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Against Halperinism

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You will not be surprised to know that Matt Taibbi thinks that the first of many “random inside baseball campaign anecdotes that assume without argument that the degree of campaign infighting is the most important variable determining the outcome of elections” books about the 2016 campaign is very useful. But I was pleasantly surprised to see Steven Ginsberg, the senior politics editor of the Washington Post, raise questions about the value of books that compile a bunch of self-interested stories without any effort to put them in structural or comparative context:

“Shattered” is essentially a sequel to “HRC,” a 2014 book by Allen and Parnes that chronicled Clinton’s time at the State Department. It’s also the first offering of what will surely be many books about what really happened inside the 2016 campaigns. Going first has its advantages — perhaps in sales and attention — but in this case the quick-fire version proves too limiting.

Does it really matter who was pissy at whom in Brooklyn when we still don’t know what role the Russians played in the election or why FBI Director James Comey publicly announced a reopening of the email investigation in late October? Those questions are largely left unexplored here, other than as targets of Clinton’s post-election ire.

Staying inside Clinton’s inner circle also keeps the story oddly away from Trump, who is absent from much of the book even though he was the dominant force throughout the election. By contrast, Clinton’s primary fight against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont consumes much of the first half of the book. The authors provide plenty of details, but their takeaway is familiar: Sanders was unexpectedly popular; Clinton could never quite figure him out but nonetheless managed to outlast him.

[…]

Some of the criticism of Mook rings true — his celebrated voter modeling, for instance, turned out to be catastrophically off — but his portrait also carries the stench of bitter co-workers conveniently tossing after-the-fact blame his way.

“Shattered” leaves open the question of how Clinton lost. She and her campaign are convinced that Comey was the pivotal factor — and there is evidence to support that view. But the Comey episode doesn’t address why the race in the reliably blue Rust Belt was so close to begin with or what Clinton could have done to alter it.

Much of the post-election analysis has criticized Clinton and her campaign for focusing on “reach” states such as North Carolina instead of putting more resources in the upper Midwest. That view is both echoed and called into question in “Shattered,” which depicts a vexing Goldilocks-style problem for Clinton across the region.

In Wisconsin, she didn’t show up enough. In Michigan, local organizers thought it was best that she stayed away. In Pennsylvania, she campaigned as aggressively as anywhere in the nation. In all three, she lost by less than 1 percent of the vote. So what should she have done?

The answer often comes back to Mook’s model, which, we are reminded again and again, was wrong. But let’s say he had the right model — would Clinton have had a winning strategy, or would she have known she was going to lose? We’re never told.

Comparing this review to Kakutani’s, it’s not hard to understand why the Post‘s political reporting was dramatically better than the Times‘s in 2016.

As Pierce argues in an excellent recent post, the point about disappearing Trump is particularly important. Analyzing the outcome in the Rust Belt while mostly ignoring Trump is like sports talk radio callers who view a playoff loss solely through the lens of the losing team, while ignoring the plays the opposition had to make to win. I suppose it’s possible that a generic Republican nominee could have scrambled the electoral map like Trump did — but it’s far more plausible that they wouldn’t have. Either way, you can’t just ignore Trump, a very unique candidate both in terms of his strengths as well as his weaknesses, when you’re trying to figure out why he won. And perhaps better tactical choices could have caused Clinton to outperform the structural models by an even greater margin than she did, but the fact that her campaign had the same internal disagreements every campaign does isn’t actually evidence of this.

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