As discussion of Clinton's book and self-reflection (or, according to critics, lack thereof) continues, it is worth taking the time to consider the perspective of quantitative political science-- i.e., the perspective nobody wants to hear or read. (Hi, my very few readers!) I will acknowledge that I have only read the snippets of the book that have made the rounds in the commentariat. I have no intention of reading the whole thing. I have more important things to read, and more fun things to read. I'm more interested in the discussion surrounding the book. So, here goes...
Everybody likes to think that we have some agency over our lives. In many senses, we do. If you want a prosperous life, the standard advice applies. Those who study, go to college, save and invest, etc., do OK. Those who major in fields with a real prospect do even better. Sorry, but a degree in art history just doesn't get you as much as a degree in math, and if you expect otherwise, there is something wrong with your expectations, not the world. (Political science is somewhere in the middle...) The worse your starting point, the harder it is. If you come from a poor background with a broken family in which nobody had ever attended college, the harder it is to pull yourself up, but if you start out from a rich family, you have to try to wind up poor. Still, even if you start out poor, you have at least some agency. Having agency doesn't mean your life is awesome or that the world is fair. It means you have the ability to take action to improve things.
The Equifax hack is another of those events that challenges our sense of agency. You can find yourself victimized, having done nothing wrong. Maybe you shred every document, properly monitor your credit, etc., but those fuckwits at Equifax can't manage their computer system. Still, you have some options. You can place a freeze on your credit to prevent future identity theft, and watch your credit card statements closely. If they already got to your social security number and opened an account in your name, well, that fucking sucks, but the sooner you act, the sooner you can get things back on track. You have agency. You may be in a shitty position thanks to the toxic combination of incompetence and some subhuman* pieces of fucking shit around the world, but you can act to pull yourself out of that shitty situation. It will take time, and be miserable, and maybe costly, but you can take action. Having agency doesn't mean your life is good. It just means you can take actions to improve your situation.
And then there are candidates for public office. Do they have any agency at all? I mean that seriously. I reference the Alan Abramowitz "Time for a Change" forecasting model, and others like it on a regular basis here, and those models predict election results on the basis of factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with anything that any candidate actually does on the campaign trail. The Abramowitz model uses GDP growth in the second quarter of the election year, the sitting president's popularity (that would have been Obama in 2016), and a variable for whether or not one party has already won two terms in a row. Abramowitz has also been playing around with incorporating partisan polarization to reduce the range of vote shares we might observe, but the point is that nowhere in the model does it factor in things like whether or not Clinton should have told Trump to "back off, creep" during that debate, nor whether or not she should have handled any other specific situation differently.
Candidates tell themselves that they have the capacity to influence election outcomes through their tactics, self-presentation, advertisements, debate performances, etc. Journalists play along because they need to tell narratives. The narrative of a simple statistical model is something that only a political scientist could find fascinating. Yet, we have remarkably little evidence of the relevance of the day-to-day shit about which candidates, journalists and, well, Politico-readers obsess.
Who did have agency during the 2016 campaign? I'm still skeptical that the Russian interference actually moved votes directly, even though campaign collusion is a serious issue, but the poll numbers were pretty clear that Comey's late announcement did move votes. Comey had agency. So to speak. Comey took action, and those actions influenced the course of the election, more than any other single actor. And yet, in the end, the Abramowitz model predicted a GOP victory because there was tepid economic growth after two Democratic victories. That leaned GOP.
Clinton is going back over everything in the campaign, asking herself whether or not there was something she could have done differently. Psychologically, that is understandable. Democrats are pissed at her. That is understandable, but misplaced. Journalists took the bait. Of course they did. That's what they do.
But, I might as well do this again.
Sequence A is the actual sequence of presidential election results from 1944 through 2016. Sequence B is what would be necessary for DDRRDDRR all the way through. How many letters are different between Sequence A and Sequence B? One. 1980. Reagan won, making it an R. Had it been a D, leaving everything else the same, the sequences would be identical.
One year is the difference between Sequence A and Sequence B. What could Clinton have done differently to win in 2016? That's the wrong question. It presumes that candidates have agency. You have agency over your own life. Candidates have very little agency within the electoral process, at least when it comes to presidential general elections.
*Considering how low my opinion of humanity is, this is quite a statement.