This election is a bitter pill to swallow because everybody got it wrong. Apparently even the internal polls of the RNC in the last week of the campaign showed Secretary Clinton ahead. At the end of the day, President-elect Trump managed to avoid shooting himself in the foot just long enough during the last two weeks for Republicans who were telling pollsters that they were voting for Governor Johnson or were undecided to hold their noses and come back home. Certainly, the polls with two weeks to go encouraged the Clinton campaign to dream about states that they could go into and help Democrats in down ballot races. The perception that Clinton would win in some ways gave permission for Republicans to hold their noses and vote for Trump to keep the margin down and for Democrats to cast protest votes for third party candidates.
It’s also a bitter pill because the race got very personal. Since the election, I have gotten e-mails from local activists about the issues that the party needs to address. On most of the issues, there was a plan on that issue from the Clinton campaign. The issues, however, never got aired as the campaign focused on the flaws of the two candidates. I don’t think that the choice of the Democratic candidate mattered on this aspect of the campaign. In the primary, Trump also ran a very personality based campaign, slandering his opponents and coming up with labels to characterize the rest of the Republican candidates. Certain issues that were mentioned in the DNC WikiLeaks memos were not good issues for a Democratic primary but would have proven useful tools for the Trump campaign in the general election. Trump was such a big personality and so uniquely “not ready” to be President, it is hard to see how any Democratic campaign could have avoided the temptation to focus on Trump’s flaws and gotten the media to focus on the issues rather than the personalities.
Given the closeness of this election what needs to change between now and 2020.
1) We need to rebuild the Democratic organization at the grassroots level. The problem with holding the White House is that the DNC tends to become focused on the President. The fifty state strategy in the run-up to 2006 and 2008 was a good idea and we need to go back to it. While it is harder raising money when you are out of power, the fear of Trump should allow the DNC to raise enough money to be able to help the state parties. There is, of course, the same problem at the state level. Controlling the governorship leads the state party to focus on the governor not on building the grassroots at the county and local level. Other than asking for help with sign locations (in a rural area), the first time that we heard from any non-local candidate about doing any phone banking or door-to-door was about ten days before the general election. While the candidates themselves might not make it out to a 5-10,000 person community, campaigns do need to send some staff person to make contact with activists in all communities during the early stages of the primary campaign.
2) While we do not have the district-by-district breakdown of the vote yet, my hunch is that it will not be too different from 2012 as far as the districts won. There is likely to be a significant difference (in some districts in favor of Clinton and in other districts in favor of Trump) in the total number of votes and the margins. The exact margins matter because of how the Democratic Party allocates delegates. The Republican Party gives states a bonus (equal to about one-sixth of the total number of delegates to the national convention) if the Republican nominee won the state. The Democratic Party allocates about half of the pledged delegates based on the percentage of the Democratic vote from each state. Within the states, the Democratic Party allocates about two-thirds of the delegates to districts based on the Democratic vote in each district. This give a lot of weight to safe Democratic districts — both in deep red states and in deep blue states — and less weight to purple districts in purple states (the areas that tend to decide the national election).
3) The electoral college is a winner-take-all system. Our nomination system is proportional. While the Democratic Party should not go to the Republican Party system that allows different rules in different states, it does need to contain some type of winner’s bonus. As the extensive discussion of delegate math during the primaries noted, it takes a landslide win to gain any significant margin in the delegates from the states. Winning Wisconsin by 30,000 votes got Donald Trump a 10-0 margin in electoral votes. Winning Wisconsin by 140,000 votes got Bernie Sanders a 48-38 margin in delegates. Similarly, winning Pennsylvania by less than 70,000 votes got Trump a 20-0 margin in electoral votes but winning Pennsylvania by 200,000 votes only got Clinton a 106-83 margin in delegates. Changing the system would probably not have changed the results of the 2016 primary or the 2016 general election but it would tend to speed up the process and minimize the benefits of finishing a close second — something that is no benefit in the general election.
4) This election cycle contained a paradox. The Republicans had too many serious candidates. The problem with having ten or more serious contenders is that there is not enough time on the debate stage for candidates to express positions and the loudest candidate can easily dominate. The Democrats had too few serious candidates. Secretary Clinton was such an overwhelming figure that she cleared the field of candidates who could have been strong general election candidates. Senator Sanders became a placeholder for those who had concerns with Secretary Clinton but he was only able to appeal to some factions of the party.
5) There is a need to have a serious discussion in this country about politics and governing. Having a record in government has become a negative in elections. If you can raise the money and get over the threshold of being considered a “real” candidate, being the outsider with no record is a significant advantage in running for office. The fact that such a lack of experience is crippling once you are in office seems to not matter to voters (until they don’t get what they want). As a people, we are lashing out at symptoms, not the real problems. (This has shown up in debates about the Affordable Care Act in which everyone wants the benefits that came with those changes but nobody wants the “negatives” that are necessary to prevent those benefits from bankrupting the system.) When slogans and being able to identify the symptoms matter more than having a program the can fix things, our country is facing some rough times ahead.
6) The next election cycle starts now. We need to hold as many Senate seats as possible in 2018 to force Trump to work with both parties. A 52-48 Senate majority is not a workable majority on all issues. Some of Trump’s proposals will lose him enough Republican senators to force him to moderate or pass on those proposals entirely. Additionally, 2018 is the start of the redistricting cycle. We need to win state senate and governor races as the winners will be around in 2021 when the new congressional maps are drawn. While geography will still be a problem in 2021, we need enough Democrats in positions in the states to assure that any fudging with natural district lines is to better represent the proportion of votes that each party gets in the state rather than making lines such that a party can lose the vote in the state but win more seats. Raising enough money to win requires an early start and candidates need to become familiar to voters long before the votes are cast.
This election was a loss. It was not, however, a wave. We have a starting place that we can build from and do not need dramatic changes. We do, however, need to get to work if we want to save our country from itself.