Op-eds and Articles

How Clinton Lost the Ground Game: A View From the Trenches

By Amory Beldock

I worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign in what was deemed the most important county in the nation’s biggest battleground: Miami Dade, Florida. I was a cog in the feared Clinton Machine: a vast network of field operations, data gurus, politicos, press pools and finance players spanning all 50 states. It was four years in the making, and on November 8 we were brought to our knees by a populist explosion unforeseen by either party’s most seasoned political forecasters. What did we miss?

The failure of the Clinton Campaign came down to a strategy flawed in both conception and execution. Our singular focus on rebuilding the Obama coalition of minorities and millenials through an overreliance on data analytics failed to mobilize an apathetic voting bloc. It was the fatal combination of identity politics and data obsession that dealt us the final blow, and provides a useful lesson to the post-Clinton left as democrats struggle to rebrand in the age of Trump.

As field organizers we operated under a set of weekly goals laid out by the data team using metrics they projected would lead us to victory. For the men and women calling the shots in Brooklyn HQ, it was strictly a numbers game. A highly competitive environment was fostered between regions and organizers: who made the most calls? Who registered the most voters? Who knocked on the most doors? As one Regional Organizing Director put it: “we are not here to organize communities. We are here to hit numbers to look good for Brooklyn.”

The strategy was mobilization over persuasion. It assumed that Clinton would coast to an easy victory by turning out the broad coalition of Latinos, African Americans, women and millenials that powered Obama’s victories. As it happened, however, the enthusiasm Obama kindled among these voters was not transferable to Clinton. Our campaign simply didn’t give these voters, known as “Rising American Electorate,” sufficient reasons to get excited about our candidate.

Brooklyn’s narrow focus on data was frustrating for the political and field operatives on the ground advocating for more of a human touch. There was no attempt to train organizers how to seek out community leaders, mobilize local organizations or build relationships with the grassroots. We were consistently denied resources to help us build credibility within our neighborhoods. Pleas for offices in African American communities were ignored, as were requests for Spanish language canvass scripts, until the final weeks before election day. Even then, organizers were forced to ask their volunteers to pay for desperately needed materials, even donate the funds to open field offices. None of this mattered to the decision-makers tucked away from the action in their boiler rooms; they had full confidence in their data.

The campaign’s vaunted ground game was built from the top down rather than the ground up. Instead of hiring from the communities we needed to mobilize, staff was imported from around the country, resulting in a disconnect between campaign objectives and the local dynamics of each precinct. For example, organizers with no knowledge of Spanish were placed in low-income Hispanic communities. Similarly, I was repeatedly asked why a white guy from Vermont was in charge of organizing one of Miami’s historic black communities. The campaign’s algorithms were feeding a field staff that operated at a deficit from day one. “Just hit your goals,” they told us, “and we will win.”

Ultimately, the metrics we were pressured to meet were not enough to overcome a very real voter enthusiasm gap. Nor did our statistical goals account for a larger than expected undecided vote, or the unusually high turnout of rural and older voters in northern Florida. When the data failed us, our arrogance in snubbing local outreach to inspire communities to vote came back to haunt us.

Despite historic turnout in South Florida, where we turned out nearly 100,000 more voters for Hillary than Obama won in 2012, Trump swept the state. Consider the results in these six rural counties just a few hundred miles north of Miami. Obama lost Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Sumter, Pinellas and Levy counties by 38,685 votes in 2012. Hillary lost those same counties to Trump by nearly three times that margin, 120,260 votes (she lost the state by 112,911 votes). Miami proved to be an anomaly, as the rest of the state’s urban centers failed to deliver the votes that reelected the President four years ago. As University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith wrote, “Her campaign suffered, ultimately, by not being able to persuade independents, and even Democrats, who had unfavorable views of her.”

By the time Florida was called on election night, it was clear this phenomenon had spread north across the traditional swing states and into democratic strongholds. Turnout was down in the diverse major cities of the reliably blue rustbelt states, while the whiter, rural counties turned out unusually strong for Trump. Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia each saw a drop in voter turnout, while each city’s suburbs saw a red spike that put a resounding crack in Clinton’s blue wall.

The campaign predicted we could replicate Obama’s minority vote while besting his performance among white voters. We failed to do both. It appears that the campaign was attempting to make up for the lack of direct constituent outreach in other ways. As the campaign’s national press secretary, Brian Fallon, tweeted in response to criticism, the persuasion element was delivered in the form of emotionally charged TV ads, which came in droves, and a series of soaring speeches designed to position Clinton as a champion of minorities.

Her first major policy speech, delivered in April 2015, addressed the issues of mass incarceration and systemic racism in the criminal justice system. She continually asked white Americans to acknowledge the realities of “white privilege.” In contrast to Sen. Bernie Sanders, she declared that addressing economic inequality would not be enough “to break down the barriers African American families face.”

Contrary to some post-election analysis, Clinton did address the economic insecurity felt by voters across swing states, directly and extensively. The campaign simply didn’t prioritize delivering that message to the right people, essentially writing off the white working class.  Both the election results and exit polls indicate Clinton succeeded in convincing voters that Trump’s insults of women and minorities made him “temperamentally unfit” for the Presidency. But blue-collar whites in pivotal states were simply more concerned about their precarious economic position.

The lessons are twofold. First, while the rapidly increasing minority vote will remain a crucial target for Democrats, they must rebuild their base of white working class voters. Second, it should now be clear that data-driven contacts every two or four years won’t suffice to bind voters to the party’s candidates. The strategy must include engaging these groups at the grassroots level with solutions to the issues that motivate them. Building cross generational support, from millennials to seniors, will be necessary to spark real enthusiasm that translates into votes. Progressive organizations and state parties must partner with local leaders to empower community members, recruit volunteers and build a network that can be activated when it’s time to get out the vote. It is crucial this multifaceted approach of mobilization and persuasion take place during off election years to counter the widely shared belief, particularly in the African American community, that party operatives pop up every four years to drag them to the polls.

A lasting grassroots infrastructure must be built in every county of every state, red and blue, urban and rural. While data remains a valuable asset to modern campaigning, its viability is contingent on a message that energizes voters and enables a ground game capable of building new coalitions rather than replicating those unique to past candidates. Striking this balance will define the success of the Democratic Party in the age of Trump.

Amory Beldock is a Winter Fellow at Progressive Policy Institute and a senior at McGill University’s Honours School of Political Science. He was a Field Organizer with Hillary Clinton’s Florida Coordinated Campaign during the 2016 Presidential election.