It’s taken several days of thinking for me to make conclusions about how the Democratic party lost this election. This is not a commentary on Trump supporters—nor an argument about what this election means for the political and social conscious of our country. I’m not here to talk about values, nor to throw more insults at the Republican Party, nor to debate the morality of who voted for its nominee. I’m here to talk about strategy—precisely the kind of planning and attitude failure in campaign strategy that completely underestimated the power of the conservative, white voter. The Republicans are poised to control the congressional and executive agenda in this country for the next four years, and Democrats must learn from their mistakes in order to overcome the odds of this situation.
Since the 2008 election, the nucleus of Democratic campaign strategy has changed significantly. We used to rely on a combination of working-class whites and minority turnout to win elections. However, after the sustained surge of African-American, Hispanic, and millennial turnout in both the 2008 and 2012 races, progressive leaders were convinced that we only had to turn out our young, multi-ethnic base in order to overcome Republican control of the white demographic.
You don’t have to do much research in order to find out that most pundits have agreed on this trend for the last 8 years. As whites become less relevant as a demographic in future elections, the GOP was predicted to become “a predominantly Midwestern, white, working-class party,” while the Democrats would employ a “coalition” of “upscale whites with racial and ethnic minorities” as their core base. We told ourselves that the changing racial makeup of the United States favored our side: as young, urban and minority voters began to control a much larger share of the total voting population, we would only need their support in order to control national races.
Many of the election models were based on this general theme. Any advocate of identity politics knows that the changing racial make-up of our country favors Democrats, and they applied that idea to predict a Clinton win. It was expected that a surge in minority, women, and millennial votes would flip states like Florida, North Carolina, Michigan and Pennsylvania in the Democrats’ favor. Nearly all of the models that I’ve observed were forecasting—with suspiciously high probability—that the Democrats would sweep the presidential election, take back the Senate, and make up their deficit in state-level governments by this logic.
In losing this election, it’s clear that our leadership missed two things, first that white voters today still constitute a vast majority of the electorate, and second that Donald Trump has far great support among whites than any of the models predicted. Despite this narrative that minorities and millennials will soon dominate the electorate, 70 percent of the 129 million ballots cast in this election came from white voters. Trump won that demographic 51 percent to 39 percent, which means that 51 million whites were supporting him. That number is twice as large as the number of blacks, Hispanics and Asians that voted for Clinton, combined. This election has shown that if the white demographic turns out in force against a Democrat, they can not only be competitive in the race, but can absolutely determine the outcome. When you take this in conjunction with Clinton’s surprisingly weak showing with African Americans (only 88 percent voted for her, as compared to 93 percent for Obama), and Hispanics (an abysmal 65 percent voted for her, according to exit polls), the picture becomes uglier. When a Trump-supporting white demographic has this kind of election sway, and when the Obama coalition of millennials, urbanites, and racial minorities fails to sustain Obama-esque support, it is not possible for a Democrat to get to 270 electoral votes.
But our mistakes in strategy do not stop there. Not only did we ignore demographic realities, but Democrats also walked into this race with naïve arrogance—thinking that the 8 years under Barack Obama had catapulted a majority of white America into liberal awareness of racial, religious, and social pluralism. This optimism turned out to be inaccurate, and it should be made very clear to liberals that our lack of ability to acknowledge white, suburban fear of a changing world is not going away anytime soon. The Clinton campaign failed to recognize the size of the demographic that is worried about globalization’s effect on American jobs, increased domestic threats from a changing racial makeup, and being left behind in a country that—for the last 8 years—has seemed to stop prioritizing them. They prioritize those fears over Trump’s sexism, racism, and offensive personality. It’s also likely that Trump’s cruel, bully attitude is what alleviates some of his voters’ worries. Our unwillingness to admit the size of this demographic is what lost us the election. Donald Trump was bigger and more acceptable to the general public, than liberals were ever willing to admit.
Taking this election in account in determining future campaign strategy is the only solution to this, especially as we head into the 2018 midterms. Democrats traditionally do not show out in great numbers for midterm elections, while Republicans are more consistent voters in both presidential elections and midterms. This means that taking the Senate back (which is possibly our only pragmatic option for trying to stop the passing of legislation) is possibly off the table. In order to regain a divided Senate, we need to take our medicine, and take it quickly.
This means facing the reality that appealing strictly to the base, and not expanding into other demographics, might not be a viable strategy given the attitudes and demographic makeup of the American electorate. There has to be an acknowledgement that Trump has woken a sleeping giant: a populace that is susceptible to appeals of nativism, fear of other racial groups and combative tendencies. Without altering our campaign strategy with awareness of reality, we will have trouble putting ourselves in a strong position in the legislature to block or affect Donald Trump’s policies.
If the Democratic party is ever going to serve as a moderating influence on a Trump political agenda, then we have to strategize with full knowledge of our obstacles, and also come out in better numbers than we did in this election. The Silent Majority elected this man President, which means that the power of this group is not to be underestimated. Now is the time, more than ever, when Democrats need to lean into politics, not out of it. Nothing will ever change if we do not make liberal voices heard—both in public, and at the polling station in 2018. But we will not succeed until we are willing to take a good, hard look at our party, and try to improve the quality and scope of our movement. This means viewing the world as it is, not as we hope it can someday become.
As deeply disappointed as I am about where we are, I know there has never been a more appropriate time to give a damn about politics. Donald Trump, we’ll see you at the midterms.
Sincerely, the Democrats.
Nic Justice is a Trinity junior and the co-President of Duke Political Union.
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