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Flashbacks from 2016 put Democrats on notice – and on edge

Why We Wrote This

As voting day nears, searing memories of Hillary Clinton’s surprise loss have many Democrats second-guessing whether their party will make significant gains – or if they are once again misreading the electoral environment. 

Matt Rourke/AP
On Nov. 8, 2016, guests at Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's election night rally watch the big screen television at the Jacob Javits Center's glass enclosed lobby in New York. Mrs. Clinton's loss stunned the party.

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For Democrats today, the shock of Donald Trump’s election has hardly abated. They remember the feeling of disorientation, the recriminations, the tears. They remember where they were, even what they were wearing, in the way people remember certain details of signal moments in their lives. The 2018 midterms are now two weeks away – the first opportunity since 2016 for Democrats to vote en masse against President Trump, if only by proxy. Historically, the party out of power tends to gain seats in the midterms, and Mr. Trump has a knack for antagonizing large portions of the electorate. And polls show the Democrats are well positioned to retake the House, if not the Senate, and lots of governorships. But then, for Democrats, the flashbacks to 2016 kick in. What if the polls are wrong? What if “their” voters don’t turn out? What if all those big Trump rallies in the home stretch spur massive GOP turnout? “2016 taught Democrats not to take anything for granted – and that even when it looks like it’s going your way, you’ve got to assume it’s not,” says Mo Elleithee, former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.

Mo Elleithee remembers election night 2016 as if it were yesterday. The Democratic commentator was at Fox News headquarters in New York, watching the numbers come in and going on-air throughout the evening with other political analysts.

“We are all sitting there in the green room, in between hits, hovering around laptops and iPads, looking at returns,” says Mr. Elleithee, the former communications director at the Democratic National Committee (DNC). “There was a lot of confusion and surprise.”

Elleithee’s wife was also in New York – for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s victory party. The election would wrap up by 11:30 or so, and then he would head over and they’d hit the party circuit together. At least that was the plan.

“She was sitting at the party, texting me as the mood was changing there, and I was texting her as the mood was changing over at Fox,” says Elleithee, director of the nonpartisan Institute of Politics and Public Service at Georgetown University since 2015. “People thought, the only way we lose is if the bottom falls out. Well, the bottom fell out.”

For Democrats today, the shock of Donald Trump’s election has hardly abated. They remember the feeling of disorientation, the recriminations, the tears. They remember where they were, even what they were wearing, in the way people remember certain details of signal moments in their lives.

The 2018 midterms are now two weeks away – the first opportunity since 2016 for Democrats to vote en masse against President Trump, if only by proxy. Their party should do well. Polls show the Democrats are well-positioned to retake the House, if not the Senate, and lots of governorships. Historically, the party out of power tends to gain seats in the midterms, and Mr. Trump has a knack for antagonizing large portions of the electorate.

But then for Democrats, the flashbacks to 2016 kick in. What if the polls are wrong? What if “their” voters don’t turn out? What if all those big Trump rallies in the home stretch – this time, with the message of “Kavanaugh, caravan, and common sense” – spur massive GOP turnout?

Tightening in the polls at the end of a campaign is natural. So are pre-election jitters. But in 2018, that searing memory of two years ago has many Democrats on extra high alert, wondering if they’ve done everything possible to succeed on Nov. 6.

Some Democrats are trying to turn the temptation to freak out into a motivator.

“Remember that sick feeling the morning after the 2016 election when you second-guessed yourself & asked what else you could’ve done to prevent @realDonaldTrump’s victory?” Miami Democratic pollster Fernand Amandi tweeted last week. “You better be asking yourselves NOW what you’re going to do in these 3 weeks before NOV 6th to #SaveDemocracy.”

Elleithee sees a lot of Democrats around the country with “nervous energy” – and that’s a good thing, he says. It’s the sign of a hard lesson, taken to heart.

Steve Helber/AP
Mo Elleithee (left), shown here with former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine in 2012, was expecting to attend victory parties for Hillary Clinton with his wife in New York City on election night two years ago. He says that night “opened the eyes of a lot of Democrats about the challenges of being complacent and overconfident.”

“2016 taught Democrats not to take anything for granted, and that even when it looks like it’s going your way, you’ve got to assume it’s not,” says Elleithee, who was a spokesman for Clinton in her first presidential campaign. “That is shaking off some of the complacency that Democrats often feel.”

Millennials in tears 

Celinda Lake, a veteran Democratic pollster, has seen her share of electoral agony and ecstasy through the years – the rise of Ronald Reagan, then the turn to Bill Clinton, followed by the heartbreaking Bush v. Gore loss of 2000 and the thrill of seeing the United States elect its first African-American president.

As Election Day 2016 neared, Ms. Lake grew increasingly concerned.

“I thought Hillary would win, but I also thought it would be a lot closer than people thought,” says Lake, whose firm worked for a pro-Clinton outside group funded by independent expenditures. “I thought we were making a big mistake ignoring places like Michigan.”

On election night, Lake decided at the last minute not to travel to New York, and stayed with her staff in Washington. She’s glad she did. When Michigan went to Trump, that signaled the Democrats’ “blue wall” of the upper Midwest was crumbling. Lake knew it was over.

The Millennials were all “just so bereft,” she says. The young women, in particular, were in tears. It was especially difficult, too, for the people of color on staff.

“The Millennials were formed by the victories of the Obama years,” Lake says. “They’re not used to losing – and not used to losing to someone so horrific, by their values.”

Lake’s staff was also devastated by the media critique of pre-election polls, which had shown Clinton ahead. In fact, most of the polls were close to right: On election eve, Clinton led in national polls by an average of three percentage points, and her margin of victory in the popular vote was two percent. But for 77,744 votes cast for Trump in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan, handing him victory in the Electoral College, Clinton would indeed have won.

It was some statewide polling that proved problematic in 2016, especially in key states. In Wisconsin, the final polls showed Clinton winning by an average 6.5 percent; in Michigan, Clinton was up on election eve by 3.6 points; and in Pennsylvania, she led by 2.1 points.

As even pollsters will tell you, polling is both an art and a science. There’s always a margin of error – and the possibility of an “outlier” result. Which means candidates, strategists, and the voters themselves can’t rely on polls with absolute certainty.

In recent weeks, some of the national polls pitting a generic Democrat against a generic Republican for the House have been tightening, while others show the Democratic lead comfortably within the necessary margin to retake the House. But nobody’s comfortable.

Some Democrats, like national party chair Tom Perez, have stopped using the phrase “blue wave” if only to lower expectations. A majority is a majority, no matter the margin.

“We should remember that the average wave in a midterm election is 24 seats” in the House, one seat more than Democrats need to retake the lower chamber, Lake says. “It’s definitely moving back more toward the average. I still think we’ll end up taking the House, but not with the number of seats that we were once predicting.”

Lake shares the worry of Democratic strategists everywhere – that young and minority voters won’t turn out in high enough numbers, the party’s Achilles’ Heel, especially in midterms.

“There are groups of our voters, like Millennials, that are as interested in the next protest as they are in the next election,” she warns.

But while Lake is worried, she’s not panicking. The key, she says, is to turn that nervous energy into votes.

Outside the Beltway 

Don Fowler, a former DNC chair, is watching the final weeks of the midterms unfold from his home base in Columbia, S.C. – and feeling “alarmed.” His word.

Two years ago, Mr. Fowler says, the campaign was “short on passion and emotion and pride, on pointing the way for people who were looking for inspiration.” He was worried then, but was “not as alarmed as I am now.”

Today, he says, the Democrats have no clear message – despite a president whom he describes as “an absolute profligate, paranoid liar.”

“He does things that betray a gross ignorance in foreign policy and fiscal policy and much of domestic policy, and we’ve got a whole field to attack him on, but nobody does,” says Fowler, who served as DNC chair during the Clinton administration, from 1995 to 1997. “I don’t know if they’re afraid of him, or what.”

Still, he’s hopeful about Democrats’ prospects in individual races, such as Florida’s gubernatorial and Senate races, and the governor’s race in neighboring Georgia. He even professes optimism about his native South Carolina, where he says the Democrat running to unseat Gov. Henry McMaster (R) could pull off an upset.

“We’re behind a bit now, but we have a good candidate,” says Fowler of state Rep. James Smith, in a race the Cook Political Report ranks as likely to go Republican.

Maybe the answer, then, for anxious Democrats is to focus on races close to home – races where they can have an impact on the ground. Or at least keep busy.

In Scranton, Pa., Evie Rafalko McNulty, the county recorder of deeds and a national Democratic committee-woman, is a ball of energy focused on getting out the vote on Nov. 6. She doesn’t believe 2018 will be a repeat of the previous election.

“In 2016, people were hurting, and believed Trump was change,” says Ms. McNulty. But many of the people who voted for Trump back then are unhappy with the “tax cuts for the wealthy,” she says. “They are the people I see and work with every day.”

Ask McNulty about election night two years ago, and the first thing she says is, “I even remember what I was wearing.” (For the record, she had on jeans, a white crew neck shirt, blue vest, and blue scarf. The Republican county commissioner, standing next to her at the county voter registration department, wore red – making for a patriotic combo.)

Then came the tears, when it hit her that Trump had won. “I was not crying because I was sad,” she recalls. “I was crying because, oh my God, what’s going to happen to us?”

In retrospect, the signs of lackluster enthusiasm were evident to McNulty on election eve. Even native son Joe Biden, the former vice president, wasn’t inspiring the crowds.

“Well, we see him a lot – the scrappy kid from Scranton,” she says. “It was a Sunday morning, and people were like, ‘Yeah, can’t do it.’ ”  

In Wisconsin, another critical battleground both then and now, Democratic Party chair Martha Laning says her party is doing everything it can to get its voters to turn out – and has been reaching out to voters since last year.

On election night two years ago, she was at former Sen. Russ Feingold’s watch party, where Democrats hoped to celebrate the progressive leader’s recapture of the seat he had lost six years earlier to a conservative Republican, Ron Johnson.

But “pretty early on, we knew something was really wrong,” Ms. Laning says. Senator Johnson won reelection.  

Now, she says, “We’re really committed here to running right through the finish line. Nobody will stop till 8 p.m. on Nov. 6.”

Wisconsin was also key to the 2016 election night memory of Elleithee, the former Democratic official. When Johnson was declared the winner in his Senate race, Elleithee knew the presidential election was also over. Not enough Democrats had turned out, plain and simple.

“You can’t draw a direct parallel with 2016, but I do think 2016 opened the eyes of a lot of Democrats about the challenges of being complacent and overconfident,” Elleithee says.

But, he adds, it also “awoke a positive energy – toward making sure you never take your foot off the gas.”

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