The Democratic Party is still trying to come to terms with the election’s results, the loss of the White House to what many on the left still vehemently insist is a misogynist racist. It doesn’t help that Republicans also now control the House and Senate, as well as 37 state legislatures, just one short of the three-quarters required to amend the Constitution.
And in many ways, the Democratic defeat in 2016 was crushing indeed. Republicans are likely to have their way in Washington for the next four years. With 23 Democratic and just eight Republican senators up for reelection in 2018, Democrats may lose even more ground in the 2018 upcoming midterms.
The dark brooding of Democrats over the past two weeks is understandable; the election results are galling, painful. In the splintering tribal identities that now dominate American politics, the notion that Trump’s defiantly misogynistic and occasionally racist comments didn’t matter – indeed, that they enhanced his reputation for swashbuckling defiance of an arrogant elitism – can seem to many Democrats a vast setback in an America that is still, for two more months, led by its first African-American president.
No one can take away from Republicans their startling victory, or the sense, demonstrated in polling data and countless interviews across the American “rust belt,” that they have been swept to power by a visceral feeling of disenfranchisement among a demographic group – to oversimplify, white working-class voters – that still represents a majority of the American voting public.
Yet for all that, here is a stark truth of this race: The simple headlines of Trump’s victory and the Republicans’ seemingly unassailable sweep hide a deep fragility. Even in ignominious defeat, Democrats showed strengths that should worry a triumphant GOP, and Republicans showed weaknesses that do not bode well for them over the long term.
None of this should be interpreted as a “defense” of the Democrats. If anything, what follows only drives home the extent to which the failure of 2016 could have been prevented. Nor is it necessarily a criticism of Republicans. Trump drew more actual votes than any Republican candidate before him.
Even so, Republicans must contend with the simple fact that the Democratic Party is consistently more popular among America’s voters: With Hillary Clinton’s two-million-vote advantage over Trump (at last count, and likely to grow), Democrats have now won the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, even if they lost the presidency in two of those elections, in 2000 and 2016. Since 1992, 24 years ago, only Bush in 2004 garnered more actual votes than his Democratic opponent. And if this year is taken as a relatively “bad” one for Democrats – at current count, Hillary Clinton trails Barack Obama’s 2008 showing by 5.3 million votes and even his lackluster 2012 tally by 1.7 million – it’s reasonable to assume the popular vote gap is here to stay.
Republicans have argued over the past two weeks that the popular vote is irrelevant, since it is not the pathway to victory in federal elections. This is true in the narrow sense of electoral strategy, but it should not comfort Republicans too much. The demographic gap that favors Democrats, especially among the young and minorities, seems to be growing, and has already made the Republican path to the White House harder than in the past, 2016’s red-draped electoral map notwithstanding. The Electoral College can shield Republicans from those realities only so long — and the slim margins of Trump’s victory in most swing states, even with a banner turnout for the GOP, suggest it may not be much longer.
Hard numbers, hard truths
Donald Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, tearing down the Democrats’ supposedly secure “blue wall.” For many pundits, this fact was rightly seen as the most important takeaway from the race.
But looking ahead, it is far more important for Republicans that had Trump failed to penetrate these Democratic bastions, Hillary Clinton would now be the president-elect. And it should disquiet Republicans that Trump won them by razor-thin margins, margins smaller than the measured effect of bad weather on voter turnout, and smaller by far than the statistical errors of even the most expansive of polls.
All three have been reliably Democratic states in recent years. In 2008 and 2012, Democrats won Michigan by 16.4 and 9.5 percentage points respectively, Wisconsin by 13.9 and 6.9, and Pennsylvania by 10.4 and 5.4.
Trump reversed all three, yes, but by vanishingly slim margins. He took Michigan by just 0.22 percentage points, or 10,704 actual votes out of some 4.8 million cast. Wisconsin went to Trump by just 0.8 percentage points. And Pennsylvania, with its 20 electoral votes, tied with Illinois for fifth-largest, went to Trump by just 1.2 percentage points, or 70,010 votes out of 6 million cast.
These slim victories are all the more fragile because they come at the edges of dramatic swings, or total change in margin from one candidate to another, toward Trump, as shown by data collected by the Atlas of US Presidential Elections website. Wisconsin had to swing 7.7 percentage points to give Trump his 0.8-point lead. Michigan had to swing 9.7 points to let Trump eke out his .22-point victory, the slimmest ever in the state’s history. And Pennsylvania shifted 6.6 points away from Obama’s 5.4-point lead in 2012.
To be sure, Clinton’s collapse was not simply a function of those razor-thin margins in the Midwest; it was her loss of Florida (by 1.2 points) and bellwether Ohio (no candidate has lost Ohio and still become president since 1960) that put the Midwest into play in the first place.
Even so, Trump’s victory depended on repeatedly winning extremely close races. Democrats still have more battleground-state paths to the White House than Republicans: Obama in 2012 could have lost all of Clinton’s “blue wall” and still won 286 electoral votes and the presidency.
In the places where it counted, Hillary Clinton was simply a weak candidate. In Wisconsin, the drop in turnout this year was five times larger than Trump’s margin of victory. In Wayne County, Michigan, home to the city of Detroit and a large Democratic-leaning African-American community, the margin swung 93,098 votes in the Republicans’ favor, the third-largest county swing in the entire country, equal to nine times the final margin of Trump’s win. And it is no coincidence that this swing was accompanied by a 4.5 point drop in turnout in the county.
Some Democratic voters stayed home; some actually voted Trump. Michigan’s 9.7-point swing toward the Republicans can’t be explained by the state’s modest 1.3-point bump up in turnout. In Iowa the math is even more stark: a 5.8-point victory for Obama turned into a 9.4-point margin for Trump — all while the overall turnout fell by a percentage point. It’s hard to see how this could have happened unless large numbers of Obama-voting Iowans just voted Trump.
This real-life voting data bears out the finding of a November 8 exit poll reported by The New York Times that found about 12% of Trump voters saying they approved of Barack Obama as president. Republicans, beware: If just one out of every nine of those Obama backers had picked Clinton, Trump would have lost.
There’s more. Support for the Democratic candidate also declined in some of the most reliably blue regions of the country. Los Angeles County, which went to Clinton 71%-23%, nevertheless saw a 58,085-vote swing toward Trump, while Middlesex County, Massachusetts, home to Boston’s northern suburbs, saw a 204,483-vote Republican swing. Both shifts went unnoticed because both states remained heavily in the Democratic camp, but they suggest the trend seen in the Rust Belt battlegrounds was not a localized phenomenon. It was consistent across diverse regional economies and subcultures, a function of something shared in all these locations — a function, most likely, of the candidates themselves.
And then there’s the spike in third-party votes, which leaped from 2 million in 2008 and 2.4 million in 2012 to 7.6 million this year, the largest share of total votes to go to third parties in two decades.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this abandonment of the two main parties. Fully 15 states were won with only a plurality of votes, compared to just one state in 2012, four in 2008, and three in 2004. And in 11 states a third-party candidate won more votes than the total margin between Clinton and Trump: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — for those counting, that’s 124 Electoral College votes.
Earlier this year, Democrats celebrated the fact that Trump was chosen as their Republican challenger, assuming his brash attitude and habit of aggressively insulting entire constituencies would help guarantee their own lackluster candidate’s victory. The premise turned out to be correct, only in reverse: Trump would almost certainly have failed (based on turnout data, with the usual caveats about “what if” scenarios) against another Barack Obama or Bill Clinton. Luckily for him, he faced Hillary Clinton.
Donald Trump has argued that his loss of the popular vote is a result of his own campaign strategy – if the popular vote had mattered, he would have campaigned nationally and not just in “swing” states on which an Electoral College victory depends. And, he assures, he would then have pushed up his supporters’ turnout in deep blue states and overrun the Democrats’ popular vote showing.
In other words, faced with mounting evidence that his win was more fragile than Republicans seem to be willing to admit, he has responded by arguing that a change in rules would have been met by a commensurate and successful change in his own strategy. Is he right?
It is reasonable to argue that Republicans in heavily Democratic states like California and New York sometimes don’t bother voting, since they do not have much chance of shifting the state’s electors to the GOP in a presidential race. Yet by the same logic couldn’t one argue that Democrats don’t bother to vote in places like Los Angeles, Austin or Manhattan for the same reason?
It is hard to predict how millions of people might alter their voting patterns in an entirely different electoral system. Yet there are clues in the 2016 results that suggest Trump is wrong.
For one thing, in many blue-leaning places he lost not only to Hillary Clinton, but to 2012’s Mitt Romney. In Los Angeles County, he won 30% fewer votes than Romney while third-party votes jumped 57%. In New York County, which includes the island of Manhattan and Trump’s home, the GOP candidate fell 34 points behind Romney.
Even in Texas, Trump’s showing fell 9.6% in Travis County, home to state capital and liberal bastion Austin.
It’s one thing to argue you could win more votes if you tried, and quite another to explain away such steep falls in deep blue areas as a function of campaign strategy.
That’s especially true given the figures for Democratic-leaning areas where Trump did campaign. In working-class Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, home to the city of Pittsburgh and an area that saw ferocious electioneering by both sides — where Trump memorably promised to resurrect the region’s long-defunct steel industry — the iconoclastic Republican still shed some 4,551 votes compared to Romney, a drop of 1.7%. And in Hamilton County, Ohio, the site of Democratic-leaning but nevertheless hotly contested Cincinnati, Trump fell by 12%.
It is important to note that the votes are still being counted or verified in some places, and may yet change slightly in the more populous states. But the available evidence does not favor the Republicans. They are momentarily protected from facing these hard realities by the peculiar features of the Electoral College system. Even a slight shift further in the already prevailing direction will topple that gossamer citadel.
Geography and tyranny
But that doesn’t mean that the Republican victory this year was an accident. Democrats may scoff at it and rail at a system in which those who win the most votes may still lose the election. But that understandable anger ignores the most salient fact about America’s peculiar electoral system: that it is not trying to guarantee majority rule. It is trying, in fact, to prevent it.
The authors of the US Constitution, America’s “Founding Fathers,” were unusually thoughtful political planners. As they set about crafting the world’s first modern democratic regime, a system they themselves called an “experiment,” they quickly realized that democracy had an inbuilt, unavoidable Achilles heel: the possibility, perhaps even the temptation, that a majority will oppress and tyrannize the minorities in its midst. Possessing an unflattering view of human nature, they grew obsessed with finding a political structure that could uphold the essential majority-rule principle on which democracy depends while curtailing as much as possible, and without relying on the good intentions of the powerful, the ability of the majority to force its will on an unwilling minority.
Their solution was convoluted and brilliant. They sought to rein in the majority by creating a multitude of political institutions that use several different ways of measuring the electorate. The House of Representatives is elected by population-defined districts, the Senate by equal representation for each state, and the president by both population and state via the Electoral College. Each branch’s elections were set to a different schedule — a House term is two years, a senator’s is six and a president’s four — and finally ensured that each branch, elected by its own distinctive cross-section of the population, and thus defining a “majority” in radically different ways, could block the actions of the others.
One might replace the entire House in a single pathos-filled election, but it takes at least another two years, or maybe four – enough for the pathos to either peter out or become the genuine mainstream view of most Americans – to do anything similar to the Senate. In this way, largely empty prairie states, equal in Senate votes to their more populous coastal neighbors, can hold the line against the wishes of urban America, and vice versa. This Senate check on majority rule is so fundamental to the founders’ thinking that Article 5 of the US Constitution actually forbids changing the equal representation of states in that chamber even by constitutional amendment.
First in the Federalist Papers and then in the Constitution itself, the founders worked hard to prevent the dominion of city-dwellers over country folk, of regional interests over broader national ones, or, indeed, of free states over slave-holding ones.
In this way, any new social or political agenda is held in check until it has attracted a sufficiently large number of regions, leapfrogged over enough social and economic subdivisions, and persisted for long enough to rally to its banner a more or less unified nation.
Which brings us to the 2016 election, in which the Democrats, increasingly ensconced in their coastal metropolises — Clinton won 465 counties, Trump 2,598 — are consistently winning the popular vote, and are likely to keep doing so as urban populations grow. But the American constitutional system was constructed explicitly, with malice aforethought, to prevent just such an urban-concentrated popular majority from automatically dominating the federal government.
In the view of its founders, America is meant to change slowly. In an important sense, Republicans now hold the White House and both chambers of Congress precisely because Democrats have been working to change American society in profound ways — think abortions, gay rights, gun control, healthcare, a national school curriculum — without first convincing enough regions and subcultures in their society that this is the right and proper to do so.
That doesn’t mean the Democrats’ agenda is wrong, or even that they have failed to advance it. It’s hard to see how the Trump administration might actually overturn Roe v. Wade. Gay marriage is now supported by 33% of Republicans, up from 17% as recently as 2006, and by 61% of independents; it is no longer a distinctly progressive cause. And even if they somehow succeed in overturning much of Obamacare, Republicans will have to find a solution for as many as 20 million Americans who could suddenly lose their health coverage — an onus that a Republican-dominated Congress a decade ago would not have faced.
Yet Democrats are just as much the heirs of America’s founding vision as Republicans, a vision that lionizes not only progress, but unity. “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable!” declared Senator Daniel Webster in 1830 in perhaps the most famous speech ever delivered in the US Senate. “I would save the Union,” pronounced Abraham Lincoln in an August 1862 letter to famed abolitionist Horace Greeley, even as he fretted over how to forge from the fires of that self-destructive war both a free America and a united one.
The Democrats are now losing political ground, and finding themselves reined in by ideological minorities living in places where few left-wing voters still live, precisely because, over the long term, they are winning.
American political parties are not actually “parties” in the sense that most of the democratic world uses the term, but more a kind of shared brand applied to a loose-knit coalition of social and economic groups and interests. They do not have membership rosters or definitive hierarchies. That’s not to say parties don’t matter — a great deal of the money sloshing through American political campaigns flows along pathways carved out by these party identities — but it is nevertheless hard to use phrases like “the Democrats must” or “the Republicans should.” Neither is unified or uniform; both sides have a multitude of factions pulling in often contradictory directions.
The progressive wing of the Democratic Party responded to the results of this month’s election by backing Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minnesota), a progressive and the first Muslim ever elected to Congress, as the next chair of the Democratic National Committee, the party’s national umbrella organization. Armed with the assertion that Hillary Clinton was precisely the wrong sort of candidate to field in an election year that saw a populist uprising against an out-of-touch establishment, progressives long to transform the Democratic brand into a counter-establishment alternative to the now decidedly establishmentarian Republicans.
The leader of this process for the progressives: Hillary Clinton’s 75-year-old nemesis from the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is now charged with spearheading the party’s outreach to sway-able blue-collar Trump voters.
This leftward lurch is not a fringe impulse, according to a Pew study conducted in the week after the election. For the first time since it started asking the question in 2008, Pew found that a plurality of self-identified Democrats, 49% to 47%, now want their party to become more liberal.
But another branch of the party drew a different conclusion from the election. Rallying around Ohio Representative Tim Ryan’s leadership challenge against House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, they want a return to the traditional Democratic focus on “middle America,” unions, and the white working class that abandoned the party for Trump. Ryan, 43, hails from Youngstown, Ohio, an Appalachian city decimated and shrunken over the past 40 years by the collapse of the steel industry across the Midwest.
There is no single Democratic Party, and so there won’t be a single Democratic response to 2016. But the two responses already taking shape are precisely what the American founders wanted to instigate in a political movement that seeks to change America: that it be forced to bring more Americans, or rather, more kinds of Americans, into the bargain.
Democrats face an immensely difficult challenge in expanding their appeal outside the big cities. They must defy a four-decade-long “Big Sort,” journalist Bill Bishop’s term for the growing tendency of Americans to live among those who think and act like them, a trend that has seen Democrats losing ground geographically, and thus in Congress, even as they gain ground in population. The shift has been stark: In the 1976 presidential election, just 20% of Americans lived in a “landslide county,” a county that was won by either candidate by more than 20 percentage points. By 2004 that figure had risen to 48%. In 2016, it was 60%.
Most Americans now live in communities where they are unlikely to hear views with which they disagree, and, between the Big Sort and the knock-on effects of gerrymandering, in districts where political majorities may be too great to sway. There are now fewer places where either party can hope to shift the balance.
It is exceedingly lucky for the future of the United States, then, and for both parties’ long-term relevance, that the founders installed into the very bedrock of American institutions a powerful check against partisan splintering and overly-narrow social agendas: the guarantee of legislative gridlock and the stark prospect of electoral defeat.
But the Constitution only seeks to stop the majority for a limited time. Republicans won a very real victory this month, and it hardly matters in the short term that it was rooted in geography rather than popularity. Yet such victories cannot, by themselves, fundamentally reshape American society against the wishes of the growing majority on the other side. As House Speaker Paul Ryan has noted many times, and sought to redress, Republicans have struggled to offer resonant policy responses to skyrocketing national debt, tens of millions of uninsured, and the long-simmering crisis of America’s stilted immigration policy. Even Donald Trump, who made these issues the centerpieces of his campaign, has offered few details on how he plans to tackle them. Republicans have been more interested in recent years in simply stopping the Democrats’ social-change juggernaut.
Where Democrats must convince a broader cross-section of American society that they are working in their interests, Republicans must offer a better reason to vote for Republicans than that they are not Democrats.
If the GOP fails to do so, they may quickly discover the fragility of a political movement that depends for victory on a tiny majority of battleground voters who have already shown they can switch sides at a whim, and who care little for the Republican brand or conservative ideas. Republicans may soon find themselves recalling that Obama did better in rural Iowa counties in 2008 than any Democrat in memory, and that before him, Bill Clinton actually won non-college-educated whites — the wellspring of Trump’s surprise swing — even in those parts of Iowa, West Virginia or Arkansas where they are a majority. If they are not mindful, Republicans may soon find themselves explaining their own loss by reflecting on just how many of their swing voters in 2016 had very recently voted Democratic.
Trump promised a very great deal to his supporters. With the House and Senate on his side and a party establishment forced by victory to embrace his iconoclastic candidacy, he must now be seen to deliver. If he fails to slash immigration, if he faces an uptick in terror attacks on American soil, if he fails to return industrial manufacturing jobs to the Rust Belt or renegotiate the trade agreements he so castigated as a candidate, if he doesn’t cut taxes, spend massively on dilapidated infrastructure, and all the while push down a federal debt expected to exceed $19.5 trillion in the 2017 fiscal year, a figure he returned to like a mantra during his campaign — if he fails to deliver all or at least most of these immense promises, the Democrats’ argument against his reelection in 2020 all but writes itself.
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