Democrats have created competing narratives about the 2016 elections, and they’re all wrong. Until they break free of these myths, President Trump remains the favorite to win in 2020.
For the most part, the narratives taken from both “factions” in the party (said factions determined largely by whom they supported in last year’s primary) are looking in the same direction – leftward. The numbers, however, make quite clear that the opposition needs to look rightward to build a coalition capable of preventing Trump’s re-election.
Myth 1: Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate. Given the history of animus directed at her over the years (and not all of it without good reason), this has been the easiest one to believe. All across the political spectrum Mrs. Clinton was either star-crossed, unfairly maligned, misunderstood, unfit for office in the first place, ill-suited for the election in question, or some combination of them all. In other words, the defeat was all about her.
The Problem with Myth 1: Now, if Mrs. Clinton had been the problem candidate, we would have seen Democrats down-ticket doing better than she did. In fact, we see the opposite. Clinton ran 4 million votes ahead of Democratic House candidates. Once California is taken out of the equation (where two US Senate Democrats faced in other in the Election Day runoff), Clinton ran over 1.5 million votes ahead of Democratic Senate candidates. Trump, meanwhile, couldn’t even get 150,000 votes ahead of GOP Senate candidates, and actually ran behind his down-ticket House candidates (the first nominee to do that in 20 years). The numbers make it clear that if any candidate had weaknesses not related to their party, it wasn’t Clinton.
Reality – 2016 was a tough year for Democrats: Once again, Democrats discovered that Barack Obama’s personal popularity largely remained with him. The economic recovery was (and is) too slow and too patchy, and regional realignments took them by surprise (more on that later). In retrospect, the anamoly in 2016 isn’t that Clinton lost in a good year for Democrats, but rather that she won the popular vote while Republicans scored a record 63 million votes for their House candidates and won nearly 2/3 of the Senate seats up in November.
Myth 2: “White working class” voters defected to Trump, temporarily. This is the standard explanation for Trump “breaking the blue wall” in the Rust Belt. At first, it seems to make sense. Anecdotal stories of Obama voters switching to Trump filled bandwith in media on both sides of the Trump divide.
The Problem with Myth 2: Well, the plural of anecdote is still not data. Again, if Trump was hoovering Democrats in the Rust Belt, then he should have run ahead of his ticketmates in the region. In fact, for the Midwest-plus Pennsylvania, Trump ran over 250,000 behind GOP House candidates and over 350,000 behind GOP Senate candidates. Again, it was Clinton who won ticket-splitters (she ran over 800,000 ahead of Democrats running for the House in the Midwest+PA, and over 500,000 ahead of her Senate ticket-mates).
Reality – 2016 was a realignment year for the Midwest: Democrats didn’t suffer at the top in the Midwest, they suffered across the board. These aren’t Trump voters using a one-off; they’re Republican voters now, and history shows us that while ticket-splitters might revert to their older presidential preferences, converts to a party are gone and don’t come back.
Myth 3: Stein 2016 voters could have made the difference. On first glance, this makes perfect sense. Even the numbers work: had all Stein voters gone to Clinton, she would have won Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. For both Sandernistas and die-hard Clinton fans, the bleeding of votes on the left were enough to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory (and thus, moving leftward is how to win them “back”).
The Problem with Myth 3: Of course, one would have to forget that the Greens had a candidate in 2012 also – and it was none other than Jill Stein. The idea that Stein 2012 voters would somehow come to support Clinton is foolhardy. Trouble is, the votes Stein gained in 2016 aren’t enough to flip PA – and thus, the entire win-over-the-Stein-vote plan suffers from the same problem as win-over-the-working-class-Trump-vote does: the numbers actually don’t point at success.
Reality – Johnson 2016 voters could have made the difference: By contrast, the voters Gary Johnson gained in 2016 (he also ran in 2012) are enough to make the difference in PA, WI, MI, and Florida – and one does not win those voters over by going leftward. Johnson’s vote wasn’t outside the two major parties in ideology, it was between them. They had genuine differences of opinion with Clinton and her big-government proposals. I’ve already written about how Clinton could have done a better job winning over market-friendly voters. Democrats can still use that playbook, and win over far more voters than they can with the Stein crew.
Myth 4: Bernie Sanders would have won. A whole bunch of Sanders backers remain convinced of this, driven in part by the first three myths. If you think Hillary Clinton underperformed among Democrats, it’s not hard to assume Sanders wouldn’t. If you think Trump – and only Trump – won over “white working class” voters in the Midwest, it’s not hard to think Sanders could have prevented that. If you think Stein voters made the difference, then her constant praise for Sanders becomes your best evidence.
The Problem with Myth 4: For starters, it depends on the first three. Given that Clinton actually did better than the rest of the party, and that Republicans outperformed Trump, it becomes much harder to see Sanders winning over Republican converts and hardcore Greens from 2012, let alone the Gary Johnson voters that really would have made the difference. Moreover, the “Sanders would win the blue wall” argument forgets about the rest of the country, particularly the narrow Clinton wins in Colorado (where Sanders’ pet issue – government-run insurance – was defeated in a referendum by a whopping 79%-21% margin, and Clinton ran 75,000 ahead of House Democrats) and Nevada (where Clinton ran 30,000 ahead of her House ticketmates).
Reality – Sanders would not have won either. Again, the problem was with the party, not the candidate, while far more votes were left on the table to the right, rather than to the left.
These myths suffer from the same fallacy: namely, that a left-wing Democratic party is the natural majority party in America. Last year should have disabused them of that, but the dangerous dream lives on. So long as it holds sway, not only will the Democrats face an uphill battle in 2020 (or earlier), but the country will suffer as its loyal opposition cuts off its nose to spite its face, leaving the Administration held far less accountable than it deserves.