Was Hillary's "deplorables" comment a strategic play?

I agree with Ed that the “basket of deplorables” comment is a dumb thing to say, even as a gloss on Clinton’s alt-right speech a few weeks ago. It’s especially dumb to quantify the critique by categorizing “half” of Trump’s supporters that way. Mock your opponent all you want, a Times reporter noted, but you mock the electorate at your peril. The fact that she said it at a fundraiser, not a public rally, also makes it smell like a screw-up. Romney was at a fundraiser in 2012 when he uttered his line about the 47 percent; Obama was at a fundraiser in 2008 when he babbled about the bitter-clingers. Candidates have a habit of letting down their guards at those events, partly because they want to flatter the prejudices of people whom they’re hitting up for money and party because they’re less conscious of being on camera and feel they’re able to speak more freely. It’s not surprising that Hillary would casually demean Trump backers before a “private” audience of LGBT Democrats.

But what if this wasn’t a casual, off-the-cuff gaffe revealing what she really thinks about her opponent’s base? What if this is a message she’s trying to circulate? My pal Karl notes this snippet from her interview on Israeli TV a few days ago repeating the “deplorables” line (although without the bit about them being half of Trump’s constituency).


If that was an off-the-cuff gaffe, Team Clinton would have huddled afterward and resolved to never repeat it. Instead she’s taken to using it as an applause line at fundraisers. How come? Why would she insult Trump’s voters knowing that he’s going to milk the outrage for donations and try to use it to goose turnout? Liam Donovan, a former GOP staffer, has a theory:

Robert Tracinski imagines the media coverage this week: “Are racists half of Trump’s base, or only 10%?” The “deplorables” line is an invitation to the press to amplify the worst elements among Trump’s supporters, starting with the alt-right. That could help Hillary with some minority voters who are reluctant to support her but I think it’s geared mostly at the college-educated whites who have been tilting towards Clinton for the past few months. Her hold on them is precarious; they typically vote Republican and Trump has been at pains lately to reassure them that he’s not a monster by wooing minority constituencies. If college-educated whites start to tilt back to the GOP and Trump’s share of the white vote overall begins to climb, suddenly Hillary’s at real risk of losing this election.

The more dishonest she looks from her email scandal and the Clinton Foundation influence peddling, the more pointless it becomes to try to sell her to voters as someone they should be excited to elect. Her best bet, now more than ever, is to paint Trump as a total monster, leaving her as the only kinda-sorta responsible choice. That’s what all the Democratic messaging this week about Trump bro-hugging Putin and ISIS rooting for Trump is about too. Reagan wanted voters heading into the booth in 1980 to ask themselves, “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Hillary wants them asking themselves, “I’m not actually going to vote for this fascist sympathizer and his sleazy David-Duke-fan base, am I?”

Here’s her new statement on what she said last night. As expected, she’s hedging on the number but not the basic critique:

So, what next? Is this a gamechanger for Trump? In 2013 John Sides and Lynn Vavreck looked at Romney’s “47 percent” gaffe, which gave the left and their media friends seizures, and concluded that in the end it didn’t much matter:

Take the famous 47% video. Despite the hype about this video, it had at best a small and temporary effect on the race. Many of those whose support for Romney wavered were Republicans. These Republicans then rallied right back to Romney after the first debate. This showed up in our data and in the Obama campaign’s data as well. “No one believed us at the time,” said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter after the election. “We were saying that as this 2 percent moved away from Romney it wasn’t ours. The race was closer than people thought at the time.” The debate looked like a campaign-changing moment, but much of its effect was a return to the status quo. Something similar transpired after the first debate. Democrats wavered after Obama’s performance was judged to be flat and uninspired. But the later debates brought them back.

Obama’s bitter-clinger comments in April 2008 were a five-alarm fire in conservative media (and pro-Hillary liberal media) for days. He won the election in a landslide seven months later because, after the financial crisis, nobody cared. In fact, Nate Silver explained in an analysis of famous “gaffes” a few years ago, the polls never even moved as a result of it. Gaffes are ephemeral, a big deal to political junkies who live and die with election news but not something that drives rage so durably as to matter on Election Day. (Had Hillary said this 48 hours before polls open, that would be a different story.) Silver concluded that gaffes can matter when they motivate the other candidate’s base, as Hillary’s “deplorables” argument might — but all the best examples of that happening are in statewide races, not national ones. And as noted above, there’s risk to Trump in trying to keep this alive insofar as it’ll invite the media to keep chattering about his alt-right fans as evidence that Hillary’s math may be wrong — they’re not “half” of Trump’s voters — but not her underlying point. His campaign might go on hyping it on the theory that it’ll motivate his core base, whites without a college degree, to register and turn out to teach Hillary and her sneering leftist elitist friends a lesson. But Clinton might accept that as a price worth paying if it helps her lock down a majority among college-educated whites. That’s the real electoral question in a nutshell, I think. Will an extended debate on Trump’s “deplorables” do more to turn out whites who are unlikely to vote for him or to tilt whites who are likely to vote towards her?

Exit question: Can anyone help worried Democrats figure out why Hillary isn’t up big in the polls? They seem very confused by it. I’m leaning towards the theory that she’s a corrupt Washington dinosaur who’s widely disliked and even more widely distrusted, but I suppose there might be other explanations.