contact between them, adamant that only the campaign’s top brass could approve spending or tactical decisions.
“Don’t touch them. Stay away,” one person on the other end of the call remembered Clinton campaign states director Marlon Marshall saying after hearing about a rogue conversation between a battleground operative and an official at the DNC. “You can’t be calling those people and making them think something is coming when nothing is.
Mook himself made a number of those calls.
To Brooklyn, this was the only way to shut down what they perceived early as an effort to undermine the campaign’s planning, DNC officials playing good cop as they made promises they couldn’t keep to friends in the states, took credit for moves Clinton’s staff already were making, or looked to dig up trouble to use against them later
Shunning help from outside
Brooklyn’s theory from the start was that 2016 was going to be a purely base turnout election. Efforts were focused on voter registration and then, in the final weeks, turning out voters identified as Clinton’s, without confirmation that they were.
Marshall, at Mook’s direction, had designed a plan that until the final weeks was built around holding Pennsylvania and winning just one more state — electoral math that would have denied Trump the presidency on the reasonable assumption Michigan and Wisconsin were Clinton’s.
There was a logic guided by data, they say.
“We have built an operation and we run an operation as if this is going to be a close race,” Marshall said in an interview with Politico in early October. “We have not seen an organization in many states on the Trump side that reflects that.”
In Michigan, Brooklyn tracked 211 staff compared with 58 for Barack Obama in 2012. A source there said the field plan called for an additional 70 staffers, but deferred to the local team instead on using the $1.4 million allotment for a limited paid canvass.
But enough tremors were reaching Brooklyn by late October that veterans of previous campaigns were brought on to help oversee a stabilization — despite tension that dated back to many at the firm never wanting Mook to be campaign manager in the first place.
A battle against Mook’s direction took hold, with multiple people plotting ricochets, complaining to people like Chief Administrative Officer Charlie Baker and longtime Clinton confidante Minyon Moore in the hopes of getting the campaign manager overruled.
Michigan was the only presidential battleground that didn’t have an active Senate race, and that cost the state money from Brooklyn. Waving off complaints during a visit to Michigan a few weeks out, Marshall explained to the room that Clinton was going to clobber Trump in the final debate and they were talking about moving money into Senate seats. And by the time they arrived in Las Vegas for that third debate, Clinton’s top aides were boasting about how they were about to expand the lead and pull marginal Senate candidates over the line to give her a governing majority.
In Michigan, they raised more than $700,000 to cover costs, mostly from in-state donors. Though the campaign said every check was signed off on in Brooklyn, Fowler said the DNC approved a $50,000 rogue transfer — let the Clinton campaign complain to him after Election Day, he told them.
“You’re in a state, your job is to win the battleground state, not to have complete fealty to the national campaign headquarters, especially if the national campaign headquarters is not listening,” Fowler explained.
Among the other workarounds claimed was one from interim DNC chair Donna Brazile, who was persuading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to hold the $5 million transferred to them from the Clinton campaign and to wait to spend it buying airtime for minority voter turnout in the final week they otherwise wouldn’t have been able to fund.
But there also were millions approved for transfer from Clinton’s campaign for use by the DNC — which, under a plan devised by Brazile to drum up urban turnout out of fear that Trump would win the popular vote while losing the electoral vote, got dumped into Chicago and New Orleans, far from anywhere that would have made a difference in the election.
Nor did Brooklyn ask for help from some people who’d been expecting the call. Sanders threw himself into campaign appearances for Clinton throughout the fall, but familiar sources say the campaign never asked the Vermont senator’s campaign aides for help thinking through Michigan, Wisconsin or anywhere else where he had run strong. It was already November when the campaign finally reached out to the White House to get President Barack Obama into Michigan, a state that he’d worked hard and won by large margins in 2008 and 2012. On the Monday before Election Day, Obama added a stop in Ann Arbor, but that final weekend, the president had played golf on Saturday and made one stop in Orlando on Sunday, not having been asked to do anything else. Michigan senior adviser Steve Neuman had been asking for months to get Obama and the first lady on the ground there. People who asked for Vice President Joe Biden to come in were told that top Clinton aides weren’t clearing those trips.
“We worked collaboratively with Brooklyn throughout and made a robust investment in Michigan, and we were obviously disappointed that we came up short. Everybody was,” Neuman said.
‘Not the right plan’
Top aides in Brooklyn write off complaints from battleground state operatives as Monday morning quarterbacking by people who wouldn’t have had much of a case if Clinton had won. They continue to blame the loss on FBI Director James Comey, saying he shifted late deciders, not any tactical failures.
“Now of course, in hindsight, there are any number of steps that we could have taken that may have made the difference in a state as closely decided as Michigan, but the consistent theme across all the battleground states was that we saw our numbers drop in the final week after Jim Comey sent his shocking letter to Congress,” said former Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon.
When top aides to the Trump campaign mapped out the best-case scenarios for election night, they always fell short of 270, and Michigan was always the state that they couldn’t see a way through.
Trump’s last stop of the election was a massive rally in Michigan that went on past midnight, his campaign homing in on Trump’s chances there largely from nervousness it sensed coming out of Brooklyn.
Walking out at the end, Trump turned to his running mate, Mike Pence, almost confused: “This doesn’t feel like second place,” he said, according to a person familiar with the conversation.
Democrats felt it too. Rep. Debbie Dingell, who complained throughout the campaign about the lack of urgency and support, has told people since the election that Hillary and Bill Clinton both said in their final appearances in the state that they felt something was off.
On the morning of Election Day, internal Clinton campaign numbers had her winning Michigan by 5 points. By 1 p.m., an aide on the ground called headquarters; the voter turnout tracking system they’d built themselves in defiance of orders — Brooklyn had told operatives in the state they didn’t care about those numbers, and specifically told them not to use any resources to get them — showed urban precincts down 25 percent. Maybe they should get worried, the Michigan operatives said.
Nope, they were told. She was going to win by 5. All Brooklyn’s data said so.
In at least one of the war rooms in New York, they’d already started celebratory drinking by the afternoon, according to a person there. Elsewhere, calls quietly went out that day to tell key people to get ready to be asked about joining transition teams.
But an hour-and-a-half after polls closed, Clinton aides began making rushed calls, redrawing paths to 270 through the single electoral vote in Maine and Nebraska. Still assuming wins in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Michigan suddenly looked like the state that was going to decide the presidency.
They scrambled a call with campaign attorney Marc Elias, prepping for a recount in a vote that oddly looked like it would be a narrower win than they had ever prepared for. An hour later, after they hung up, they realized it was over. They could tell by the numbers they were seeing — not the numbers being spewed from their own internal analytics team, but the numbers sitting at the bottom of the TV tuned to CNN. With the recount frozen, Clinton lost Michigan by 10,704 votes.
“I think it’s true, they executed well. I think it’s true that the plan was accomplished,” said a former labor leader in the state. “But the plan was not the right plan.”