Three and a half weeks later, Democrats are still in the business of blaming people who are not Democrats for Hillary Clinton losing a presidential election to television’s Donald Trump. No, I don’t mean that we should’ve expected them to have stopped blaming everyone but themselves. We should expect them to continue regularly right up until the day they’re all sent to the re-education camps. In the meantime, Democrats who are genuinely interested in introspection—of whom, from what I can tell, there seem to be very few—should focus on what went wrong that’s within their power to change going forward.
Such a productive conversation, which requires the quality of humility, is unsurprisingly not fashionable. What is fashionable? Blaming Jill Stein and Jim Comey for the lowly station in politics that the Democratic Party occupies today.
Democrats didn’t have the narrow mathematical path they needed to blame Stein for blowing the election—until this week. Though Stein’s vote totals in Michigan and Wisconsin surpassed Donald Trump’s victory margin in each state, winning those two states still wouldn’t have gotten Clinton to 270 electoral votes. But a new batch of Pennsylvania votes that dropped this week finally cut Clinton’s deficit to less than Stein’s vote total.
Dave Wasserman was merely pointing out this mathematical fact—that Stein had more votes than the margin in the three tipping-point states—and was not suggesting that without Stein, Clinton would be president. That’s nevertheless the conclusion that a lot of Clinton supporters will draw and hold onto dearly for the rest of their lives.
The Pennsylvania count is not finished. As of this writing, the state margin stands at 49,543 votes, and Stein has 49,678. Whether it’s 94 percent or 99 percent, it doesn’t matter: There is no way in hell that 90-something percent of Stein voters would had voted for Clinton had Stein not been on the ballot. Anyone who has ever had a conversation with a group of Stein voters would know this. There’s only the teensiest chance, too, that 72 percent of Stein voters would have voted for Clinton in Wisconsin on a Steinless ballot. Maybe Clinton could have picked up Michigan, though, and come away with 246 electoral votes. A somewhat more compelling case can be made that Clinton would have had a better shot in these states had Gary Johnson, who enjoyed a strange cachet among some young, left-leaning voters, also not been on the ballot. These hypothetical scenarios, even in their most generous interpretations, are far blurrier than the 2000 election, when just another 538 votes in Florida would have elected Al Gore, and Ralph Nader had more than 97,000.
They’re all just hypotheses, though, and they will always be, because the Green and Libertarian parties are not going anywhere. Democrats cannot change the existence of third parties. All they can change is their candidate, their campaign, and their message to limit defections to third parties, like they did in the previous two presidential elections. They can choose candidates who are not widely disliked. They can run campaigns that are cognizant of the possibility that they could lose Wisconsin and Michigan more than a half second before the election and devote more resources there early instead of gunning for the 340th electoral vote in North Carolina or not devote their general election energies to converting masses of suburban Republicans to Clinton. Stein and Johnson were both on the ballot in 2012, too. They weren’t a problem. What, then, was it about the Clinton campaign that made it so susceptible to the modest tallies of a perennial activist protest candidate and a flighty New Mexico governor from the ’90s?
Then there was the FBI letter from Jim Comey a week and a half before the election. No less a figure than Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook blamed the election loss on Comey at a Harvard postelection panel this week. “It’s hard to imagine the kind of impact that that letter had,” Mook said. “We were expecting to perform better with suburban women. We do think that was because of the Comey letter. … We saw a lot of young people go to third-party candidates and we think the letter had something to do with that, too.”
Blaming the Comey letter for swaying just enough voters is more solid. I wouldn’t say it’s concrete, though: A lot of Republican-leaning suburbanites, who hate Clinton, were looking for any excuse they could find to get themselves to vote for Trump. If it hadn’t been Comey, it would have been something else. Maybe all they needed was the curtain of the voting booth.
The lesson of the Comey letter should not be that everything was just going fine until this singular event happened. Obviously Democratic candidates can pick up some tips for the future, such as a) always be sure to follow email protocol and b) keep your electronic devices as far as possible from Anthony Weiner. But they can never rule out some other Comey-equivalent October surprise. The question to ask is: Why was the Clinton campaign so susceptible to a slight shock in the first place? A campaign is resting on a very weak foundation if one vague letter from the FBI causes it to lose a huckster who sells crappy steaks at the Sharper Image.
If the autopsy takeaways are that third parties and Comey were the problems, then the lessons Democrats will take ahead of 2020 are that they need to blast Jill Stein and Gary Johnson into outer space and prevent FBI directors from releasing vague letters, and everything should be fine. Even if Clinton had eked out narrow wins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, the Democratic Party’s poor showing against a Trump-led Republican Party would have signaled something was seriously wrong with the patient. Parties can never eliminate external factors. All they can do is ensure that the foundation’s strong enough to withstand them.