I’ve seen a lot of posts over the past month bemoaning Clinton’s failure to take the Rust Belt seriously with more visits and ad spending. Heck, I wrote one of those posts. I even called it political malpractice for failing to visit Wisconsin (at all) and Michigan (until the last week).
But here’s an argument on the other side that I have not yet seen in this debate: the more salient risk at the time was Clinton’s health and fatigue. The only time in the campaign when Trump had pulled even was immediately after her collapse and pneumonia revelations after Sept. 11. That episode coincided with the first sudden drop in her support in the campaign after she had taken a commanding lead after the conventions. (The simultaneous “basket of deplorables” frenzy drove her numbers down, but the illness was salient for a week as she was resting and unable to address the “basket case” or shift the debate, so the illness was a double-whammy).
First: The point is that in real time, the Clinton campaign had to weigh the risks of overscheduling and exhaustion and relapse vs. recuperation and being focused and balanced in the three debates. At the time, there was a much bigger risk of another bout of illness or a gaffe or some hint of a lack of energy in the debates, rather than the uncertain local effect of a campaign rally in Milwaukee or Detroit or Johnstown, PA. The research shows that a local campaign event has a short term impact on polls that steadily dissipates over a week or two. But the effect of a bad debate could have been disastrous. Moreoever, the Trump campaign and the Fake News Network had been planting stories that Clinton had a serious illness (Parkinson’s? Cancer? Yes, even possession by demons, a story I had seen on the interwebs). Even if the lunatic right did not need evidence, the concern was that another fainting spell or collapse could raise enough concerns among swing voters, many of whom had underlying doubts about a woman being able to handle this job.
Second: the polling data, internal and external, showed Clinton with a steady lead in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania through September and October. Meanwhile, other swing states had early voting (Nevada, Colorado, North Carolina, Florida, etc.). The data show that campaign rallies have limited and diminishing impact in states far before election day, but they have more immediate impact when early voting is already happening. The campaign committed its most limited resource (the candidate’s time and health) to the early vote swing states, where it would have immediate impact, rather than other swing states with diminishing impact. Keep in mind that at the time, Florida, Nevada, North Carolina looked far more competitive.
Third: my worry was about an October surprise, like a terror attack or a power grid attack on Philadelphia or Milwaukee (shutting down election day electronic voting). I didn’t foresee the Comey inside job. It turns out that an October surprise did swing the election, and it was worth a shot at trying to limit its damage. If you’re worried about October surprises, you need to bank as much early voting as possible. So I agree with the campaign focusing on the early vote, rather than just on securing the Blue Wall months or weeks out from election day. Let’s be a little more generous and a little less second-guessing.