Skip to main content

How Useful Are Campaign Post-Mortems?

We tend to focus on the bad moments when looking back at a losing campaign and ignore them when thinking about the winners.

By Seth Masket


After a presidential election, it’s customary for the losing campaign and party to conduct some sort of post-mortem, either formally or informally, to figure out just what went wrong. This is certainly a healthy and humbling process. But it’s also possible to learn the wrong lessons from the past, or to over-learn the right ones.

Last week, Politico ran a brutal analysis of Hillary Clinton’s Michigan campaign by Edward-Isaac Dovere. The piece suggested that Clinton made numerous unforced errors that probably cost her both the state and the election. It portrays a national campaign organization, based in Brooklyn, that was out of touch with what was going on at the ground level, and was driven by its faith in erroneous data and a “one-size-fits-all approach” to state campaigns. Clinton, suggests the piece, failed to work with local labor organizations and party officials and just didn’t visit the state frequently enough. She also didn’t run enough of a door-knocking campaign, which Dovere suggests was possibly fatal:

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.

I don’t know whether Clinton or other prominent party leaders have read it, but quite a few Democrats clearly have and have taken the lessons to heart. But there are a number of problems with this analysis that should be considered before it becomes accepted as The Reason That Clinton Lost.

For one, while Michigan was clearly (and surprisingly) a pivotal state in this election, it was not the only one in which polls were wrong and underestimated Republican support among rural whites. Let’s compare Michigan to two other states with somewhat similar demographic profiles — Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. According to polls (which we now know were flawed), Clinton was leading by five points in Pennsylvania and six in the other two states just before the election. Clinton campaigned heavily in Pennsylvania, with a sophisticated ground game and a two-to-one advertising advantage over Donald Trump in the weeks before the election. In Wisconsin, she ran only about half the advertisements that Trump ran. She invested almost nothing in Michigan at all. The results? Trump beat her in all three states by less than a percentage point.

What to make of this? For one, it suggests a pretty minimal role for campaign effects. Whether Clinton spent a ton of money or none at all, she wound up in pretty much the same place. It also suggests that, even if Clinton had run an aggressive ground game in Michigan, her team wouldn’t necessarily have picked up on problems with polling. No one picked up on that in Pennsylvania either. It’s important to remember that it wasn’t just the Clinton team that got the polling wrong. Basically everyone did. The election results were apparently as much of a surprise to Republican strategists as they were to Democrats.

Another problem with articles like the Politico piece is that, just because we can construct a narrative of campaign dysfunction in hindsight doesn’t mean it was the cause of a campaign’s loss. Every campaign has a story of a rude staffer who doesn’t give out yard signs. Every campaign has a volunteer who acted inappropriately or a manager who behaved imperiously. Every campaign offends an important local leader or wastes money at some point. I assure you that there were some epic screw-ups inside the Obama 2008 campaign and some moments of true brilliance inside the McCain 2008 campaign. We tend to focus on the bad moments when looking back at a losing campaign and ignore them when thinking about the winners.

And it’s particularly important, when people say the Clinton 2016 campaign was poorly run, to ask the question, “Compared to what?” The Trump campaign was disorganized, under-funded, and amateurish on its best days. On its worst, the candidate was outwardly offending key voting groups. He still won. We saw the same thing in the primaries, where Trump beat out many well-funded rivals with highly sophisticated and experienced campaigns.

This is related to another point made effectively by Dan Drezner:

He’s absolutely right. The Republican Party in 2012 was convinced that Mitt Romney lost because their party wasn’t inclusive enough, seemed too old and white, and wasn’t sufficiently supportive of immigration reform. Trump doubled down on all of their self-assessed flaws and came out the winner. Maybe that post-mortem was wrong, or maybe the fundamentals of the political environment just matter a lot more.

Given the closeness of this election, it’s plausible that any number of things could have made the difference. Had Russia never hacked Democratic National Committee data, had Comey not made his public insinuations about Clinton a few weeks before the election, had the Clinton campaign had better polling data, etc., we’d likely be calling her president-elect today. But it’s hard to know what lesson to draw from that to use in future campaigns. It’s easy to say that you shouldn’t take your lead for granted, but exactly how do we translate that into a specific recommendation for the next campaign?

Perhaps the most important lesson is that any major party nominee, no matter how seemingly awful or unpopular, has a shot at winning. This is a lesson not so much for the general election campaigns, but for the parties: Be careful whom you nominate. Pick someone you’d be comfortable seeing in office. You’d be surprised who can lose. And who can win.