• Politics

7 Takeaways From a New Book on the Clinton Campaign

7 minute read

The first signs came just after 7 p.m. on Election Night, a trickle of tepid polling returns out of Virginia. From there, things went sideways in a hurry.

Huge Republican turnout across rural Florida prompted a top Democratic Florida sage to phone Hillary Clinton’s advisers before 8 p.m. to inform them that she had lost the Sunshine State. Within a few hours, the coronation was off, Clinton was prodded by Barack Obama into making an unthinkable concession call, and a campaign convinced it was on the brink of electing the first female president was left puzzling over how it had all gone awry.

This is the question at the heart of Shattered, a new autopsy of the campaign by authors Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes. Told largely through background interviews with campaign staff and a tangle of Clinton insiders, the book is a comprehensive chronicle of how her quest for the White House lurched and sputtered toward ignominious defeat.

Richly reported, if not often revelatory, it portrays a campaign beset by strategic errors, a factional staff consumed with power struggles and a candidate with a poor feel for the electorate.

Here are seven takeaways from Shattered:

  • The staff squabbles: Determined to avoid the pitfalls of her failed 2008 campaign, Clinton made a point of importing fresh faces from outside her network of loyalists. Not all those hires worked. Joel Benenson, the top strategist with a $1 million win bonus and three successful White House campaigns under his belt, was a disaster, Allen and Parnes report. “Condescending, dismissive, nasty,” he feuded with both Clintons and was quietly sidelined months before November. Robby Mook, the young data wiz brought in to serve as campaign manager, is the target of withering criticism from unnamed campaign rivals. They cast Mook as a cutthroat operator whose “obsession with control” and “desire to maintain the kingdom rather than win the war” lead him, at one point, to offer up a close ally as a sacrifice to “save his own skin.” Among the litany of other complaints: Mook invested too much money in Iowa, failed to invest in the tail end of the primary calendar and refused to poll down the stretch—a function of his fanatical devotion to data analytics, which guided everything from spending decisions to where to deploy the candidate and field staff. In the end, those models were wrong.
  • The Seinfeld campaign: From the jump, Clinton could not decide what the campaign was about, leaving it like Seinfeld, the show that was famously about nothing. That became clear as early as the spring of 2015, when her speechwriters struggled to pinpoint themes in her announcement speech. Veteran Democratic hands enlisted to punch up a formless pudding of an address, like former Obama scribe Jon Favreau, were left with the sense, the authors write, that “Hillary didn’t have a vision to articulate. And no one else could give one to her.” All the way to the end of the campaign, this manifested in Clinton’s tendency to burrow into policy details rather than grapple with the big picture. “Our problem is missing the forest for the trees,” speechwriter Dan Schwerin would later write. “We’ve never found a good way (or at least a way she embraces) that sums up her vision for how America would be different.”
  • The candidate was badly flawed: According to the authors, Clinton grasped her inability to connect with voters. “I don’t understand what’s happening with the country,” she tells her friend and adviser Minyon Moore. “I can’t get my arms around it.” She wasn’t much better as a manager. When it came to staff, Allen and Parnes write, she favored loyalty over political chops, and ended up repeating the mistakes of 2008 by creating a campaign structure that pitted warring factions against one another. “The people close to Clinton didn’t know politics, and the political pros she’d hired didn’t know her very well,” the authors write. When things inevitably go amiss, she chews them out: “the one person with whom she didn’t seem particularly upset: herself.”
  • The veepstakes laid bare the party’s weak bench: It was a symptom of the candidate’s struggle with decision-making, the authors suggest, that Clinton couldn’t pull the trigger on selecting Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate until the very latest possible moment — despite the fact that Kaine was the runaway front-runner for the role all along. Joining him in the final quartet of candidates were Cory Booker, Tom Vilsack and Elizabeth Warren. Among the names on the earliest long lists: Michael Bloomberg, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent, and figures as far flung as Kevin de León, a leader in California’s state legislature.
  • Everyone underestimated Trump: That includes Barack Obama. After Clinton clinched the nomination last summer, the President appeared with her at their first joint event in Charlotte, N.C. Obama tore into Trump with gusto, then bounded offstage, ebullient. “This is too easy,” he said to top Clinton aides John Podesta and Jake Sullivan, according to the authors. “There’s just so much material.”
  • The Huma problem: The authors offer a relatively sympathetic portrayal of Huma Abedin — the campaign vice chair, longtime confidante and “croc-filled moat” protecting the candidate from interactions with even some of her most senior staff. But their sources are unsparing. “Huma was a disaster waiting to happen,” one says. Abedin was a part of several of the campaign’s unforced errors. She was at the center of the email server issue. She failed to alert staff that Clinton was suffering from pneumonia in September. She faced a Senate investigation over the propriety of doing private consulting work while working for the State Department. And, though through no fault of her own, she was connected via her husband to the FBI probe that derailed the campaign down the stretch. “In any other political operation,” one source observes, “she would have been cast aside publicly and brutally long before [that] moment.”
  • The craziest day of the campaign: On Friday, Oct. 7, these things happened: the intelligence community announced the Russian government had directed the hacking of emails designed to interfere with the U.S. election process. The Access Hollywood tape surfaced. And the first batch of Podesta emails was published by Wikileaks. To their dismay, Clinton officials came to believe the steady drip of mundane communications was more damaging to Clinton than Trump’s boasts about sexually assaulting women were to the Republican. “That was the single most illustrative moment of what this campaign was,” one aide says. “Here’s something Donald Trump did and said and was arguably disqualifying to a lot of voters — something that could put the race away — but within moments, a factor related to emails comes around and puts a thumb on the other side of the scale.”
  • Congratulations, Donald”: One camp of Clinton aides did not want to concede on Election Night, noting the razor-thin margins in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Neither did Clinton. But Obama — first through aides, and then directly — determined the race was over. “You need to concede,” he told her. Mook and Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had agreed that the losing candidate would concede within 15 minutes of the Associated Press calling the race. But it wasn’t until about 2:30 a.m. that Clinton reached Trump to utter the two words that nobody, least of all her, ever expected.
  • More Must-Reads from TIME

    Write to Alex Altman at alex_altman@timemagazine.com