In Depth

How Hillary Clinton lost the US presidency

She would have been her country's first female commander-in-chief, but why did it all go wrong?

Hillary Clinton has missed out on the chance to become the first female president of the United States – a job for which she had spent a lifetime preparing.

It was snatched from her once before, in 2008, when Barack Obama stormed the Democratic primaries. This year, Clinton prevailed over Bernie Sanders, the left-wing senator from Vermont, following a drawn-out battle, but failed to vanquish her Republican rival, Donald Trump.

After almost a quarter of a century in the political spotlight, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state began the race with "unprecedented advantages", says the Daily Telegraph. But there was plenty to justify the "murmurs and misgivings" of her critics, whether it was her flawed handling of the 2012 jihadi attack on the Benghazi consulate in Libya, during which a US ambassador was killed, or the donations to the Clinton Foundation from "questionable" regimes. 

What did she stand for?

The Democratic campaign set out policies in copious detail – key pledges include cheaper university education, tax reforms to benefit low and middle-income workers, a fairer healthcare system and tighter gun controls. But critics on both the left and the right accused her of lacking an over-arching vision.

"Clinton's run for the White House seems more about personal political ambition than the country's well being," said Conservative political consultant Karl Rove, earlier in the year.

Others said keeping Trump out of the White House was reason enough to vote for her.

Clinton "offered herself as a steady and patriotic American who would stand up for citizens of all races and creeds", says the New York Times. She also vowed to "unite the country to persevere against Islamic terrorists, economic troubles, and the chaos of gun violence".

She may lack the pizzazz and the oratorical skills of her husband Bill, said The Independent, but many were grateful that the Democrats could offer a candidate with an "unglamorous preference for policy over the theatrics of politics".

So why didn't she win?

Americans have not warmed to Clinton. In fact, she was the least popular presidential nominee in history – with the exception of Trump.

Partly, says commentator Jonathan Rauch, it's over-familiarity. It's a century since anyone was elected president more than 14 years after winning election as a governor or senator and while Clinton, elected senator from New York in 2000, is "technically only a couple of years past this benchmark for staleness", she has been a fixture in US politics since Bill ran for president 25 years ago.

To many voters, not least those who backed Sanders, she looked like the "dynastic candidate of a party that has lost touch with its base", says the Telegraph.

Did gender play a role?

Unquestionably, says Janice Turner in The Times. What else could be blamed for Clinton's unpopularity?

It's unfair to dismiss her as an unprincipled "machine politician" or Washington "dynast" - a draper's daughter from Illinois, she was a "spectacled swot" who won a scholarship to Yale, adds the journalist. And she never abandoned her feminist principles: as secretary of state she was quite ready to lecture world leaders on the importance of girls' education. Much of the problem is down to simple sexism. "A female president, perhaps more than a black one, threatens the status quo."

One female senator claimed Clinton was judged by a double standard. "What's being said about Hillary is what women have heard for centuries," she said. "You're too loud, you're too aggressive, you're too pushy. Why do you want the vote?"

In a male candidate, her supporters say, the "arrogance" and "entitlement" identified in Clinton may have gone unremarked, or been marked down as evidence of experience and determination.

What else turned voters off?

Many Americans didn't trust Clinton. It's a "persistent" if "preposterous" narrative of the election that "Hillary Clinton is a slippery, compulsive liar while Donald Trump is a gutsy truth-teller", says the New York Times.

Nevertheless, Clinton has not always been entirely straightforward. When she collapsed at a 9/11 memorial event, it later emerged that her campaign had concealed a pneumonia diagnosis for two days.

But the saga of her emails cast an even longer shadow. During her time as secretary of state, Clinton used a private email address and server for official correspondence instead of her government one. She says she did this for convenience, as it meant fewer devices to carry around, but it was against official rules because the server was not considered secure enough to send or receive classified material. 

From a group of 30,000 emails provided by Clinton for the investigation, the FBI found she sent or received 110 classified messages. However, the FBI concluded that while Clinton was "extremely careless", there was no sign of criminal intent and no attempt to deliberately delete or hold back work emails from the authorities. The last-gasp discovery of another trove of messages, announced less than two weeks before the election, did not alter that assessment, but it changed the tenor of the campaign's final phase. 

Could she have won?

A strong performance at the live debate steadied Democratic nerves, but Clinton struggled to regain the advantage she enjoyed after her party's convention, when a series of powerful speeches, culminating in her own, opened up a commanding poll lead.

It proved short-lived: in the following weeks, fears about Clinton's health sapped her support. Trump, meanwhile, appeared to benefit from anxiety about a series of minor terrorist attacks in US cities.

The tables turned when footage appeared of Trump boasting about having kissed and groped women without their consent. Unlike other scandals, this one seemed to do the Republican real damage and Clinton pressed home the advantage in subsequent debates.

When several women accused him of sexual assault, Trump went on the offensive, suggesting one of them was not attractive enough to have caught his eye. Clinton soared in the polls and states as Republican as Texas seemed within her reach.

Then, suddenly, the race swung back when the FBI announced a new investigation into her emails. By the time Clinton had been cleared for a second time, two days before the election, her lead in the polls had been cut to a few points.

It was not enough, and now her supporters are left to wonder what might have been. Among them is her immediate predecessor, Barack Obama, who said during the campaign that "there has never been a man or woman – not me, not Bill, nobody – more qualified than Hillary" to be president. "She's tested, she's ready, she never quits."

Now, at last, she will have to step aside.

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