What Democrats can learn from Hillary's loss

Democrats are consoling themselves that Clinton won the national popular vote, even as she lost in the Electoral College. But they’re gnashing their teeth over unforced errors.

Matt Rourke/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks in New York on Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016, where she conceded her defeat to Republican Donald Trump after the hard-fought presidential election.

In trying to make history, Hillary Clinton also tried to buck history.

Mrs. Clinton sought to succeed a two-term president of her own party. Usually, that doesn’t work. After eight years, voters are ready for change, and this year, they were in a particularly sour mood. What’s more, Clinton was the ultimate “establishment” politician facing the ultimate outsider. Even the active support of a popular President Obama couldn’t carry her across the finish line.

And so, on Tuesday, Clinton failed to break the highest, hardest glass ceiling in global leadership. And come Jan. 20, 2017, billionaire Donald Trump will take the oath of office as 45th president of the United States.

But there were many other factors behind Clinton’s loss, besides bad timing – and for Democrats, lessons for the future:

A deeper bench

Clinton entered the 2016 presidential race the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination. Compared with the 17-person Republican field, the Democrats seemed to have slim pickings. Clinton, certainly, was the 800-pound gorilla in the group – universal name ID, a gold-plated resume (including secretary of State), support of major donors, and big-name endorsements from Day 1 of the campaign.

She would have been hard to beat for the nomination, under any circumstances. But the fact that a little known democratic socialist senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, could grab 43 percent of the primary vote was telling. Clinton had vulnerabilities – an ill-defined message, questions about trustworthiness, a perceived lack of authenticity – that Senator Sanders was able to exploit with a message of progressive populism. Trump, with his own brand of populism, also exploited Clinton’s weaknesses, and won.

Now, Democrats are looking ahead, and asking: Who’s on the bench? We’ll spare readers talk of who might run for president in four years. In the House and Senate, Democrats gained a few seats Tuesday, but remain in the minority.

One deficit in Democratic party-building is clear: its ability to win state legislative seats, the farm team for higher office. During Mr. Obama’s presidency, the Democrats have lost more than 900 state legislative seats (out of 7,383), and in Tuesday’s elections, posted a net loss of an additional 43 seats, with results still coming in.

State legislators represent a key element of each party’s farm team. Obama, a former Illinois state legislator, recognizes this. After he leaves office, he will team up with former Attorney General Eric Holder to focus on redistricting for both state legislative and US House districts, in an attempt to redraw districts more to the Democrats’ advantage.

Better messaging

“Stronger Together”? “I’m with Her”? Neither of these Clinton slogans told voters what she would do as president, and truth be told, the second one handed Trump the perfect populist comeback: “I’m with you.”

Both Trump and Sanders had slogans that screamed change. For Sanders, it was, “A Political Revolution is Coming.” Trump’s “Make America Great Again” has earned a permanent place in American political culture, and on the millions of hats and T-shirts his supporters wore. Like Obama’s “Hope and Change,” it could mean many things, allowing voters to project their hopes onto their favored candidate.

For Clinton, the unclear messaging spoke to a deeper question about what her candidacy was really about. Was she running for Obama’s third term? As the candidate of experience? As the history-making first woman president?

At a time of stagnant wages and a decline in good jobs, Americans were looking for a strong economic message, a promise to keep the nation safe, and a shakeup of the Washington establishment. The last part, in particular, seemed impossible for Clinton to deliver. 

More focus on working-class white voters

Trump’s victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin broke the Democrats’ “blue wall” that was supposed to win Clinton the presidency, and threatened a realignment of the major parties. White working-class voters, once a mainstay of the Democratic Party, went solidly for Trump, and could be hard to win back.

“I firmly believe the Democrats simply have to come up with a more robust economic frame and message,” Democratic pollster Celinda Lake tells Politico. “We’re never going to win those white blue-collar voters if we’re not better on the economy. And 27 policy papers and a list of positions is not a frame. We can laugh about it all we want, but Trump had one. It’s something that we absolutely have to fix.”

Pundits also criticize Clinton for not visiting Wisconsin once during the general election, and paying attention to Michigan only late in the campaign. Trump was the first Republican to win Wisconsin since 1984, and the first to win Michigan since 1988.

Democrats are consoling themselves that Clinton won the national popular vote, even as she lost in the Electoral College. But they’re gnashing their teeth over unforced errors. Trump, too, was a flawed nominee, with an even higher unfavorable rating than Clinton. Exit polls showed that 60 percent of voters didn’t see him as qualified to be president. And yet he won anyway, which for Clinton, makes the defeat all the more painful.

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