Democratic insider discusses Clinton's loss

On a short trip to Singapore to promote tourism and investments in the US state of Virginia, where he is governor, former Democratic Party National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who chaired Mr Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential campaign and also Mrs Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign, sat down with Associate Editor Ravi Velloor to discuss Mrs Clinton's unexpected loss to Mr Donald Trump in this month's US presidential election.

Q What went wrong?

A We are still sorting through it.

Obviously, FBI director (James) Comey did not help. Ten days out, that (letter he wrote to Congress) impacted the turnout number for us. Then, after eight years, people instinctively like change. It is also hard for a woman to be president of the United States. We've never had one. It was a combination of all that.

People didn't care about all the issues about Mr Donald Trump. They just wanted change. I have known Mr Trump for 20 years. He did tap into an angst in America where the middle-class feel their incomes are not going up, while their expenses are going up. They feel they are going backwards, not forwards. Sort of what we saw in Brexit.

Unfortunately, people didn't look deep into the issues because Americans are not for putting walls up around us. We are very pro-trade. Virginia State just opened an office in Seoul yesterday.

Q But all the stars seemed to be aligned in her favour: gender, race... you are near full employment.

A All that is true. On Election Day, Mr Trump did not expect to win. Nobody did. But let's be very clear: she got two million more votes than he got. She won the popular vote. Yesterday, she was declared winner in New Hampshire. She will probably end up winning Michigan as well. But we have this electoral college system which goes back to the framers of the Constitution. It made sense then, but not today. Mr Al Gore won the popular vote too, as you know.


Mr McAuliffe (above) said it was a combination of several factors that pushed Mr Trump to victory, including the one involving the FBI director's letter to Congress that impacted voter turnout for Mrs Clinton. PHOTO: VIRGINIA TOURISM CORP

But it is what it is and we have to move forward. I have been doing this for a very, very long time. I have known the Clintons for nearly 40 years. I chaired her last campaign for president. I chaired Mr (Bill) Clinton's re-election. We've been personal friends. Our families vacation together. It was heartbreaking. She would have been a spectacular president; smart, tough. (She'd been) secretary of state, US senator, first lady. So she had all the attributes. And honestly for me, with five children - three of them young daughters - it was personally exciting for me to think of a woman president of America.

That would have sent quite a message for the world.

Q What caused the traditional blue (Democratic) states to move towards red?

A Let me first say that Virginia was blue. So, I am very proud of my state. The only southern state that went blue. Pennsylvania was the one that really surprised me. The campaign manager there is a friend of mine. You could make the argument that Hillary never went to Wisconsin at all. Polls consistently had her ahead there by six, seven, nine points. You could make the argument that she should have gone there.

But put that aside: Pennsylvania had the full resources of the campaign. She travelled there extensively. I just think people wanted something new and different. That's the only way I can explain it.

Q What about Florida? You'd have thought that with a significant Hispanic population and Trump's comments about them, it would have been a cinch for you.

A The Hispanic population was up, but some of the old Hispanic folks liked the idea of getting illegal immigrants out of our country.

Q This is exactly what I saw when I covered Brexit. Those in, wanted to shut the door behind them to others.

A Yes, a lot of them said: "I came here legally, they did not. So, throw them out." A lot of the exit data I saw showed that with the Hispanic vote. Still, Hillary won two-thirds of the Hispanic vote. But turnout (was a problem). Not many of them were excited to come.

Q Why?

MIDDLE-CLASS ANGST

People didn't care about all the issues about Mr Donald Trump. They just wanted change. I have known Mr Trump for 20 years. He did tap into an angst in America where the middle-class feel their incomes are not going up while their expenses are going up. They feel they are going backwards, not forwards. Sort of what we saw in Brexit.

VIRGINIA GOVERNOR TERRY MCAULIFFE, on how Mr Trump managed to win.

A I don't think we have all the answers today. But clearly, people were bombarded with information. We've lived on TV. Hillary spent more than a billion dollars on the campaign, so there was a lot of TV and radio going on. When President (Barack) Obama won in 2008 - a historic vote when we elected the first African-American President - a lot of young people were very fired up during the campaign. We went through a long, tough slog with Senator Bernie Sanders during the primaries. And I do think maybe some young people and the millennials ended up voting for third- party candidates. That took the vote away from her. It would have made a difference in Michigan, Pennsylvania.

Q But the black vote did not turn out as expected. Why?

A Remember, Mr Obama was the first African-American President. So that was a historic thing.

Q Many people say Mr Clinton was the first "black" president of America. He is in the Black Hall of Fame after all. Surely, affection for him should have spilled to her too?

A (Laughing) Listen, we will look at all the data. We (now) just have to work with Mr Trump. He is the President(-elect) of all America. Let's just see what happens to all the things he said in the campaign.

He has already backed off somewhat on Obamacare. We will see what he does on the immigrant issue. He is not going around with the police force and rounding up 10 million immigrants in the country. Reality will now set in as he deals with the big issues as President of the US. (Japanese) Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is meeting with him. There is not going to be any nuclear weapons in Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. That was the rhetoric of the campaign. Now it is reality time and he has to put his Cabinet together.

Q If you had run her campaign, what would you have done differently?

A I hate to be a second-guesser. What is interesting is all the polling data in America was wrong. She had a solid 308 to 325 electoral votes (in those forecasts). Michigan was never in question, so too Wisconsin. Every single poll was wrong. When you run a campaign, you look at polling data.

Q Let me put it another way. What could have been done better? You had the money, the resources... she had a very popular ex-president for a husband.

A It was the first time many of the voter ID laws went into effect, many of them pushed by Republicans in the states. I, as Governor of Virginia, had to veto a bunch of them in Virginia. I read that 300,000 voters in Wisconsin were turned away because of these new laws. It disenfranchised voters.

It was a rough night. People were shocked. I was shocked. Mr Trump was shocked.

Q Should Mr Bernie Sanders have run instead of her?

A Listen, we had primaries. She won the primaries.

Q How should Asia interpret the election?

A My point to convey is that we are not going to put up walls. We are going to continue to trade with countries. I was an advocate for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). This was something we had worked on for a very long time. It was seven years in the making. Of the 11 other countries involved, I think 66 per cent of our exports go to those countries. I am concerned not only economically, but for the US government to show we are tilted towards Asia Pacific. But overall, the message is: It is a global economy and you have to do business with the global economy.

Q Is TPP really dead? Can it be salvaged?

A I am the eternal optimist but I think the chances are very, very slim. There is very little chance. You can't amend it.

Q Final question. What kind of man is Mr Trump?

A President Obama hit the nail on the head when he said Mr Trump is not an ideologue, he is a pragmatist. He is a business person. He believes the thing he says but it is not tethered to reality. And the things he said during the campaign are totally unrealistic.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 19, 2016, with the headline 'Democratic insider discusses Clinton's loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe