I’ll Tell You ‘What Happened’
As the debate over Hillary Clinton's memoir rages on, one of her campaign canvassers is reminded of exactly what she encountered while on the trail.
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The election was in ten days. I walked over to a house where my canvassing packet informed me an 85-year-old male voter—a lifelong Democrat—lived. It was late October in Oskaloosa, a small town of approximately 10,000 that was the hub of two counties in south central Iowa. As I approached, the voter greeted me from his perch on the porch swing, asking me what I was up to.
“Reminding people to get out to vote, sir!”
“Oh, I did that already! Down at the courthouse!”
“Well, great! That means I can mark you down—”
“Yup,” he intoned, interrupting my well-rehearsed speech. “I voted for Trump. Couldn’t stand that female.”
“I’m sorry,” I replied, genuinely thinking I’d misunderstood him. “Couldn’t stand what?”
“That female! I couldn’t stand that female, so I voted for the other guy.”
I nodded, thanked him for his time, and wrote a note in his file.
Early voting in Iowa had started just 30 days earlier, but I’d been out knocking doors, making phone calls, and meeting with voters since the end of July, working as a field organizer for the various Democratic campaigns in Iowa.
Iowa is one of those tried-and-true political beasts, where most voters have actually met each candidate on the ballot in any given election year. I frequently held phone-bank sessions in the back room of a coffee shop featured in Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaign ads, and it was fairly common to step into a volunteer’s home to find a framed picture of them with one of the Clintons or Michelle Obama.
This campaign was my first time working as an organizer, and it was a strange election to start with. I learned that campaigns are hardly as cut-and-dried as any one analyst or pundit can say. And this made the armchair quarterbacking following Hillary Clinton’s major loss in 2016 all the more painful—people with little-to-no knowledge of the ground game, of the basic structure of a campaign, have come out of the woodwork to lecture the Democratic Party about mistakes made.
Now, with the release of Clinton’s new memoir, What Happened, in which she reflects on the election, the amateur punditry is only getting worse—and sexism is playing a larger and larger role.
Throughout my three and a half months working for the Clinton campaign, I encountered voter after voter who had a laundry list of reasons not to vote for Clinton. Some were genuine policy disagreements—south central Iowa has more than its share of pro-life voters who are convinced Hillary is in favor of murdering toddlers—and others were the tiresome sexist complaints I’ve come to expect any time a woman runs for office. I’ll never forget the voter who kept me on the phone for ten whole minutes, asking me to tell Hillary to stop being so dour.
It happened so much that my fellow organizers and I started to make jokes about it to deal with the fact that one of the major obstacles we faced in the campaign was not that our candidate was a fool who kept threatening other races and countries, but that our candidate was a smart, capable, intelligent woman who many wrote off on the sole fact that she is a woman.
No amount of door knocking, calling, or emailing was going to get over that very basic fact. One of my volunteers quit helping out the campaign after a voter he spoke to told him was an idiot for supporting “that bitch.” People threw our candy back at us at local parades. Husbands of registered independents screamed at our canvassers that women would never be president and their wives sure as hell wouldn’t vote that way.
This is not to say that Clinton’s campaign was free from issues, or that sexism is solely responsible for the painful loss. But the living-room punditry that has reared its head over the release of What Happened seems quick to dismiss any implication of sexism in discussion of the 2016 election. Indeed, it seems many wings of the Democratic party are happy to make Clinton their punching bag yet again, angrily calling her “bitter,” resembling a “shrunken, beat up Richard Nixon.”
They, of course, deny that these criticisms themselves have sexist roots and implications. Calling a woman “bitter” is never a neutral statement. Asking Hillary (along with Nancy Pelosi, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Maxine Waters) to “just go away” and let the younger male progressives lead the party is not a gender or racially neutral idea. Refusing to use abortion access as a litmus test for ostensibly progressive candidates is prejudice making its bold march through the Democratic party. Issues affecting women—particularly women of color—are put on the back burner as “identity politics,” as distractions unworthy of our time.
Much has been made of snippets of Clinton’s memoir about the election. Over and over again, the sentiment seems to be that she should not even have published one. The Chicago Tribune, for one, asks “Was this book necessary?” People have primarily focused on the portions of the book in which Clinton discusses the primary campaign against Bernie Sanders, arguing that she is shifting the focus of blame onto Sanders.
As an organizer, though, I can’t read those passages in that way. When she talks about how the events and debates and ongoing battle of the primary with Sanders took up her time, I nod in agreement. Organizers typically have a six-month lead time to start building their volunteer base for getting out the vote. The battle with Sanders knocked it down to approximately three and a half.
And—especially in Iowa—people who had gone for Sanders in the primaries and caucuses could not be counted on to vote Democratic in the general, organizers spent an immense amount of time courting those voters, only to have many of them vote for Jill Stein, or worse, Trump himself. Clinton is right to observe that the rancor from the primary spilled over into the general.
Many of the critics have latched onto these passages, insisting that Clinton is holding the Democratic party back, that her memoir is engaging in sniping and bitterness over a rehash of the 2016 election. But, as a Clinton organizer and memoirist myself, I cannot see it that way. To position this book as yet more political scheming on Clinton’s part says much more about the reader than it does the writer. To view Clinton’s actions as a private citizen as ongoing political scheming is to cast her as a Cruella DeVille–esque villain obsessed with nothing more than gaining power. It dehumanizes her in a markedly sexist way, and denies that she has any right to feel the pain of the loss of 2016.
The release of this new memoir is Clinton publicly discussing her pain, helping many in her coalition understand her thoughts and her feelings throughout the campaign. For many of us, hearing many of our thoughts mirrored by the candidate herself will be a source of healing, a chance to discuss grief, and place it in proper context to, indeed, move on. Political scheming it is not. Cathartic memoir it is.
Ten days after that voter told me he “couldn’t stand that female,” I gathered with two other organizers in a field office in Indianola to watch returns come in. We’d bought some Champagne earlier in the day and placed it in the fridge in anticipation of the Election Night victory the whole world was waiting on us to deliver. We put on a newscast over Bluetooth speakers, and sat refreshing various maps and websites, keeping track of individual counties and cities as they came in. We knew Iowa was going to be tight, but we were confident in our candidate and her performance throughout the debates and the campaign. There were missteps, sure, and we each had our private “what if’s” about certain canvass routes and phone calls and voters we could maybe have gotten to if we’d had just a little more time.
As the results rolled in, the room got quiet. Florida fell. Then Ohio. And Pennsylvania. Iowa’s results came in, and there was some flurry as we checked individual candidates, and cheered quietly over wins and losses in our precincts. Our cheers quieted to silent horror as we watched the map bleed red as Trump took vital state after vital state. Scenarios and math was quickly worked out, and we soon realized the inevitable: we had lost. My phone started buzzing with texts from volunteers who were watching the results at home. I glanced at the notification screen occasionally to see “What happened?!?” scrolling past.
Perhaps our candidate’s memoir of this painful night will give us the closure many of us still need. Perhaps, now, we will find strength to face 2018.
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