Dan Morain

A road map Hillary Clinton did not follow to the White House

No political consultancy had a better election night this year than Ace Smith’s firm. If only Hillary Clinton had heeded him.
No political consultancy had a better election night this year than Ace Smith’s firm. If only Hillary Clinton had heeded him. Mercury News file

On the night before Thanksgiving in 2014, an email from huma@clintonemail.com went to Hillary Clinton’s brain trust, Cheryl Mills, Robbie Mook and John Podesta. The subject line read “Ace Smith.”

We know this because Wikileaks founder Julian Assange came into possession of it along with tens of thousands of other emails to and from Clinton’s strategist Podesta, and spread them across the internet.

Huma Abedin’s email revealed no high drama or internal backbiting, and so it did not grab headlines during the campaign. It simply noted that she had met with Smith, a San Francisco political consultant, and she attached a memo, titled thoughts.doc. Written by Smith, it maps out a strategy, though not one followed by Hillary Clinton.

Smith and his firm, SCN Strategies, are among the most successful Democratic campaign firms in the state and country. In 2008, he ran Clinton’s 2008 winning primary campaigns in California and Texas. And in 2014, he was making a pitch for a position in Clinton’s 2016 campaign; he didn’t get it.

“Today, you are a fully known quantity and a second-time candidate for President of the United States,” Smith wrote, setting forth how Clinton might announce her candidacy and frame her campaign. “As such you will be expected to have a clear and deep rationale for your candidacy from the first day of the campaign.”

And he boiled it down to one line: “It’s about a plan for the middle class.”

The memo cited public opinion research by Gallup and Pew that “points to middle class angst, in the shadow of apparent economic recovery, as a looming giant.” It noted Americans are questioning whether they can get ahead by working hard. It points to Federal Reserve data showing that family income had declined, despite the recovery.

The memo talks about 40- and 50-year-old people whose wages are flat, and worry that “if I lose that job, I am looking at the prospect of working for even lower wages and losing many of my benefits.” It talks about younger voters who fret about about college debt and an inability to find a job that matches their degrees.

“It is looking like the issues of the upcoming election will revolve around restoring America’s economy in a way that helps working people – something like: ‘Isn’t it time for America’s economy to start working for working people?’”

There’s much more in the memo: talk of infrastructure, education, retraining and a focus on parts of the country where economic pain is the worst.

In short, it is the map followed not by Clinton but by the billionaire who lives in a Manhattan tower that bears his name and flies in his own jet. As Democrats picked through the rubble that is the 2016 campaign, Clinton’s supporters were pointing fingers and laying blame, fairly or not at Clinton’s campaign team. A Politico headline reads: “Clinton aides blame loss on everything but themselves.”

Smith wouldn’t talk about the 2-year-old memo, beyond saying it speaks for itself. And one of his partners, Dan Newman, recoiled at the thought of casting any blame at Clinton’s campaign team.

“I have boundless respect and gratitude for the people who dedicated the last two years of their lives to elect her and stop him,” Newman said. “They worked their hearts out.”

No firm had a better run on election night than SCN Strategies. Their client, Kamala Harris, won a U.S. Senate seat with nearly 63 percent of the vote. They represented Lt. Gavin Newsom’s Proposition 63, which regulates the sale of ammunition; it also received 63 percent of the vote.

They ran the campaign for Jerry Brown’s Proposition 57, which won with 64 percent of the vote, and will result in the release of prisoners who take the time to better themselves while behind bars, and Brown’s campaign to defeat Proposition 53, which was aimed at stopping the governor’s high-speed rail and Delta tunnels project. Although votes remain to be counted, it likely has lost.

They ran the successful campaign funded by New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg to pass soda taxes in Oakland and San Francisco, against the soda industry’s $50 million campaign, and they helped elect a woman to the BART board. And like all Democrats, they ended Election Night feeling sick.

Maybe no candidate or team of consultants could have stopped Trump. He was an asymmetrical candidate who mowed down 17 Republicans. All the pundits underestimated him. He relentlessly attacked Clinton, while also promising jobs, and a restoration of his vision of what American once was.

Clinton was left to fend off assaults over her emails and her speeches to Goldman Sachs. She also attacked Trump as unfit, which he probably is. But her economic message, such as it was, and her appeal to working stiffs, such as it was, got buried.

Too many voters believed Trump, not Clinton, would better defend their interests. Hindsight always is clear. But perhaps the election would have turned out differently, if only Clinton had followed the memo attached to the email sent the night before Thanksgiving 2014. If only.

Related stories from Sacramento Bee