Hillary Clinton’s stunning loss to Donald Trump has many speculating about the future of the Democratic Party. Matt Vespa of Townhall gleefully wrote that the election signified the “total destruction” of a party which had built its party apparatus and voter coalition around a single candidate: Barack Obama. On the surface, these claims could seem accurate.
In addition to controlling both houses of Congress and the executive branch, the GOP now controls 30 of the 50 state legislatures, and 31 of 50 governorships. Perhaps the biggest shock this election was the flip of America’s Rust Belt which had generally voted Democratic since 1992, including in both 2008 and 2012, but ran red this year thanks to white working class voters.
But are these losses really indicative of the end of the Obama coalition? Fortunately for Democrats, probably not. The 2016 election is likely a hiccup rather than the start of a Republican revolution where the electorate rejected liberal values. There are several reasons this assessment is more accurate than Vespa’s.
To begin with, let’s look at how the GOP won. Note that we’ll be focusing on the presidential race because it is such a strong indicator of how the down-ballot race plays out.
Rather than by popular mandate, Donald Trump was elected in a year of slightly depressed turnout, carried to victory with fewer votes than Mitt Romney lost with in 2012. He lost the popular vote by more than 2 million (and counting). According to Pew Research, most voters this election cycle, especially Trump voters (53 percent), were voting against rather than for a candidate.
For her part, Clinton failed to excite Obama voters enough to make up for losing the white working class in Rust Belt states, who were then able to flip the Democratic stronghold and the election.
All things considered, this is not a mandate election.
Though Clinton lost, the county breakdown of the Rust Belt states tells us something very important: Obama’s coalition, rather than broken, is largely still in place.
In 2012, Obama carried Pennsylvania by roughly 300,000 votes. In 2016, Trump won, but the county map looks remarkably similar with several notable differences: Erie, Allentown, and Luzerne Counties, all of which had gone for the president four years ago, and went for Clinton in the primary, flipped. As the media has reported ad nauseam, Obama’s voters did not turn out in the numbers Clinton expected while the white working class abandoned her—which really made all the difference.
Similarly, Wisconsin and Michigan, both of which had gone for Obama four years ago, and Sanders during the primary, looked remarkably similar to their 2012 counterparts, with key exceptions, as did Ohio which Clinton won in the primary: The former Secretary of State managed to hold on to some of the counties Obama carried, but again her failure to appeal to working class white voters cost her.
So what gives?
Some have suggested that Clinton’s loss represents a backlash from the socially conservative right. This explanation is wanting.
First let’s look at the claim that Trump represented a “whitelash,” as CNN’s Van Jones dubbed it. Put another way, Donald Trump won because of his racially charged rhetoric. This an appealing narrative because Trump did run a racially-charged campaign and was endorsed by David Duke as well as the KKK.
Vox recently published an article by Zack Beauchamp about a study which purported to undermine the notion that working class whites voted for Trump based on their economic grievances because education was a larger predictor of how people voted than income.
[I]t suggests that the push among some liberals, like Bernie Sanders, to respond to this election with a “populist” economic message may not be the right approach. If the swing toward Trump among whites really was about racial and cultural anxieties — as some good research suggests — then they will have misdiagnosed the problem.
However, Beauchamp fails to clarify if the kinds of jobs voters held had been taken into account. This is important to know because those with manufacturing jobs or those in a union might be more inclined to vote for a candidate promising to renegotiate NAFTA than one who initially supported the agreement.
Another flaw which, to his credit, Beauchamp acknowledged is that the study only looked at neighborhood demographics; not how individuals in those areas voted.
It could be that wealthy people who live in low-education counties were less likely to vote for Trump than their working-class neighbors. Or it could be the other way around.
Perhaps the biggest failing with the analysis is that it assumes income is the only measure of financial security. A person making $100,000 a year can still be in massive debt, and one illness away from bankruptcy. While people with lower levels of academic achievement are indeed prone to racial animus, these feelings are more common in periods of financial instability. The fact is, today, the middle class is economically insecure. A recent article by Politico titled, “How the Left Created Trump,” points out an inconvenient fact that Beauchamp’s piece neglects:
A Gallup poll assessing what Americans perceived as the “most important problem facing this country today” helps to explain the disillusionment of this once-faithful constituency: “Economic problems” consistently took the No. 1 spot, while issues like “lack of respect for each other” and “unifying the country” appeared at the bottom of the list.
Gallup also found that the economy (and dissatisfaction with government) also consistently trumped immigration, race relations, ISIS, and military defense in terms of priority of concern among the American people. Also worth noting, Obama won a higher percentage of the white vote than Clinton, and Romney won more of it (59 percent) than Trump (58 percent) despite the latter’s racial rhetoric.
Beauchamp’s underlying point that racial sentiments and education were what turned the election for the GOP seems misguided in light of these facts.
Author’s Note: Paste reached out to Mr. Beauchamp regarding these questions, and will update if and when we hear back.
Similarly suspect is the idea that sexism cost Clinton the race. While it is true that Clinton received a lower percentage of the male vote than Obama did in 2012 by four points, Trump only won one percentage point more than Romney did. Clinton boasted lower support from women than Obama had four years earlier, suggesting deeper problems with the candidate.
Rather than a cultural backlash, 2016 election represented a shift in the frame—a policy realignment wherein social issues like race and gender were eclipsed by economic uncertainty and political inequality. This led to a change in voting patterns in the Rust Belt, but not necessarily a full-blown partisan realignment.
In order to understand why that is, we have to go back to 2009. Obama had been running for president on a platform of change, and following the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, he promised action.
This financial crisis is a direct result of the greed and irresponsibility that has dominated Washington and Wall Street for years. It’s the result of speculators who gamed the system, regulators who looked the other way, and lobbyists who bought their way into our government. It’s the result of an economic philosophy that says we should give more and more to those with the most and hope that prosperity trickles down to everyone else; a philosophy that views even the most common-sense regulations as unwise and unnecessary. And this economic catastrophe is the final verdict on this failed philosophy-a philosophy that we cannot afford to continue…
First, I said we needed an independent board to provide oversight and accountability for how and where this money is spent at every step of the way. Second, I said that we cannot help banks on Wall Street without helping the millions of innocent homeowners who are struggling to stay in their homes. They deserve a plan too. Third, I said that I would not allow this plan to become a welfare program for the Wall Street executives whose greed and irresponsibility got us into this mess. And finally, I said that if American taxpayers are financing this solution, then you should be treated like investors-you should get every penny of your tax dollars back once this economy recovers…
In practice Obama’s actions were limited, and the promised accountability never manifested. Just one top level investment banker went to jail for a man-made, preventable economic debacle which crippled the global economy. However, given Republican obstruction, his voters cut the new president slack—even working class voters who, for years, had been on the losing end of the global economy, bearing witness as manufacturers replace their jobs with robots or outsource them to foreign countries. In 2012, when Obama echoed the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street, it appeared as though that slack was well-deserved, and these voters joined millennials, minority Americans, and women (but not not white women) in reelecting the incumbent president.
Yet, after reelection, Obama did little to follow through addressing the concerns of struggling Americans, notably millennials and—you guessed it—white working class Rust Belt voters. Again, this was in part due to GOP obstruction in the House which had been redistricted by Republicans in 2010. Unfortunately, compounding the anger over gridlock in D.C. were health care premium hikes and continued loss of manufacturing jobs these voters were familiar with, like when Ford Motors announcing a plan to move all of its small car production to Mexico. All the while the Democratic Party was giving assurances that the economy was improving, citing gains at the top and a declining unemployment number that did not take into account people leaving the workforce.
To those who were struggling it seemed as though the party was out of touch or did not care about the staggering political and economic inequality. And so, as Politico reported, since the 2012 election the Rust Belt has been shifting away from the Democratic Party in terms of voter registration.
During the 2016 primary, it appeared as though the Democrats might have been heading back towards its progressive roots thanks to the dogmatic Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders. Sanders started a movement, although the primary went to Clinton, largely thanks to the political and media establishment lining up behind her and providing assistance to her campaign.
To her own detriment, Hillary Clinton shifted the focus of her campaign away from those economic and systemic issues disaffected workers cared about most and focused instead on social issues, all the while battling scandal after scandal and castigating dissent as “sexist,” “racist,” “naive,” “ignorant,” or “deplorable.” She made it very clear these voters were not her concern. Clinton hardly campaigned in Wisconsin and Michigan. Making matters worse, it seemed progressive champions like Elizabeth Warren, stopped fighting once they endorsed her, choosing instead to engage with Donald Trump. This left many feeling as though they had no place in the Democratic Party, and that discontent bubbling beneath the surface boiled over.
Resentment ultimately handed Trump the White House.
In spite of the outcome of 2016, another Democrat could have likely held Obama’s coalition together, if not added to its numbers.
Sanders, for example, would have been ideal. Initially an independent, he had spent his career speaking to those issues most concerning to the working class voters Trump relied on for his victory. Railing against political and economic inequality and corruption, Sanders had gone so far as to suggesting it might be desirable for President Obama to face a primary challenge in 2011 due to his lack of progressive follow-through.
Though Sanders did not win Obama’s broad coalition in the primary, underperforming with older Americans, he mobilized millennials in historic fashion, and he was not objectionable to the vast majority of Obama/Clinton voters. Clinton, on the other hand, strongly appealed to Obama’s coalition with the notable exceptions of millennials and the white working class, but was polarizing, and unable to relate. Sanders is currently the most popular senator in the country.
Still, naysayers will point out that the GOP primary in the Rust Belt had higher turnout than the Democratic primary, suggesting that Trump would have won no matter who he faced. But this challenge is obscured by the fact that the latter seemed all but decided by the time those states cast their ballots Clinton had an air of inevitability which had only grown more oppressive after the front-loaded southern states voted. The idea that Sanders stood no chance, and the primary was a formality depressed turnout.
The strongest indication that the conservative right has already lost despite 2016 is the voting preference of millennials. Needless to say, young people are the future. Today’s youth are overwhelmingly progressive. They tend to view social issues and economic issues as inherently linked, which means the Democratic Party has the winning message for the future if it embraces it. There is already evidence to suggest Democrats are doing just that.
Speaking in Greece last week, President Barack Obama drew attention to the backlash against globalization, and called for a “course correction.”
As The Guardian reports:
“We cannot sever the connections that have enabled so much progress,” he said. But, he warned, it was leading to increasing inequality around the world, and fast-moving technological innovation – as well as causing enormous disruption to many workers’ lives – was making it easier for people to see it.
“The current path of globalisation demands a course correction,” Obama said. “In the years and decades ahead, our countries have to make sure that the benefits of an integrated global economy are more broadly shared by more people, and that the negative impacts are squarely addressed.”
The president added: “When we see people, global elites, wealthy corporations seemingly living by a different set of rules, avoiding taxes, manipulating loopholes … this feeds a profound sense of injustice.”
Last Friday, the president stopped a plan for offshore drilling in the Arctic, in a move that suggests a new approach to big business in his final weeks in office.
As for the party leadership, which was integral to Clinton winning the primary, that too appears to be changing. Rep. Keith Ellison, who endorsed Sanders in the primary, and is now the Vermont Senator’s top pick, is the leading contender to become the next DNC chair. If he wins, he will play a significant role in determining the path Democrats take going forward. On top of that possibility, Senator Sanders himself has been named outreach director for the Senate Democrats.
Without overselling the change—Sen. Chuck Schumer, a longtime Wall Street ally and venerated establishment Democrat, was voted Senate Minority Leader, and Clinton will still have a “role to play” in the party, according to Sanders—and barring an unlikely turnaround of the economy under Donald Trump, this looks to be the start of a new era for Democrats which will likely hit its stride in the 2018 midterms and onward to the 2020 census year election. Trump’s populism is already giving way to right wing fanaticism and pro-big business policy, and the party has only one direction it can go.
Of course, even if the Democrats do not embrace progressives, the latter will still be the future (though perhaps more distant than with the party). The former will disappear. The politics of the future are defined by a struggle between the interests of the average American and the entrenched economic elite.
Follow Walker Bragman on Twitter.