Was Hillary Clinton a Terrible Candidate?

by Nathan L. Gonzales February 3, 2020 · 8:45 AM EST

As much as Donald Trump was hailed by Republicans for winning the White House in 2016, Hillary Clinton and her campaign took plenty of blame from her fellow Democrats for the loss. A closer look confirms that she underperformed a typical Democrat in key states in the race for president, even as she overperformed elsewhere.

On the surface, Clinton could be viewed as a more valuable candidate to Democrats than Trump was to Republicans, according to Inside Elections’ ‘Vote Above Replacement’ metric. She overperformed a typical Democrat in 19 states, while Trump overperformed a typical Republican in 15 states.

VAR measures the strength of a political candidate relative to a typical candidate from the same party by comparing the percentage of the candidate’s vote to the party’s Baseline. Baseline is the trimmed mean of each party’s performance in partisan, contested statewide elections over the four most recent general election cycles.

Clinton also overperformed in four of the 10 closest states in 2016, while Trump overperformed in three. Yet her negative VAR in the four closest states was enough to leave a group of shocked supporters stranded on a riser at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center on election night. Clinton underperformed in Michigan (-0.2 VAR), New Hampshire (-2.5), Pennsylvania (-3.3) and Wisconsin (-0.9). Losing three (and nearly four) of those states locked her out of the presidency. She also underperformed in Minnesota (-4.1) and nearly lost that state as well.

Clinton’s overperformance in California (+6 VAR), Illinois (+3.1) and Massachusetts (+2.5) is evidence that Democrats are “wasting” votes by running up the score in Democratic states and not changing the math of the Electoral College. David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has noted how Trump could lose the popular vote by 5 million votes and still win re-election.

It’s not all bad news for Democrats. Clinton overperformed in the perennial battleground state of Florida (+4.2 VAR), former battleground state of Nevada (+2.8), and the emerging battleground of Maine (+3.1). The best news for Democrats might be in growing states where Clinton overperformed and Trump underperformed, according to VAR, such as Texas (Clinton +5.1, Trump -5.8) and Georgia (Clinton +3.1, Trump -4.3).