Did the Democrats Screw Up the Election? It’s Not That Simple


I groaned through my tears when Chuck Todd, desperate to understand why Hillary Clinton’s insurmountable lead was crumbling, told election-night NBC viewers that “rural America is basically screaming at us, ‘Stop overlooking us!’ ”

Here it comes, I thought: The Democratic Party has to move back to the middle, stop yapping about renewable energy, stop coddling Black Lives Matter, stop worrying about which bathroom to use, and start appealing to the Average Joe on the shrinking farm in Wisconsin or in the unemployment retraining program in Pennsylvania.

By the way, I care about those guys. I want them (and all of us) to have decent incomes and healthy, productive lives. The Democratic Party should care about them and do what it can to help them, and also court their votes.

Within reason.

Some pundits have indeed argued versions of the italicized passage above. But never mind that for a moment. Let’s talk about the electoral map.


In terms of presidential campaigning, most states don’t really matter. California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts aren’t going red anytime soon, while lots of smaller Southern and Western states are red as red can be. Texas, Georgia, and Missouri are still red, but time will tell.

Currently, there are only a dozen or so “swing states,” and the most important ones this year were Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida, which all went to Trump by razor-thin margins (Michigan, still not official, could tip back to Clinton, but it won’t change the overall outcome). Combined, that’s 75 electoral votes, and they made all the difference. Trump won Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania by about 1 percent each; he currently leads Michigan by a scant 0.2 percent.

Barack Obama took all four of these states in 2012. Almost 10 percent of the Michigan vote shifted Republican this year, with about 8 percent shifting Republican in Wisconsin and 6.5 percent in Pennsylvania—all with relatively little change in voter turnout. Florida’s voter turnout increased by 11 percent this year, but its voters shifted Republican by only 2 percent.

What does it all mean? I don’t think anyone knows with pinpoint accuracy—probably a perfect storm of several things: 1. Overconfident Democratic strategists could have done more to secure these states, and blew it. 2. Some angry white males—and females—were energized by Trump’s message. 3. In the cities especially, Obama supporters, black and white, did not turn out in the same numbers for Clinton. 4. Clinton was attacked relentlessly for alleged ethics violations, which did not amount to anything but probably cost her votes, especially after FBI Director James Comey stirred up the hornet’s nest a little over a week before the election. 5. On top of all that, some fraction of voters still won’t vote for a woman president.

And what if the election was stolen? The notorious election investigator Greg Palast says it was, and cites both early exit polls (before they were “conformed”) and voter-purge operations as proof that Clinton should have carried several swing states, including not only Michigan but also Arizona and North Carolina. If Palast is too incendiary for you, I would suggest at least reading this interview with Jonathan Simon, an “election forensics” expert who (unlike Palast) does not claim to have proof, but observes that a consistent “red shift” from exit polls to final vote counts, which happened again in states where the voting apparatus is controlled by Republicans, is not consistent with sampling and margin-of-error issues in which the errors should, statistically speaking, move in both directions and mostly cancel out.

On the ground, there were election-day irregularities reported in states like Michigan, where would-be voters were turned away for not having IDs they were not legally required to show, and Wisconsin, where the state’s restrictive voter ID law was struck down, then reinstated, with the state promising to issue free IDs, which never materialized. While there are no hard data on the number of voters turned away in Michigan, observers in Wisconsin say the number of voters disenfranchised (as many as 300,000) cost Clinton the state. (Trump’s Wisconsin margin of victory stands at 0.9 percent, or 27,257 out of 2,791,677 votes cast; in Michigan, his lead now is a mere 11,612 out of 4,547,998 votes cast.)

Taking all of the above into account, it is quite possible that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party actually ran a sound campaign, good enough to win, only to be derailed by some combination (choose as many items as you like!) of overconfidence, racist anger, misogyny, scurrilous ethics attacks, voter disenfranchisement, and vote-count rigging. And by the way, she still won the popular vote, at last count by more than a million votes.


Now, back to “Average Joe” America.

A few days ago, Bernie Sanders said, “It is not good enough to have a liberal elite. … I come from the white working class and I am deeply humiliated that the Democratic Party can’t talk to the people where I came from.” I respect Sanders immensely, and he clearly believes the white working class can fit under the umbrella of his core progressive values. But listen to others making this plea, and the underlying message is not so progressive—sometimes even thinly veiled code for going back to the way America used to be, if you know what I mean.

Joan C. Williams, writing in the Harvard Business Review about how liberal elites don’t understand the working class, says that Hillary Clinton epitomizes the “smugness of the professional elite. … Worse, her mere presence rubs it in that even women [emphasis hers] from her class can treat working-class men with disrespect. Look at how she condescends to Trump as unfit to hold the office of the presidency and dismisses his supporters as racist, sexist, homophobic, or xenophobic.”

Besides the twisted logic (Donald Trump clearly is not working class—does she mean that a woman, by gender definition, is condescending even if she criticizes a billionaire?), the passage seems to apologize for all of the phobias and “isms” it cites—and it especially drips with how-dare-she sexism regarding the “mere presence” of Clinton as a tough-talking candidate. What was she supposed to do, keep quiet and offer to bake them all cookies?

Williams admonishes the Democratic party elites to understand why the white, working middle class resents the poor (I believe most educated people, especially those in politics, DO understand this—but what are the Dems supposed to do about it? Cut social programs so the middle class doesn’t feel so bad?). She suggests that Democrats stop prioritizing cultural issues like LGBT rights. And she criticizes liberals for their overzealous attention to police brutality and their attempts to identify and combat racism. “Avoid the temptation to write off blue-collar resentment as racism,” she writes.

Really? You could just as easily say “Avoid the temptation to write off blue-collar racism as resentment.” If you resent people because of their color, and don’t want them in your neighborhood because of their color, and think they don’t deserve whatever they have because of their color—and you vote for a candidate because says things about minorities and immigrants that make it sound like he’s on your team—that’s racism.

As the United States becomes steadily more multicultural, and as increasing numbers of younger citizens reject their elders’ cultural biases (and in some cases outright bigotry), the Democratic Party should be the party of inclusion, with principles that are far more progressive than those of the opposition party, and also, unavoidably, somewhat more progressive than those of the average working-class male in Middle America. We can find more common ground without giving up those principles.

And, as I’ve tried to argue, even this election shows that we don’t have to.

Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon


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