I’m over the initial shock of the election, although it follows me into unwelcome places, like my dreams. The election seemed pretty easy to call in advance. Pollsters were in agreement. Everything had been sliced and diced. Although a two-term president is rarely succeeded by someone from his own party, it sure looked like with the worst Republican candidate ever things were going to break for Team Blue.
Obviously it didn’t, leaving pretty much everyone except Michael Moore and Scott Adams with egg on their faces. Heck, even the Trump campaign was planning for defeat. You could see in Trump’s “victory” speech that he was a bit shell-shocked by the whole thing; it’s almost liked he hoped to lose. Trump’s visit to the White House yesterday was also surreal. He had a stunned-bunny sort of look, like this is the last sort of job he wanted. And it’s worth noting that while Trump trounced Clinton in the Electoral College vote, Clinton still won the popular vote. She joins Al Gore and Samuel J. Tilden in the exclusive club of candidates who won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College vote (and who had not been president already.) By any standard, Trump’s election is not the will of the people.
In retrospect pollsters failed because no one had come up with a way to model the racist vote. Racists generally won’t self identify themselves but based on the results the unidentified racists were about 5% of voters, all voting for Trump. And the reason they couldn’t be identified before was that Trump was our first modern openly racist candidate, well, at least since George Wallace in 1968.
So it’s important to understand that even with the wind at their backs Democrats had the odds stacked against them. Generally presidents don’t quite deliver the change envisioned, even if they are well liked, so voters will be inclined to try the other party. And Trump was all about change. But he also had people enthusiastic about him. Enthusiastic people vote. While there certainly were Democrats enthusiastic about Hillary Clinton, most of us were half-hearted supporters. Those who show up to vote with the most passion get their candidate elected.
It’s not that Democrats didn’t have a change candidate. Bernie Sanders was that candidate. He had amazing crossover appeal. During the Democratic primaries, Sanders generally won the rust belt swing states that normally vote Democratic but were picked off by Trump. It’s impossible to know that if Bernie had been the party’s nominee whether he would have done better than Clinton, but my guess is he would have. At least some of Clinton’s firewall states would have fulfilled their function and that may have been the edge that was needed.
So it’s worth recalling just how Clinton got the nomination in the first place. It’s not that she didn’t do a lot to earn the nomination. But she was the Democratic establishment’s choice. Clinton spent years cultivating these relationships and of course she also had Bill to help her as well. It was obvious that DNC chairman Debbie Wasserman-Shultz had her finger on the scales for Hillary. But even if she hadn’t, long before Bernie had even entertained the idea of running for president, Hillary had an in with the various Democratic state party establishment. She had banked most of the party’s superdelegates. If every eight years is going to be a change election, it’s counterproductive for a party to have a system in place that discourages change candidates. The Republican Party did not, and it worked in their favor in this election.
So the lesson for Democrats should be clear: get rid of the party’s superdelegate system. To his credit Sanders brought this to the attention to the party after his nomination was out of the question, and sort of won. Superdelegates don’t go away but they will be reduced by two-thirds. This will make it easier for candidates like him to get a foothold in the future, increasing the odds that the eventual party nominee will be a rank and file pick, rather than the establishment’s. It’s a pretty good bet that rank and file will be closer to understanding who can actually win an election than the party’s elite as they won’t be living their lives in the insular political bubble that the party’s elite do.
But can real party change happen? Getting rid of most of these superdelegates helps. It would be better to get rid of all of them. What’s critical for 2018 though is to find a new party chairman that gets this. Howard Dean, who became the DNC chair after the 2004 election is willing to give it another try. His 50-state strategy was very successful. It allowed Democrats to regain control of the House and the Senate just two years later. We need Dean or someone who believes the same things. We don’t need Wasserman-Shultz or Donna Brazile again as both have proven ineffectual.
We also need to say goodbye to the Clintons. Both came with baggage and it dragged down the ticket, even if some of their issues were more smoke than fire. (Hillary’s emails, for example, was mostly a big nothing burger.) They represent the “new Democrat” that Bill Clinton invented in 1992. That business-friendly, Republican-lite branding no longer works and does not distinguish the Democratic Party. Both Bill and Hillary need to exit stage right. The party needs to hear from a variety of voices, hopefully mostly new voices to see what resonates within the party of today. The party is morphing too, but feels moribund. It’s a party that is increasingly diverse and multicultural. But it should not be the party of non-whites. It should appeal to those Trump voters who were sucked in by Trump’s popular and economic message. Whites still form the majority of voters in this country. Elections cannot be won without significant number of crossover white voters. For whatever reason, except for younger white voters, whites and white women in particular failed to deliver for Democrats in this election.
If you want people to vote for you, give them some compelling reasons to vote for you. Democrats failed here, choosing an establishment candidate with baggage and high unfavorables over a change candidate. Voters need to feel like the candidate is someone that gets their concerns, and has a track record of fighting for their issues. It’s hard to relate to a candidate who is a millionaire and gives $250,000 speeches to Wall Street firms. You need someone authentic with fire in their belly instead, someone a lot like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.
The only good news for Democrats is that Trump is likely to quickly implode. He brings a lot of baggage to his presidency including a lot of civil suits and possible criminal charges for having sex with a minor. If he chooses to do those things he says he will do, he will piss off his voters who buy his brand but not most of his policies, like throwing undocumented immigrants out of the country. The Democratic Party need not be down for long. But if it is to recover quickly, it must do so with agility and intelligence. It needs to morph into a populist party again.