It is sad when a party loses talented people. It is sadder when one has worked for decades to build a party to see it teetering on the brink of a major setback.
Showers early. Clearing skies. Mild.
Hillary Clinton. (AFP)
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Two years ago I worked a Democratic campaign here in the state of Georgia, where we thought we would do a lot better than we actually did. Around 22:00 our race was called and our opponent won easily, and we realized we made some very large mistakes, like taking our own base for granted while trying to appeal to the other side.
We relied on pollsters who didn’t know how our electorate looked. We used a strategy that didn’t work. We saw Democrats take similar strategic decisions around the country, and we saw an absolute bloodbath. Republicans stormed the Senate, held the House and won governorships all over the country.
And Democrats learned absolutely nothing.
The Democratic base includes Hispanic voters, and that was a portion they managed to turn out, although that could be attributed to the poisonous rhetoric Donald Trump delivered about immigrants. But for generations, the Democratic base has been blue-collar workers, and unionised households and those lower on the income scale. And these people were left out of this campaign by the Clinton campaign, who paraded a series of generals and Republicans critical of Trump instead of focusing on who their voters are, and the policy differences between the parties.
There were factors outside Clinton’s control, like leaked emails and the media’s intense focus on her private server, an issue that did not change in scope from July, yet remained in the headlines, assisted by the FBI. But it is a candidate’s job to both deal with and overcome these upsets, and Clinton didn’t. Third party candidates were likely decisive in some states, and, like the election of 2000, Democrats should be wary of blaming the Libertarian candidate’s presence instead of figuring out why, potentially, so many of their voters went that route. Voter ID laws were beyond her campaign’s control, and, whether they had an effect or not, are something Democrats have now likely lost the opportunity to change.
But much of the damage was self-inflicted. Instead of running against Republicans she ran with some of them, and they turned out in droves for Trump and against her. She prioritised criticism upon criticism of Republican critiques of Trump ahead of left-leaning critique from her own base. While the US is an ideologically centerish country, the Democratic Party has a left wing, which President Barack Obama hasn't ever been scared of, but Clinton did not cater to.
Counties carried easily by Obama in unionised Pennsylvania, like Lackawanna, where you will find The Office’s Scranton, saw Clinton with minuscule leads compared to four years ago, and ended up losing her the state. Michigan and Wisconsin, with similar labor strengths fell into the potential Trump column part of the way through the night, which should never be in contention for a Democrat that effectively chased the votes of its base.
Clinton also could not control the polls, which were systematically wrong. The experts do not know what the electorate of this country looks like, or how it behaves. This is a fundamental problem that cannot be overstated.
Trump stole the idea of change from Democrats, which was a strong theme of Obama. Trump ran on the idea that the US had problems, and Clinton ran with message that America was not the place Trump labeled it – “America is already great”. While Democrats felt pressure to campaign as if Obama had fixed all the problems America had, and Clinton would be a continuation thereof, food stamp use is up, healthcare costs are up, labor force participation is down, and, until recently, median family income was still hovering where it was in 1999. The Obama recovery was not felt in many parts of the nation, and voters responded to the candidate who advertised change.
That, of course, is not all that Trump went after. There are thoroughly racist aspects to the way he went about his business, and those voters will likely be catered to, even if his planned wall on the southern border is unaffordable and his Muslim ban declared unconstitutional (which it surely will be). Trump has woken up a racial fringe that is not going to go away, and black and brown Americans have reason to be more fearful of the country in which they live.
Democrats campaigned on an awful lot that more than half the public did not care about. They are currently the out of touch party. For all the pages spent extolling the end of the Republican Party with Donald Trump at the helm, it is Democrats who will now have to go and figure out who they actually are.
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