As you know, we now have a roiling, renewed debate over whether a mix of Russian hacking and James Comey’s final week intervention in the November election shifted the balance in Donald Trump’s favor. Even more, it’s a public debate over whether Hillary Clinton should keep claiming this is so or just, in one side’s view, own up to her failed campaign and stop making excuses. Plenty of others have argued this case on the merits, particularly Nate Silver looking at Comey’s intervention and its effect on polls in the final week of the campaign. Others have delved into psychological analyses.
But I want to make a different point.
We can’t run real election simulations or know how alternative histories turned out. Relatedly, I will leave to others whether it’s wise or unwise for Hillary Clinton to keep talking about the causes of her defeat. But here’s the issue in my mind: If you step back from the particulars and personalities involved, it almost defies belief that anyone thinks a candidate who lost under these circumstances wouldn’t keep talking about it basically forever.
Let’s consider what I believe are the relevant points.
First: Donald Trump’s electoral college victory turned out to be substantial. But it was based on fewer than 100,000 votes spread across a handful of states. In other words, it was extremely close and any number of small factors could have made the difference.
Second: The FBI Director broke all precedent and DOJ guidelines to announce a criminal investigation into what proved to be the losing candidate just over a week before the election. There was little reason to believe the purported new evidence would lead to any criminal charges or indeed even any substantial new evidence. And it turned out that the ‘investigation’ was based on nothing. The entire blow up turned out to be based on nothing and knowing what we know now about what investigators and Comey knew at the time suggest he had little reason to think there was anything there.
Third: A rival foreign power ransacked the computer files and email logs of the losing candidate and strategically leaked them out over the final months of the campaign with the intention and the effect of distracting and damaging what proved to be the losing candidate.
Fourth: We don’t know whether the winning candidate actively colluded with the rival foreign power. But we know that the candidate cheered the foreign power on in their campaign of damage and disruption. How do we know? He did it publicly? On camera. Out in the open. We all saw this.
Each of these four factors (and one could easily spin them out into many more) were completely unprecedented. And it’s almost beyond imagining that 2 and 3 didn’t damage Clinton and play some role in her eventual defeat. Do we really think the last week of email and Comey stories had no net negative effect on Clinton’s vote total? That defies common sense and any possible logic.
I can’t know and you can’t know if Clinton would have won without these things happening. Counterfactuals, by definition, did not happen. But to think it’s crazy or whiny to think she would have or might have won is bizarre. It’s sort of like two champions were vying to win the New York Marathon and had a photo finish. But the eventual loser had pranksters twice run up to her during the final mile and trip her and make her fall on her face.
Do we think this might have contributed to her defeat? Would anyone actually entertain this as a serious question? Would anyone think the tripped runner would ever stop thinking she might well have won if she hadn’t been attacked twice in the final minutes? Really?
Again, I’m not getting into a disinterested analysis of the impact of these factors, whether it might not be the better part of wisdom just not to talk about it. These are technical and subjective issues. But it’s hard for me to imagine anyone would seriously be lecturing that runner about taking responsibility for her defeat.
Actually it’s impossible to imagine.
Close victories and defeats have a million potential causes. It matters a great deal which ones you want to focus on. But just in the realm of human nature and the standards we apply in almost every other context, the ‘take responsibility’ lecturing of Clinton just seems bizarre.