The Progressive Post

The 2016 US Election: looking back and the way forward

senior fellow in the Liberty and Security Project of the Center for American Progress, a multi-issue progressive think tank in Washington DC. He has previously worked for the Labour Party and the Institute for Public Policy Research.

This one hurts. A lot. As regular readers of this newsletter know, I was confident of a victory by Hillary Clinton. As was the rest of the United States. And the world. Even Donald Trump himself didn’t think he could or would win—as evidenced by the complete lack of preparation for the transition evident in the two weeks since the election. And to be clear, he lost the popular vote by a margin that will likely be around 2.5 million votes once all the ballots are counted. But, for the second time in the past five elections, the loser of the popular vote is the winner in the Electoral College.

It hurts not just because it was a surprise result. Not just because a progressive candidate running on the most progressive platform of the modern presidential era lost to a conservative candidate. It’s because Donald Trump is a threat to the fundamental democratic values of the United States and is a clear and present danger to the world. He is a pathological liar who has no idea how the U.S. government works. He rejects our core Constitutional freedoms and is more of an authoritarian than a democrat. And he seems intent on using his position to enrich himself and exact revenge on his enemies while turning over the rest of government to his cronies and amateurs.

Donald Trump is not a genius. He won, but they thought they were losing and doubled and tripled down on what they believed was a losing strategy. That’s not genius. He won, but he received fewer votes than most Republican senate candidates in states where there was both a competitive race for president and senate—even states in which the senate candidate lost. By contrast, Obama won more votes than Democratic Senate candidates in similar states in 2012, like New Mexico and Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, Trump won in 2016 with fewer votes than Romney received in 2012, when he lost by 7%.

Clinton lost because she lost three states that Democratic presidential candidates had won in every election since 1992: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. If she had won those three states, she would be the president-elect. But let’s be clear, she lost those states by an extremely narrow margin, a combined 107,000 votes out of nearly 14 million across the three states. And Clinton will win the popular vote by a comfortable margin that will likely be about 2%.

Clinton lost those states in large measure because Trump’s economic and change messages resonated strongly with traditional Democratic voters in those states and Ohio and Iowa, two states that Obama won twice and Trump carried easily. Trump’s calls to pull out of trade deals, punish companies that send manufacturing jobs overseas, and stop illegal immigration won over those voters. The reality that those policies have no chance of actually materially improving the poor economic conditions for non-college educated workers in the old industrial Midwest mattered little. Like any good con man, he was speaking in a language and in a manner that his marks wanted to hear, and they ate it up.

That’s not to say that Clinton did not have her weaknesses. She was unable to connect with these voters on the economy even though in exit polls she won voters nationally who rated the economy as the top issue facing the country, which was a majority. And her continuing problems with her private email server had a major affect on the campaign. The perception of Clinton as not honest and trustworthy neutralized one of Trump’s major weaknesses, as both were believed to be extremely dishonest.

But I must highlight the significant impact that FBI Director James Comey’s letter had on the final weeks of the campaign. Prior to the letter sent by Comey to House Republicans on October 28th announcing that the FBI had found new emails potentially related to the case, Clinton was cruising, ahead by 5%-7% in the polling averages. In the week after, her lead shrank to 2%-3%. And while it recovered a bit in the final days, Clinton will end up winning by about 2%, or where she fell after Comey’s letter. And, of course, the emails turned out to be duplicates of messages already reviewed by the FBI or not relevant to the inquiry.

It’s very unfashionable to lay the blame for Clinton’s loss at the FBI Director’s feet. And it is certainly not the only reason this race was a heck of a lot closer than it should have been. But the national popular vote result does seem to track with the impact Comey’s letter had on the race. And given how incredibly close the contests were in Michigan (13,000 votes), Wisconsin (27,000), and Pennsylvania (65,000)—a swing of 0.1% in Michigan from Clinton to Trump would have been decisive—you’d have to be willfully blind to ignore it.

Additionally, it was not surprising that Trump did well among white working class voters in the old industrial Midwest. It was expected, however, that Trump’s gains among those voters by adopting nativist positions and his outright racism and misogyny would by offset by college educated white voters turning against him. And before the Comey letter, it appeared that was the case, as Clinton held sizeable leads among college educated white voters—a demographic group Democrats had never won in the era of modern polling. Based on exit polls, Trump narrowly won this group, 47%-46%. Something must have turned them off Clinton.

It seems likely that without Comey’s letter, we would be talking about how Clinton won by a big margin in the popular vote but only narrowly won in the Electoral College by winning squeakers in states most thought she’d win easily.

But it doesn’t matter, Trump is the president-elect and Democrats are in the wilderness. Democrats always knew that our position was tenuous, given our weakness in Congress and at the state level. But this election was such a debacle at the presidential level for Republicans that it was expected, by everyone across the political spectrum, that the results on November 8th would confirm that the Democrats had built a practically unstoppable coalition at the national level and that the Republicans would enter a period of intense division and recrimination. All of that turned in the span of just a couple of hours, as first results from Florida began to show that rural counties were giving Trump higher than anticipated margins, a feature that spread up through North Carolina, Virginia, and into the industrial Midwest.

How could America possibly elect Donald Trump to be president of the United States? I will never be able to come to terms with it. Ever. According to exit polls, only 37% of the electorate believed Trump was qualified to be president. He received close to 47% of the vote. So one in ten American voters believed that Trump was not qualified to be president and voted for him to be president anyway. It’s unbelievable.

It’s tempting to just throw up your hands. Others are calling for a major shift away from the rising, urban coalition of college educated, young, and minorities that has delivered Democratic victories in the popular vote in six of the last seven elections and refocus on the white working class. Some have suggested that the reason Clinton struggled so badly in the industrial Midwest is because she was too focused on bathroom access for transgendered people and not on jobs. This is facile. The amazing and largely unreported aspect of this election was that Texas was about as close as Ohio and closer than Iowa. Both Georgia and Arizona were much closer than Ohio. The groups that make up the Democratic coalition are growing rapidly and are gaining in their share of the electorate. Turning our backs on them would be stupid.

Fortunately, it’s not a zero-sum-game in which winning back some in the white working class necessary means losing votes among the rising coalition. If we take one lesson from the Trump campaign, it should be that white working class voters are willing to overlook just about anything if you can convince them that you will fight for their economic well being. You can’t tell me that historically Democratic working class voters, even if they are culturally conservative, will reject a Democratic candidate for believing in tolerance on social issues if that candidate has a compelling economic message that connects with their hopes and alleviates their fears.

There is a way back. Trump is going to govern poorly. His early transition has been incredibly rocky. He knows nothing about how government works. He is appointing loyalists and rejecting those with experience in government. It took his transition a week to sign the official paperwork allowing the Obama administration to provide the Trump transition with official government documents. Instead of preparing to lead the country, Trump has feuded with the cast of a Broadway musical, publicly raged at those protesting his victory, had to be prodded into condemning Neo Nazis celebrating his win, is transparently mixing his business interests with his official duties, has admitted to unlawfully using his foundation for personal benefit, and agreed to pay $25 million for defrauding people at Trump University.

That stuff may not matter. But what is likely to matter a great deal is that whatever policy agenda the Trump administration is able to implement, it is unlikely to deliver on the ridiculous promises he made during the campaign. Trump sold his white working class voters a bunch of crap that he would bring their old manufacturing jobs back. That’s what they voted for, but Trump can’t deliver that. They did not vote for Paul Ryan’s plan to turn Medicare into a private insurance program. They did not vote for Mitch McConnell’s plan to deregulate Wall Street. They did not vote for massive tax cuts for the rich. They did not vote for health insurance companies to again be able to deny coverage based on pre-existing conditions. But that’s what Republicans in Congress and a Trump administration just might do.

It’s going to be a terrible four years. I’m deeply concerned for the most vulnerable in our country—and that includes the white working class voters who got conned by Trump. Democrats have to mitigate the damage Trump can do to the poor, the sick, minorities, and immigrants. We have to hold the line on any further erosion of our democratic norms, hope that we avoid any major international crisis, and build for the next election. It’s a long, hard slog. But we have to fight.

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