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Did a Clinton campaign decision made in May doom down-ballot Democrats?

One of the biggest takeaways from July’s DNC was that Hillary Clinton was actively courting Republicans. The last two days of the convention were all about flag waving and military might: Ronald Reagan would have been proud. Moreover, the DNC’s highest profile speakers—both Clintons, Barack Obama, Tim Kaine, Michael Bloomberg—relentlessly argued that Trumpism was not Republicanism and that Trump was an aberration, not a representative of the party of Lincoln.

This made many Democrats and progressives nervous. The Clinton campaign had decided to woo Republicans, particularly “moderate” or “suburban” ones, and they worried that this would hurt down-ballot Democrats and, potentially, hurt Clinton with Bernie Sanders voters. At the time, it seemed like a risky, but worthwhile strategy: Sanders voters seemed to be coming around to Clinton and down-ballot Democrats could tie their opponents to Trump’s vile policies and comments.

What we didn’t know at the time, however, was that the decision to run against Trumpism and not Republicanism was made in May, when the Democratic primary was definitively won, but not yet over. BuzzFeed’s Ruby Cramer has a long and sharp article that uses WikiLeaks emails to illuminate the decision to make the campaign about personality, not policy:

On the trail, Clinton doesn’t engage much in the economic and social debates that typically animate both parties in a presidential election. (In May, on at least two occasions, WikiLeaks emails show, Clinton’s team asked the DNC to stay “out of policy” when it came to framing Trump — once around his May 12 meeting with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, and a second time in relation to infrastructure messaging.)

Unfortunately, as Cramer notes, the strategy hasn’t worked. With less than 50 days until election day, the race is still close. And down-ballot Democrats in key races are struggling because their Republican challengers have been able to wriggle free of the association with Trump. As Cramer notes, New Hampshire Republican Kelly Ayotte is seen as a “different kind of Republican” by voters, while Senators Pat Toomey and Richard Burr are currently winning a fifth of Clinton voters.

The Clinton campaign has signaled that it is going to change strategies: That it will no longer simply make the case that Trump shouldn’t be elected, but that it will make a more forceful case for the differences between the two candidates’ policies. There’s enough time for this strategy to pay dividends for Clinton, but it may be too late for down-ballot Democrats.