Nearly two years have gone by since Donald Trump took control of the White House in the 2016 presidential election. Starting from the night of that election until now, hundreds of analyses have tried to pinpoint the exact conditions that led to the upset, though one factor is unanimously clear — an overconfident Democratic Party had become out of touch with the needs of a sizable portion of the American electorate. When they lost the presidency, it took the party completely by surprise. Now with the 2018 midterm elections upon us, many are predicting a “blue wave,” but no one is certain if the Democrats have taken the lessons of the 2016 election to heart or if they’ve implemented the strategies necessary to reclaim the voters who were apathetic to their platform.
Reconciling With The 2016 Presidential Defeat and Planning for the Future
It’s not controversial to say that Democrats were far too overconfident during the 2016 election, relying on inaccurate polling data and conventional strategies in a political landscape that was rapidly changed by Donald Trump. During the election, inside the democratic bubble, confidence in their win was the norm. Most Democrats accepted the mainstream narrative that the national consensus was anti-Trump. They (myself included) vastly underestimated his national support. Polling that consistently pointed to Hillary Clinton’s victory reinforced overconfidence and a party-wide belief that there would be no chance for a Trump presidency. As for Trump’s win, an autopsy report conducted by a commission of pollsters points to “substantive change in vote preference during the campaign’s final days, a failure to properly adjust for an over-representation of college graduates, and many Trump voters failing to reveal their preferences until after the election” as major reasons for the polling discrepancies. The Democratic Party of 2018, humbled by the events of 2016, is more focused on broadcasting a platform that energizes their base. They are getting back to grassroots campaigning after realizing that nobody can run against a radicalized Trumpian GOP with cold and calculated technocratic campaigns of analysis and strategy.
Democrats and the left-aligned media did not take Trump’s political acumen seriously enough. From his potent brand of populism to his “telling it like it is” rhetoric to his calculated exploitation of media, Trump quickly learned how to wield his weapons to translate fear, anxiety and intolerance into votes. His campaign to make Hillary look weak and corrupt demotivated vulnerable constituencies on Election Day and won him several swing voters. Trump’s media campaign of insults, nonsense policy discussion and outrage bewitched prominent democratic leaders and pundits and distracted them from what was really important. Unfortunately, much of the liberal media has not yet learned its lessons from 2016. As described by Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi in an interview with Recode, “We replaced a million hours of Trump with a million hours of ‘Trump is bad’ … We took a lot of heat during 2016 for giving him billions [of dollars worth] of free coverage and we had this fork in the road, like, are we going to cover him less, or are we going to cover in the same amount but in a different way?” Even now, the media still hasn’t found an appropriate way to challenge Trump’s constant dissemination of false information and denunciation of media which casts a reality distortion field around his base.
Hillary’s continuation of neo-liberal economic traditions clashed sharply with Bernie Sanders’ call to bring big bankers to heel and confront wealth inequality. A vast majority of voters considered economics one of the most important issues of the 2016 election. Hillary’s economic agenda left a lot of Democrats disinterested in her campaign. In a time when the country clamored for an anti-establishment candidate, Hillary’s economics seemed like a red herring, even if they made more sense than Trump’s. Now in the midterm election, some predict that the Republican Party has the “substantial benefit” of ruling during a perceived economic boom. However, with wages stagnating while US stock exchange indexes rise, the insurgents of the Democratic Party who offer social programs and economic reform might tap into valuable voter groups who feel that Trump’s dismantling of regulatory frameworks and trade wars won’t actually help their economic situation.
It’s no secret that the Democratic Party consistently wins a majority of the non-white electorate, but the party’s message stalled in 2016 for racial minority groups. While Hillary held 91 percent of the African American vote, the African American voter turnout declined by a significant seven percent from 2012 to 2016 after 20 years of positive increase according to a study by the Pew Research Center. According to another Pew Research Center study, it was found that non-white voters made up nearly 50 percent of non-voters and only 25 percent of all voters. Though non-voters are generally considered disengaged with American politics and it is hard to predict their ideological leaning, in 2016, 30 percent held liberal values while 18 percent held conservative values. As reported by the Washington Post, “Democrats have set or essentially matched records for the number of female, black and LGBT nominees.” This wave of diversity might be exactly what the Democratic Party needs to win the support of minority groups who can may feel energized by having candidates who better represent their identities.
Former President Barack Obama gave an important assessment on the 2016 election to National Public Radio, saying, “The party needs to reframe its debates for suburban and rural voters.” Obama cites that Democrats ignored a large rural constituency, explaining, “You’ve got a situation where there are not only entire states but also big chunks of states where we’re not showing up. If we’re not in there making an argument, then we’re going to lose.” Unfortunately, trying to win white non-college educated working-class voters has become politically suspect for Democrats to attempt, but without at least some outreach, Democrats are put in a very difficult position in many key battlegrounds. White non-college educated working class voters are a substantial portion of the electorate. As Vox’s Ruy Teixeira explains, “The math is clear: Democrats need to win more working-class white votes. This is hardly an impossible task. The view that white non-college voters who do not already vote for Democrats are hopelessly racist and reactionary is a canard. They’re a vast and variegated group.” Teixeira also writes, “Democrats will probably have to offer something besides vigorous denunciations of Trump, who is more popular with these voters than with the rest of country. That does not mean that Democrats need to capitulate to Trumpism.” Teixeira points out that the Democratic platform is already winning over more and more white non-college educated millennial voters, which is a good sign for Democrats.
“Fool Me Once…”
The 2016 presidential election was a major wake up call for the Democratic Party, who, thanks to Trump, might see itself becoming the “big tent” party again, occupying an inclusive ideological space open to a broader range of political views. With such a large coalition, it’s unknown whether or not the democratic platform can stretch itself enough without compromising on its core principles or dividing into two factions within one party. Many candidates this midterm season have found success in channeling the energy of opposition against Trump’s message. The party is upping their game with a new class of insurgent party candidates running for local and federal seats on a more socialist or reformist platform than traditional moderate Democrats, and are surprisingly finding wide support. The more radical platforms of Medicare for all, free education, voting rights reforms, political corruption reforms and campaign finance reforms may be able to rally lost voters who lost interest in voting for establishment representatives who toe the party line. Still, the Democratic Party has a few glaring issues of which the party hasn’t yet adapted to. One of the biggest is the party’s day to day obsession with Trump who is, at this point, abusing his outrageous behavior to distract the Democratic Party from operating effectively as a cohesive organization. Journalists who are left-aligned, even after the 2016 Presidential Election, are continually trolled into amplifying any and all scandalous behavior from the White House. This only adds fuel to the conspiratorial mythology that Trump has weaved about the “dishonest media out to get him.” Overconfidence is rearing its ugly head again, and it seems whenever a new poll comes out which paints the results of the midterms in a positive light for Democrats, some click-bait journalist always seems to unnecessarily pronounce that a “blue wave” is coming. I believe, however, that Democrats are largely ignoring these calls. For the most part, they have learned that they can’t afford to underestimate their political opponents.