The American Left and All the Wrong Lessons Learned in 2016

To hear it be told, Hillary Clinton lost because she couldn’t turn out enough base Democratic voters. To hear it be told, she couldn’t turn them out because she didn’t have the most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party, she must have run as a pro-corporate shill. Turnout wasn’t way up over 2012. She didn’t win the popular vote. She didn’t get the most votes of anyone not named Obama ever. She didn’t run abnormally high numbers out of Philadelphia, or win it’s suburbs, or win a huge number out of Wake County (Raleigh), or cut the margin in Texas by a million votes (mostly by turning out new Latinos), or hit all the early vote numbers in Florida that she supposedly needed to win. By that matter, all the unabashedly progressive candidates in swing and red states won in 2016 and in 2018 by running to her left, and Senator Feingold is calling on Minority Leader Schumer to step aside and let AOC show us how it’s done in the Senate!

Sssssttttttttttaaaaaahhhhhppppp it ya comedian!!!

The new logic out of socialists and social justice lefties alike is that any candidate running for President that moderates (they’re all basically looking at you Joe, even if they’re boo’ing Delaney and Hickenlooper off the stage) is damned to lose, because that’s what Hillary did, or at least she did it in their story, so now we need to not do it again. To hell with the majority of Democrats wanting a moderate. To hell with how poor impeachment polls, do something, Nancy! It’s time for Democrats to push left. We want to believe Hillary didn’t push left, even though she did, and we want to blame her not giving us a pony for her defeat. Got it? Never mind that she was the more liberal primary candidate on domestic policy in both of her campaigns for President. To hell with facts.

Even if we take them at face value, does being perceived as moving left actually work? Sure, AOC got elected in a district in Queens and the Bronx, and some other unabashedly liberal new members have won in Silicon Valley, Detroit, and the Twin Cities lately, but what’s that got to do with winning nationally? How did Russ Feingold do in Wisconsin? How did moving left end up in Florida, Georgia, or Texas last year? Did Bernie actually lose the nomination by 15%, or was it just under? How has Medicare-for-All done at the ballot box, like say in Colorado in 2016? Did Ben Jealous win? I could go on.

Hillary Clinton did about as well as could be expected at turning out the Democratic base in 2016, given the circumstances. No one can be expected to follow Barack Obama and match his numbers in some key constituencies. She had serious baggage from a quarter century of attacks on her character. She wasn’t the kind of natural politician Obama or her husband were. She was the first woman nominee, and did face serious sexism. Bernie did inflict damage on her with the left. There was a Comey letter. Wikileaks happened. Her campaign did make some major strategic mistakes. Russia did act against her. Despite all that, she basically matched President Obama’s 2012 raw vote count. She did win the popular vote by nearly three million votes and two points. Despite everything, Hillary Clinton did well by every metric that wasn’t the important one- the electoral college.

Let us be clear, Hillary Clinton won astounding victories in big blue states like New York, California, and New Jersey. She made up significant ground in large red states like Texas, Arizona, and Georgia by turning out new voters, particularly non-white voters. Turnout in the 2016 Election was at a record high. Enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton, pure passion that turns out voters, was high. She did appeal to blue state America, as was evidenced by her raw vote numbers and margins in the blue bastions of America. Let’s stop beating around the bush here- Hillary Clinton did not lose because of, nor did she have a problem with turning out the base of the new Democratic Party coalition of non-white voters, unmarried women, and educated white voters. There’s no evidence that taking more progressive positions would have appeased the Berniecrats and far leftists. There’s no track record that those policies are any more electable in big statewide contests that decide the Presidency.

So why the hell did she lose then?

If Hillary Clinton had a special electoral problem with any specific group of voters in the electorate, she had it with swing voters in swing states. For the most part, it could be summed up as “Reagan Democrats,” though that’s probably too general in description. These voters are pretty common though in some of the swing states she narrowly lost- Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin obviously, but also Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and Iowa have plenty of the non-college educated, traditionally Democratic white voter. Maine, New Hampshire, and Minnesota only narrowly avoided flipping for basically the same reasons as well. It’s too generalized to call them all “Reagan Democrats” in the traditional sense, because there were different religions and even to a small extent races and genders involved in this subtle movement. They were mostly white though. They were in some cases Obama voters. They were less ideological voters. They were less partisan. They mostly didn’t live in center city of a major metropolitan city.

There’s absolutely no evidence that moving leftward will move these voters. History tells us that these voters aren’t overly moved by policies- they supported action on climate change and Obamacare in 2007 and 2008, before opposing those policies in 2009 and 2010, but re-elected President Obama in 2012. John Kerry won nearly every issue in the 2004 exit polls before losing the election. Again, they’re not ideological.

So what did they not like about Hillary, or for that matter John Kerry or Al Gore? For one thing, they found her, and them, to be less than authentic. They didn’t believe they would “fight for them.” They were all questioned on their honesty and integrity. They were all called “boring,” and lost the “would you like to have a beer with this candidate” question. All were viewed as smart and qualified, but lacking in integrity and charisma. Go back into the 1980’s, and even the 1970’s, and it typically holds up. Contrast this with Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both of whom won twice, and both of whom were viewed like rockstars by the public.

What about Barack and Bill though- were they progressives? In truth, they were on some issues, but both basically ran as center-left candidates. Neither of them made overt appeals to leftists. While Barack did benefit from being anti-Iraq War and Bill was viewed as pro-working class, neither did much of anything to reach Nader or Stein voters. So would Hillary have benefitted from going harder left? Considering she had the “most progressive” party platform in history, and still lost some of their votes, I think we already know the answer to that. Winning elections, for Democratic Presidential candidates, has had nothing to do with presenting bold, left policies.

Every losing Democratic nominee since Humphrey has faced questions about their honesty, their authenticity, and their ability to connect to voters. Every winner has been likable and authentic. All three Democrats who have won the White House in that time were center-left to centrist. All three were likable and were coming in to fix a mess. The trends are clear, and none of them are matching up with what the American left seems to want 2020 to be about.

Of course, one of our great talents in the Democratic Party is never understanding why we actually won. We look at 2008 and 2012 and want it to be about the “rising new electorate,” while not admitting to ourselves that the Obama campaign was successful in ruthlessly tearing down the McCain and Romney tickets in the swing states, essentially winning them all. We want 2008 to be purely about our success in electing women, rather than looking at who those women were- veterans, prosecutors, corporate attorneys, and other professionals in traditionally male-dominated businesses- a collection of tough women that swing district voters liked.

So now the working theory of the lefties at the Justice Democrats and in AOC’s office is starting to largely sync up with the working theory that governed headquarters in Brooklyn during Hillary’s campaign- we’ll grow our way out of this political mess. It’s cheaper, more efficient, and allows us to move our message left if we target turning out more people like the voters we win now, growing our base. Chasing swing voters forces us to equivocate on some issues, costs more, and is harder. It makes Democrats feel better too, it forces no self-reflection on how we’re doing and if we’re contributing to a destructive political culture. We can be loud and proud, and believe the future will be better for us.

This future is an electoral hellscape though. In 2020, Texas is still a million votes away (based on 2016), and Georgia is still a reach. The battleground map, at a minimum still runs through Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Florida, Arizona, Ohio, and Iowa, all states that Trump won in 2016. Meanwhile the Trump campaign will zero in on flipping Minnesota, New Hampshire, Maine, New Mexico, and Nevada, and may even get a few. The Senate map for 2020 is narrow too, and offers the Democrats a half dozen real opportunities to flip three seats, most of which are in swing states. In the long term, perhaps Democrats do eventually turn Georgia and Texas blue, while Arizona becomes a swing state not unlike Nevada or North Carolina. But do Republicans turn Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine into red states?

The future isn’t going to be won this way. Following the AOC’s of the world, on policy, politics, style, and substance, will yield popularity in blue districts and blue states, but America is not New York, politically. In 20 years, half the country will live in less than ten states, and close to 40 states will have white voting majorities. Demographics are not destiny. Socialism as an ideology is not the answer. We did very well at what we did in 2016, by every metric not called the electoral college, but building up our base is not a strategy to win Wisconsin. It’s not even necessarily a strategy to win Florida. For one thing, you have to go to swing voters and actually campaign to them. Two, you need to authentically talk values, not just give them increasingly less realistic policy proposals that aren’t going to pass Congress. Being “bold” about things we can’t deliver isn’t going to solve much.

Political parties are a collection of what they want to be though. If the Democratic Party wants to be incapable of consistent electoral victories when we don’t have a JFK like talent, we’ll get our wish. Putting forward a likable, authentic, realistic Presidential candidate in 2020 will get us much further than throwing red meat to our base.

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