I have held off posting anything publicly on the election because with an event which combines this level of surprise with this traumatic a nightmare, I wanted to take some time to reflect, analyze, and hear what others were thinking before I rushed in and vomited my emotions all over my desktop. So having gone through that process, here’s some initial thoughts, with a full acknowledgement that we will need to be analyzing all this for years to come.
Let’s start with a couple of caveats. First, there is no doubt whatsoever that FBI Director Comey’s inserting himself into the election changed the basic structure, dynamics, and narrative of this race, making Hillary’s emails the number one thing people were talking about in the last nine days of the campaign. Second, the announcement of 25% average health care cost increases a few weeks out hurt us as well, making it tougher to argue that all was well in ACA-land. If either or both of those had been different we would have won the presidential race pretty easily and the Senate majority along with it, and probably would have picked up at least 15 seats in the House rather than just six. But the bottom line is that campaigns have to deal with the hand they are dealt, so we have to look at what actually happened. The fact is we Democrats made some mistakes and absolutely still should have won this race.
One more note before I talk about what happened. Despite Comey, despite the ACA cost spike, despite massive voter suppression in states controlled by Republicans, despite Hillary being seen as the ultimate establishment insider in a big anti-establishment outsider kind of year, she still got a lot more votes than Donald Trump, and she still came within 100,000 votes in three states from winning. My heartbroken friends on the Hillary campaign are good people who worked their butts off and did a lot of things right. While I have some criticisms below, I hope everyone will not leap to the blame game and spend all their energy attacking that team. What we need to do instead is to thoughtfully analyze what went wrong, and figure out how to fix it.
Here are the big things I see coming out of this election, and the implications for the next four years:
1. Trump successfully used the media forms he knew to dominate the media narrative. FDR mastered radio; JFK won in ‘60 because of TV; the Obama team won in part because they dominated in email and Facebook. And a huge part of Trump’s victory was because he understood reality TV and Twitter. He knew that being outrageous and entertaining, sounding spontaneous and unscripted, would make him the media favorite and allow him to overwhelm everyone else in terms of free media and coverage. A study I saw in the middle of the Republican primary tracked how the more coverage Trump got, the higher he rose in the polls, even if not all of the coverage was positive. In fact, it didn’t bother Trump if he got bad press, because he was still dominating the debate and the media narrative, making the race all about him. The other dynamic was that all his outrageous statements made him seem much more genuine than other politicians, which voters loved and made them trust him more, even though they knew he wasn’t always truthful on the facts.
One of the things that had me worried throughout the campaign, and I think my worries were confirmed both by the polling I saw during the campaign, and the final results, is that we Democrats made this campaign too much about Trump. In doing this, we played into his strategy of defining the narrative of the race. Too many of the HFA ads were focused on how dangerous and outrageous and crude Trump was, when in fact those very characteristics were fundamental to his appeal as a change agent. But it wasn’t just the decisions at the top: one of my biggest frustrations when working with our allies who have big Facebook pages, as well as progressive movement leaders in general, was that so much of their energy was around mocking Trump and trashing Trump and responding to every Trump outrage rather than talking about why Democrats and progressives had the better ideas for the country. At the DNC, we tried to change this dynamic by our platform promotion project, but it was hard to get much attention for it.
In 2018 and 2020, we are going to need to understand this dynamic, and have candidates and campaigns who use social media to drive a message about who they genuinely are as real life people. And, as much as it flies in the face of modern campaign thinking, I think we are going to need to move away from candidates being so carefully scripted and lacking in spontaneity- they will need to show their genuineness on homemade videos and Facebook posts and tweets that actually come from them as opposed to their communications directors. I have always believed that most of the time in politics, caution kills, and in this era I would double down on that notion.
2. The Republican suburban women strategy failed. Romney lost 6% of Republican voters, most of them women. The man who bragged on a video about sexual assault, called women fat pigs, had a dozen women come forward with awful stories, and on and on ad infinitum lost 7% of Republican voters. In fact, in spite of an intense and exhaustive focus by Hillary’s campaign on picking up Republican and Independent women in the suburbs, against this supremely sexist candidate the first woman to ever be nominated by a major party only gained one point in the overall women’s vote compared to Obama in 2012, and we lost the suburbs (who conventional wisdom said hated Trump) by five points. Painful.
Especially painful given that so much of our messaging, including the campaign’s closing argument ads and speeches in the last week of the campaign, were geared to suburban moderate women. HFA softened Hillary’s message, losing any populist issue edge as we focused on the dangers and sexism of Trump, and we talked about bringing everyone together. Trump’s closing message, by contrast, while an anti-Semitic dog whistle to his alt-right base, was also perfectly targeted to white working class swing voters, hammering on trade and the hardship they have felt in the last 10 years and giving him the edge in Rust Belt states he needed to win this race. Check out this Democracy Corps memo by Greenberg and Carville.
We have to accept the fact as a party that the partisanship in this country has become so deeply ingrained that no matter how horrible the Republican candidate is, we are just never going to pick up very many Republican votes. With demographics steadily moving our way, the future of our party starts with appealing to the kinds of people whose votes are more naturally Democratic: people of color, young people, unmarried women, and those with progressive values. We need to understand as well that with upper-middle class Republicans almost completely off the table for us, that when we go looking for swing voters, they will come mostly from working class households (including in rural areas, by the way, where both Bill Clinton and Obama won far more votes than Hillary did) where the best message is actually the same kind of populist economics that fires up the Democratic base. Conventional wisdom says we have to pick between the base and swing voters, but that conventional wisdom is dead wrong.
3. Turning out the vote is not just data and mechanics- it’s message and heart and people to people. In 2008, Obama got 69.5 million votes to McCain’s 60.0. In 2012, Obama won 65.9 vs Romney’s 60.9. In 2016, Hillary got 59.9 to Trump’s 59.7. The Republican numbers barely budged in the 3 elections, getting about 60 each time. Democratic votes went down by almost ten million over the last 8 years, and that’s with millions more in Democratic base groups- Latinos, millennials, unmarried women- in the voting age population.
There was no huge angry old white man voting surge. Our voters were just not inspired enough, even in the face of the most horrible person in the world running on the other side. We said it many times in this campaign: voters don’t usually turn out based on not liking one candidate, but based on thinking one of the candidates will make their lives better. That didn’t happen in this campaign.
After we won in 2008, our party fell in love with technology and data- big data and what Obama and Clinton strategist Jim Messina calls “little data” and microtargeting. And data is very important to running modern campaigns. But we fell in love with it so much that it sometimes feels like we forgot that we have to create a political movement that excites and motivates and energizes people, a movement that involves actual humans who volunteer to make calls and knock on doors; who give their small contributions online; who get on their Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to post videos and memes; who are excited about convincing their friends and neighbors and coworkers to get out and vote for Democrats. Obama didn’t get 70 million votes in 2008 mainly because of data, he got those votes because people felt they were part of a movement. While they weren’t as excited in 2012, there was still enough residual love for him and that movement to put him over the top after a tough 4 years. We didn’t have that feeling this year, and we need a candidate and party that will get us back to that old time movement religion.
4. We lost this election because we underperformed with our base. Trump got almost the exact margin with white people that Romney had the election before, 21 for Trump vs 20 for Romney. But our margin was seven points less with African-Americans; eight points less with Latinos(!); 11 points less with Asian-Americans; five points less with young voters; 18 points less with voters who have a different religion than Christian or Jewish; ten points less with unmarried voters; and five points less even with registered Democrats. Our margin among poor people dropped 25 fricking points. Most of these groups also either did not turn out as strongly as 2012, or their turnout was at best flat (Latinos and Asian-Americans turned out in greater numbers but not as much as their population growth).
I would add as well that we didn’t do a good job speaking to and motivating Bernie voters. Now speaking of blame games, there’s a lot of Democrats who are saying it is the Bernie movement’s fault that we lost- that Bernie stayed in too long and/or ran too tough a race, that Stein and Johnson protest votes did us in, etc. My view is that such thinking is not constructive if we want to look forward and figure out how to win: our party and our candidates need to win over voters, rather than blaming them for not coming our way. The polling I saw consistently showed that about 25% of Bernie voters were either undecided, thinking of a protest vote, or not sure whether they would vote at all, and Hillary’s overall messaging (with some exceptions) was not designed to appeal to those voters- again, it seemed the campaign was forever in search of those Republican women in the suburbs, not the more populist Bernie voters. The irony is that Hillary came a long way toward Bernie on the issues in the campaign, but her messaging never really reflected those populist issue positions.
I think we will have to study the reasons for this more closely over time, but my strong gut feeling is that Hillary’s messaging for the most part took for granted these base voting groups, assuming that with Trump being so awful we wouldn’t need to convince people to vote for Hillary or other Democrats. We started late on media buys targeted to these communities, and the messaging we did do was more about GOTV than about why they should be for our candidates. Hillary’s big picture message was also neither base or working class swing vote oriented- again, it was a soft non-partisan, non-populist message primarily targeted to Republicans and moderates in the suburbs.
5. A populist change message. Hillary lost in 2008 because Mark Penn convinced her that her experience and stature could beat a change candidate like Obama. She almost lost the primary to an unknown 74 year-old socialist who had never even been a registered Democrat before he declared for our party’s nomination because she had so much trouble embracing an economic populist message, even though the party was so clearly moving strongly in that direction.
And finally, she lost to a crazy, sexist, racist right-wing populist candidate who ran against the global elites and on throwing the bums out. We thought our blue wall plus VA and CO would win no matter what else, forgetting that the blue wall included populist Rust belt states that Hillary had lost to Bernie during the primaries and that had a natural affinity for an outsider message. (HFA didn’t even have Michigan on their top targeted state list until the last few weeks of the campaign.) Donald Trump will mess up as President; the demographics will keep moving in our favor; but if this party doesn’t unify around a populist change message that challenges the elites in the top 1% in the next presidential election, I fear we will still lose next time around.
The reason I entitled this memo “The Years of Living Dangerously” is that we are entering a very scary period with Donald Trump as our president. I fear that the conventional wisdom gurus in our party think we will be able to just keep doing business as usual, never changing their tactics in the face of a radically dangerous president and Republican party. I believe we (and here I am defining we as a combination of the Democratic party and our allies in the progressive community) need to move boldly to fight back against Trump and Trumpism. Here are some final thoughts on going forward:
1. We are in for four years of a president who likely will be worse than Nixon in terms of domestic surveillance and dirty tricks against opponents. Trump and his AG will not care one whit about the rule of law, so we are likely in for wiretapping, electronic surveillance, targeting political opponents with rumors and innuendo, and maybe worse. We need to make sure all of us- the party, our elected officials, the progressive community- are fully prepared for that eventuality and support each other when the worst happens. We need to be ready for worst case eventualities- there is a good chance of arrests on trumped-up charges for elected officials and movement people, bugging of offices, electronic surveillance on a whole new level, etc. We need to discuss and strategize about what we do as a movement if the worst case scenarios begin to unfold. We will need to create a well-funded legal defense operation, and we need to make sure our allies understand that everything they write in emails will likely be hacked Russian and wikileaks-style. We should be prepared for the worst.
2. We need to start getting ready for a series of literally dozens of hard to win issue fights, understanding the typical tactics we have always used, like calls to Congress and district meetings, will be important but not by themselves enough to win. We will need to work together to pick which fights to prioritize, and we will need to be more creative and aggressive than we have been in the past in terms of the strategies and tactics we use to win those fights.
3. We need to think through the development of a coherent, compelling, and repeated strategy around street demonstrations and civil disobedience on major issues. A whole lot of bodies in the streets, a whole lot of the time, is going to be necessary to make it clear that the people aren’t going to be steamrolled by Donald Trump.
4. We know that Trump is going to make a lot of mistakes, most likely some big ones and most likely a lot of them. We need to develop a rapid response plan that is- again part-Democratic party and our elected officials and part progressive allies- ready to exploit these mistakes. This needs to include social media, email actions, and pushing out information and research to reporters. Part of the rapid response operation should be geared toward appointments, as Trump is certain to appoint some serious nut jobs and corrupt people to major positions.
5. Finally, speaking of Trump mistakes, we can expect his presidency will be a disaster on many different levels. Along with normal historical patterns of gains for the opposition party in off-year election cycles, that should give us a big opportunity in the 2018 cycles. Especially with people so horrified with the election results and Trump being president, we should move immediately to start recruiting good candidates to run in 2018.
The progressive movement is united in fighting back against Trump. There’s no time to waste.