Former Director of Speechwriting for Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 Dan Schwerin spoke at the inaugural event of the Policy Lab at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies last Friday.
About 40 students gathered to hear Schwerin give a short presentation on the question “Did Policy Matter in 2016?” before answering students’ questions. Using analyses of campaign press coverage, Schwerin explained how the traditional approach to policy taken by the Clinton campaign — which prepared lengthy policy papers and consulted with experts — failed to convince enough of the American electorate. He cited lack of media coverage of the specifics of Clinton’s policies and an obsession with Republican candidate Donald Trump as part of the reason her message did not fully reach voters.
In terms of approach to policy research, Schwerin argued, the Clinton and Trump campaigns were “just playing different games.”
Nonetheless, he argued that policy, though not its details, did affect the outcome of the election. Schwerin pointed to exit-polling data that indicated that voters who thought the most important issue nationwide was the economy or foreign policy favored Clinton, while those who thought the most important issue was immigration or terrorism favored Trump.
“[Voters] absorbed that there was a difference between the candidates on this issue,” Schwerin said. “People who really cared about deporting immigrants voted for Trump. And they were right to. He’s working to enact those [policies] now.”
Sherwin said that though Trump did not “fit the mold” for major party presidential candidates, he was unsurprised, given historical precedent, that Trump was “trying very hard” to follow through on campaign promises in his first few weeks.
Schwerin, who first worked for Clinton when she was a New York senator and collaborated on her memoir “Hard Choices,” also spoke briefly on the art of speechwriting.
“Speechwriting is this personal thing where you try to learn another person’s voice and climb inside their brain,” Schwerin said. “Memoir writing is even more intimate than that.”
David Shimer ’18, the editor in chief of the News, introduced Schwerin at the start of the event. After the presentation, students had the opportunity to ask questions, most of which focused on campaign strategy.
The conversation returned to the topic of Clinton’s tone after a student asked about considerations made by the campaign in light of Clinton’s gender. Former President Barack Obama was able to draw on many rhetorical styles including those of the black church and Abraham Lincoln, Schwerin said, adding that he was never able to fully figure out what a woman running for president was supposed to “sound like.”
“I do not think there was an equivalent rhetorical tradition for Hillary [Clinton],” Schwerin said. “There’s no precedent for what a woman is supposed to sound like. In fact, it’s the opposite. She was violating tradition by even running.”
Schwerin said political commentators made “deeply gendered” comments about Clinton’s tone, such as “calling it shrill.” Though such gendered comments frustrated the campaign team, he said to win they had to consider such criticism. He also mentioned research conducted by the campaign that showed that messaging with an emphasis that Clinton would be the first woman president “fired up” the Clinton base, but had a negative effect on more moderate voters.
Michael Bogaty ’19, who asked if internal polling differed from media polls, later told the News he was glad Schwerin was willing to admit mistakes the Clinton campaign made. He said he was attracted to the talk because it promised insights from a campaign insider.
Similarly, Wilson He ’20 said he attended the talk because he wanted to learn how accurately the media portrayed Clinton. Both he and Timothy White ’20 said the most surprising part of the presentation was a comparison of two word clouds — visual representations of word usage in which frequency and size correspond — of the words Americans associated most with Clinton and Trump based on Gallup polling data. The largest word by far on Clinton’s “cloud” was “email,” while Americans associated Trump with “immigration” and “Mexico.”
Another student asked why the campaign had shifted away from the “four fights” narrative — building a fairer economy, strengthening families, maintaining world leadership and reforming government — Clinton introduced in June 2015, two months after she announced her candidacy. Schwerin responded that it was not “sharp and memorable” enough so the campaign had to experiment with other messaging. Even the campaign slogan “Stronger Together” did not resonate with voters as a partially economic message as the campaign had hoped, Schwerin said.
Schwerin also addressed Trump’s reception by the public and the press.
“Trump voters took him seriously but not literally. Washington took him literally but not seriously. Maybe he should have been taken seriously and literally.”
Launched Jan. 23, the Policy Lab at the Institution for Social and Policy Studies aims to provide a space and programming focused on data and policy that connects students to local organizations and policymakers. Schwerin said he was glad to be the lab’s first speaker because he was “always excited about doing an inauguration in January.”