Hillary Clinton on Saturday cast blame for her surprise
election loss on the announcement by the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, days
before the election that he had revived the inquiry into her use of a private
email server.
In her most extensive remarks since she conceded the race to
Donald J. Trump early Wednesday, Mrs. Clinton told donors on a 30-minute
conference call that Mr. Comey’s decision to send a letter to Congress about
the inquiry 11 days before Election Day had thrust the controversy back into
the news and had prevented her from ending the campaign with an optimistic
closing argument.
“There are lots of reasons why an election like this is not
successful,” Mrs. Clinton said, according to a donor who relayed the remarks.
But, she added, “our analysis is that Comey’s letter raising doubts that were
groundless, baseless, proven to be, stopped our momentum.”
Mrs. Clinton said a second letter from Mr. Comey, clearing
her once again, which came two days before Election Day, had been even more
damaging. In that letter, Mr. Comey said an examination of a new trove of
emails, which had been found on the computer of Anthony D. Weiner, the
estranged husband of one of her top aides, had not caused him to change his
earlier conclusion that Mrs. Clinton should face no charges over her handling
of classified information.
Her campaign said the seemingly positive outcome had only
hurt it with voters who did not trust Mrs. Clinton and were receptive to Mr.
Trump’s claims of a “rigged system.” In particular, white suburban women who
had been on the fence were reminded of the email imbroglio and broke decidedly
in Mr. Trump’s favor, aides said.
After leading in polls in many battleground states, Mrs.
Clinton told the donors on Saturday, “we dropped, and we had to keep really
pushing to regain our advantage, which going into last weekend we had.”
“We were once again up in all but two of the battleground
states, and we were up considerably in some that we ended up losing,” Mrs.
Clinton said. “And we were feeling like we had to put it back together.”
Presidential candidates have a long history of blaming
forces outside their control for their losses. In 2004, John Kerry linked his
defeat to a videotape of Osama bin Laden that appeared days before the
election, stoking fears about terrorism. In 2012, Mitt Romney told donors he
had lost because President Obama had vowed to bestow “gifts” on Democratic
special interests groups, namely African-Americans, Hispanics and young people.
Mrs. Clinton’s contention appears to be more rooted in
reality — and hard data. An internal campaign memo with polling data said that
“there is no question that a week from Election Day, Secretary Clinton was
poised for a historic win,” but that, in the end, “late-breaking developments
in the race proved one hurdle too many for us to overcome.”
Mrs. Clinton lost narrowly in several battleground states,
and by the time all ballots are counted, she appears poised to win the popular
vote by more than two million votes.
Still, Mrs. Clinton’s instinct to shun any personal
responsibility angered some Democrats. Several donors on the call, while deeply
bitter about Mr. Comey’s actions, said they believed that Mrs. Clinton and her
campaign had suffered avoidable missteps that handed the election to an
unacceptable opponent. They pointed to the campaign’s lack of a compelling
message for white working-class voters and to decisions years ago by Mrs.
Clinton to use a private email address at the State Department and to accept millions
of dollars for speeches to Wall Street.
“There is a special place in hell for Clinton staff,
allegedly including Cheryl Mills, that okayed the email server setup,” Jim
Manley, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Senator Harry Reid of
Nevada, wrote on Sidewire, a social media site, referring to a longtime aide
and lawyer to Mrs. Clinton.
Mrs. Clinton’s campaign was so confident in her victory that
her aides popped open Champagne on the campaign plane early Tuesday. But that
conviction, aides would later learn, was based largely on erroneous data
showing that young, black and Latino voters and suburban women who had been
turned off by Mr. Trump’s comments but viewed Mrs. Clinton unfavorably would
turn out for her in higher numbers than they ultimately did.
Exit polls conducted by Edison Research found that among
people who said they had decided in the final week before Election Day, 47
percent voted for Mr. Trump and 42 percent for Mrs. Clinton.
As early as Wednesday morning, aides began to explain to
Democrats shaken by the loss that the campaign’s sophisticated data modeling
had not taken into account the bombshell F.B.I. announcement.
Mr. Comey’s letters to Congress went against the F.B.I.’s
longstanding tradition of avoiding decisions that could affect elections, but
he told aides that he felt he had no choice because he had already weighed in
on the case so publicly. In July, he had taken the unusual step of publicly
announcing that the F.B.I. would not charge Mrs. Clinton.
At the time, she believed she had finally put the issue to
rest. And after the final debate on Oct. 19 in Las Vegas, she emerged in such a
strong position that she began to focus on campaigning for down-ballot Democrats
and planned a campaign stop in traditionally Republican Arizona.
“We felt so good about where we were,” Mrs. Clinton told
donors. Before Mr. Comey’s first letter to Congress, she added, “we just had a
real wind at our back.”
Mr. Trump seized on the letter, telling voters in Nevada the
Saturday before Election Day that “the F.B.I. has reopened its criminal
investigation into Hillary Clinton,” and that the matter “would grind
government to a halt” should Mrs. Clinton win the White House. The F.B.I.’s
examination of the new emails did not in fact reopen the investigation.
Democratic pollsters attributed Mr. Trump’s laser-thin
victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — states that President Obama
had won — largely to a drifting of college-educated suburban women to the
Republican nominee at the last minute, because of the renewed focus on Mrs.
Clinton’s email server.
“We lost with college-educated whites after leading with
them all summer,” a Clinton spokesman, Brian Fallon, said on Wednesday. “Five
more days of reminders about Comey, and they gravitated back to Trump.”
Before Mrs. Clinton spoke on Saturday, her finance director,
Dennis Cheng, thanked the donors on the call, each of whom had raised at least
$100,000. The campaign brought in nearly $1 billion to spend heavily on data
efforts, to disperse hundreds of staff members to battleground states, and to
air television advertisements — only to fall short to Mr. Trump’s upstart
Donors conceded that, ultimately, no amount of money could
match Mr. Trump’s crisp pitch, aimed at the economically downtrodden, to “make
America great again.”
“You can have the greatest field program, and we did — he
had nothing,” said Jay S. Jacobs, a prominent New York Democrat and donor to
Mrs. Clinton. “You can have better ads, paid for by greater funds, and we did.
Unfortunately, Trump had the winning argument.”
Mrs. Clinton has kept a low profile since her concession
speech at a Midtown Manhattan hotel on Wednesday. On Thursday, a young mother
with her 13-month-old daughter spotted Mrs. Clinton walking her dogs near her
home in Chappaqua, N.Y., posting a photo of the defeated candidate on Facebook
that quickly went viral along with the hashtag #ImStillWithHer.
On Friday night, Mrs. Clinton thanked volunteers on a
nationwide conference call. “Look, I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” she said,
sighing. “These have been very, very tough days.”
New York Times
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