Hillary is right! Her bad decisions aren't why she lost to Trump

  • Hillary Clinton refuses to take responsibility for losing the presidential election.
  • But she's right in that her decisions didn't doom her, her personality did.
  • The Democrats were the ones who made the worst decision when they backed her for president.
Hillary Clinton
Melina Mara | The Washington Post | Getty Images
Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton says it's not her fault.

In fact, at Wednesday's Code Conference the twice-failed presidential candidate made the following stunning statement: "I take responsibility for every decision I made, but that's not why I lost."

Now, hold your laughter here because she's right. Hillary's political and career decisions aren't the reason she lost. And that's true even though so many of her decisions were downright terrible from taking massive speaking fees from Goldman Sachs to setting up an non-secure private server, to lying so many times about everything and anything.

But the real reason Clinton lost is the same reason every politician loses: within the first 2-3 minutes of seeing and hearing her, a key number of voters decided they didn't like her. Remember, this is a woman who has arguably been one of the top 2-3 most famous people in American politics for the last 25 years. So this emotionally-laden reaction to her may not have been unique, but it played out over and over with more than one generation of voters. Hillary lost because she's Hillary, which is no more or less outrageous than had she won because she's Hillary.

That's how we humans work. Whether we're genuine Einstein-level geniuses or totally uneducated, we make our voting decisions based on feelings and not raw data or rationality.

How do we know this? Science!

In a recent study by Professors Eyal Winter and Esteban Klor, the researchers showed how scientific evidence is mounting that shows that our voting choices are governed more by emotions and less by rationality. This doesn't mean our voting choices aren't rational or that it didn't make sense for people to vote for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. But it does mean that emotions play the primary role in the decision and when rational facts back up those emotional choices, it can often be a coincidence.

You don't have to run to your economic, psychiatric or neurophysiology experts to understand this. People like "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams pointed out Clinton's persuasion gap compared to Donald Trump way back in 2015. He later explained after the election that facts play a much smaller role in our voting choices than we'd all like to believe.

And as campaign image experts from Dick Morris to Doug Schoen can tell you, Hillary Clinton's appearance, manner of speaking, facial expressions, and overall demeanor put her at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to igniting the right kind of emotional responses from average voters.

Perhaps the most vivid example of this comes from that infamous picture of Clinton from 2015 where she was seen hiding behind dark glasses and striving to go unnoticed at a Chipotle counter on the campaign trail. It seems hard to believe that someone trying to get elected president would choose such a moment to guard any level of privacy and miss a chance to connect with lower-paid workers. Had that been Bill Clinton, it's even harder to believe that he wouldn't have gone behind the counter to take pictures and happily chat with the employees. But Bill Clinton has a winning persuasive personality. Hillary does not.

Is that "fair?" Is that any way to choose who gets to be president? The answers to those questions depend on how you see Hillary Clinton's supposedly more important decisions as a politician. For those who have that negative emotional reaction to Clinton, her personal conduct serves as part of a confirmation bias to back up that emotional response. For those who aren't emotionally turned off by Clinton at first sight, there's a better chance that her much-bashed personal decisions don't bother them.

And this kind of losing personality isn't easy to shake. A winning candidate with a more winning personality wouldn't sit at the Code Conference and come off so obliviously arrogant and utterly without contrition. You can say that's yet another bad decision, but it's primarily a product of Clinton's politically non-viable personality. Her decisions are the fruit of that poison tree.

And here's another reason why Clinton lost that has nothing to do with her decisions: Barack Obama. In sharp contrast to her, President Obama was and remains personally popular with the majority of American voters. Even voters who decry his policies and the state of the nation as he left office found it hard to show their anger at him personally. Clinton had a tough act to follow not only when compared to President Obama personally, but also in the face of an electorate that wasn't buying the Obama policies that she was locked into supporting.

If "decisions" are going to be blamed for Clinton's loss, the focus should be on the Democratic Party powers that not only pushed the nomination of a candidate with little personal appeal but effectively swept aside all other serious contenders. Only the once-fringe candidate Bernie Sanders was left to challenge her and even he came darn close to pulling off a stunning upset. And the Democratic "bench" of future candidates remains so empty that many are talking about pulling from the non-politician celebrity ranks to challenge President Trump in 2020.

Secretary Clinton was right that her (very, very bad) decisions didn't sink her at the polls. Of course, she's also wrong when she blames the Russians, misogyny, or whatever conspiracy theory of the moment. Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election the moment the American people took a good look and listened to her for five minutes or so.

For many of us, that was way back in 1992 when we decided we liked Bill Clinton and appreciated that his wife stood behind him, but we didn't exactly go for her. For others, that moment came in 2008 when she just wasn't as likable as the handsome newcomer Barack Obama. And finally, that moment came for the rest of the critical mass of voters in 2016 when she still wasn't any more likable or believable in her way of speaking and appearance than she was for the previous 24 years.

Donald Trump may not be very persuasive either for millions of Americans, but he's a lot more persuasive than Hillary Clinton. And she was his opponent. That's the breaks.

And this is why those who think Hillary Clinton should run again for national office are fooling themselves. As long as our system is about voting for people, personalities will always dominate our decision-making process. And no matter what decisions Hillary Clinton makes or does not make in the future, she will always have the personality of a perpetual political loser.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

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