Election 2016, Reflections
by: john harrison
Even before the 2016 presidential election the GOP controlled 68 out of 98 partisan state legislative chambers — the highest number in the history of the party. Republicans held the governorship and both houses of the legislature in 23 states, while Democrats had that level of control in only 7 states. In political terms the Republican Party had much more to lose in this election than the Democratic Party did.
This widespread strength gave the Republicans control over the redistricting process of House districts across the country. This control has enabled Republicans to entirely restructure the House of Representatives in their favor, but it has also resulted in the election of many very independent, only nominally Republican, House members that are not responsive to the Republican leadership. However, the initial large number of viable Republican presidential candidates in 2016 also reflected the Republican party’s geographically broad based, deep, political strength.
The entirety of the popular vote difference of about 2.5 million votes in Sec. Clinton’s favor comes from California. It signifies nothing, but it helps hide a distressing truth for the Democratic Party. Essentially in at least this election, the Democratic Party has withered to a very large, regional political party with its strength concentrated mainly in large cities generally located in the Northeast and far West coasts and particularly in three of the most populous states, California, New York and Illinois. The Democratic Party has fought also populous Florida to a virtual tie in the last two presidential elections, but it has not a chance in Texas, the remaining member of the top five states in population.
In spite of raising and spending an incredible amount of money, far more than the Republicans, and creating a superb professional political machine focused on getting out the Democratic vote, Sec. Clinton nonetheless posted the lowest Democratic vote total since 2008. This should be very disturbing to the party, but all that most Democrats seem to want to talk about is that she won the popular vote nationwide. On the other hand, but more important even though it too makes no difference, Mr. Trump scored the largest Republican popular vote total ever.
A vote comparison that is useful, is that in only 14 states did Sec. Clinton receive more than half or the votes cast, while Mr. Trump exceeded that goal in 24 states. In a republic with an electoral college these numbers have much more significance than the total popular vote.
Reflecting intense voter dissatisfaction with both major party candidates almost 6 million votes went to third party candidates. Unlike several years ago when Mr. Perot ran, my view is that almost nobody voted “for” any of the 3rd party candidates this time. They voted against both major party candidates, but more apparently voted against Sec. Clinton than against Mr. Trump.
This seems clear from the vote totals. Mr. Trump substantially increased his party’s vote totals while Sec. Clinton was unable to repeat even the lowest of President Obama’s vote totals in spite of a huge and very successful effort to register new, presumably Democratic, voters.
This voter apathy, sometimes antipathy, toward Sec. Clinton and her running mate was also visibly reflected during the campaign in the lack of crowds at their events unless a rock star or President Obama also attended. Although conspicuous, this lack of enthusiasm for the Democratic candidate was ignored by her campaign and deprecated by the media as “not important” or at least, over shadowed by the great Democratic “ground game” coming in the general election.
The numbers in gross should be even more distressing for the Democratic Party. Starting in 2000 about 101 million Americans voted in that year’s presidential election. In 2004 about 121 million voted. In 2008 President Obama’s first term a record 129 million voted. In 2012 about 126 million voted. However, in 2016 in another record, 134 million Americans voted. Mr. Trump’s total vote of almost 63 million set a new record for the Republican Party, but Sec. Clinton’s 65 million was well below President Obama’s total vote in both of the two preceding presidential elections. That is, even though the total votes cast in 2016 increased by about 8 million votes, the total vote for the Democratic nominee actually went down for the second straight election.
In the main these new voters went to either Mr. Trump, or to the two major third party candidates who received almost 6 million votes in 2016. Clearly whichever party can capture the allegiance of these new voters will win the presidency in 2020 and both parties have ample room to broaden their respective bases.
While many, particularly in the media, talked of the apparent disintegration of the Republican Party during the campaign, it appears that it was the Democratic party that did not succeed in uniting or broadening its base. If this persists it is in real danger of becoming nationally irrelevant as a political party. Structurally, for the same reasons that Mr. Trump won the electoral college vote while losing the popular vote, the Republicans hold a distinct advantage in the House. They have resurrected in part the “solid South” which formerly belonged to the Democratic Party. These were very real Republican advantages in the 2016 election, and will likely continue.
This time the traditional wedge issues of the past, particularly gun control, women’s reproductive rights, immigration, etc., apparently produced more active opposition for Democratic candidates than they did active support for Democratic candidates. The key here is the word “active” because active supporters vote. A close race, such as the 2016 election was in many states, gives such single issue voters, active voters, even more importance. In 2016, they held the balance and then they gave it to Mr. Trump. Why?
Never have the pundits and professional politicians been proven more uniformly wrong. Say what you will, Mr. Trump first defeated a large Republican group of well financed, experienced, successful politicians many with national recognition. Then, he went on to beat the Democratic nominee handily in the electoral race which is the only one that counts. How did that happen?
2016 was not the first time the Democratic Party has suffered a humiliating loss when led by a politician named Clinton. After the similar disaster at the polls in 1994 people in the Democratic Party began looking for the reason. It was not hard to find. Everybody agreed then that the assault weapon ban had cost the party at least 40 seats in the House, including that of the Speaker of the House, Tom Foley.
The political price for passing the assault weapon ban in 1994 was the loss of Congress to the Republicans. Not only that, but it endangered all of Bill Clinton’s and therefore the Democratic Party’s, agenda for the rest of his presidency. In large part the aftermath of election of 1994 was the partisan conditions on Capitol Hill that produced Clinton’s own impeachment. Even Clinton himself, looking back on the assault weapon ban in his memoir, My Life, concluded that he had likely “pushed the Congress, the country, and the administration too hard.” Thereafter for Bill Clinton, gun control became the deadly third rail of politics.
How then did gun control arise again in a Clinton campaign? Probably it can be traced back to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting which occurred on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza fatally shot 20 children between 6 and 7 years old, as well as 6 adult staff members that began the resurgence of gun control as a national political issue. On the one hand are the parents of the slaughtered children. On the other hand was a follower of political activist and theorist Saul Alinsky who taught that even the most horrible tragedy should be used, and who stated:
“The despair is there; now it’s up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change.”- Saul Alinsky
For a big part of the country, the problem had a simple solution—protect the schools, post armed guards. This is the rational and so far only effective way to protect anything. This is why both large amounts of money and presidents always travel with armed guards.
Again for a large part of the country, they wondered in light of all of the previous shootings at schools why there had not already been an armed guard there at Sandy Hook Elementary School? Who could be dumb enough to think that a “Gun Free Zone” sign on an all glass door would work?
That is when they found that they were not dealing with reason. Many in Connecticut and elsewhere protested against posting armed guards at schools even after the shooting at Newtown. Rather than sue the officials who had left their children and teachers entirely unprotected even though schools were a well recognized risk, the parents sued the gun manufacturer. They were undeterred that all of the guns used had been stolen in course of a homicide where the killer had murdered his own mother.
A large part of the country found this reaction of demonizing guns rather than the murderer to be completely idiotic. More important, it scared them. They want their children to be protected, and they do not much care how it is done, as long at it is done.
While reason, as they viewed it, ultimately prevailed, the Connecticut schools finally hired armed guards and the suit against the gun manufacturers was thrown out of court, the horrific memories remained for both sides. They still produce almost Pavlovian responses.
For example, former Vice Presidential candidate and current Democratic Senator Tim Kaine recently posted:
“Deeply saddened by the senseless act of gun violence at Ohio State this morning. Praying for the injured and the entire Buckeye community.” (Emphasis added)
However, the only “gun violence” was when an alert policeman, an armed guard employed by the university, shot and killed the knife wielding terrorist who had first used his car as a weapon.
People who want their children protected, by guns if necessary, are deathly afraid of people like Senator Tim Kaine. In 2016, like in 1994, in their view the Democratic Party rejected them. The Democratic candidate for president literally, deplored them.
The next issue was abortion. If anyone wondered how a woman could vote for Donald Trump they need look no further than the abortion issue.
The voices of reason on this issue, and there are few, said that abortion must be looked at realistically. Realistically, the wealthy have always had access to safe, sometimes even legal, abortions. However, those that did not have access to legal abortions often died. The rational said that if you are with the idea of a legal abortion in the cases of rape, incest and/or the health of the mother, then abortion can no longer be a black and white, moral issue. As soon as you agree to exceptions, you are no longer talking about right and wrong, you are weighing options. It can no longer be a moral choice.
All of this ignored that for many voters, abortion is a black and white issue, and this includes many women voters. While exact numbers will never be available since for many this is a distinctly private issue, some women are in favor of abortion regardless of the circumstances, a point that Sec. Clinton endorsed in the last debate, and some women are opposed to abortion, again regardless of the circumstances.
Even between these two extremes, a lot of women are still single issue voters. That is why nothing that Mr. Trump, generally an opponent of abortion, said in the campaign swayed many women in particular from voting for him.
Because they believed that voting for a man like Mr. Trump to be clearly irrational behavior, Sec. Clinton’s advisors discounted it. They simply did not believe that any woman could vote for such a misogynist.
They forgot that this particular misogynist opposed abortion, except in the cases of rape, incest and health of the mother. In contrast to all of the other Republican candidates, he opposed shutting down Planned Parenthood as well. That is Mr. Trump took the more or less middle ground, the most generally acceptable anti-abortion position. While Sec. Clinton was on the extreme end of the debate, Mr. Trump got a lot of votes because of his much more moderate position.
What’s troubling for the future is that a wide swath of supporters on both sides of abortion and gun control still view these particular issues as moral imperatives, as matters of basic human rights. In this view, gun control and abortion are not clashes of competing political and legal issues, to be sorted out with data and evidence. It is Good vs. Evil; Enlightenment vs. Barbarism; Life vs. Death.
Phrasing them this way makes the advocates of stricter and looser laws feel better. We all need a villain. But unlike truly moral issues, claiming the moral high ground on these issues makes it less likely to pass better laws, less likely to end the logjam in Congress, even less likely to win elections because the attitude itself motivates both sides.
If Sec. Clinton had moderated her party’s stand on gun control or abortion, or had at least taken a more nuanced approach, like Mr. Trump did, as strange as that is to say that about Mr. Trump, when he refused many times to endorse the idea of ending Planned Parenthood, it is hard to say what would have happened. That is why these issues have been called the third rail of politics. There is no safe side.
In 2008 President Obama accurately if disparagingly identified the Democrats’ 2016 problem with the voters:
“They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”
Eight years later, now President elect Trump played repeatedly on those issues. He played on them just like Jimi Hendrix played the guitar, with originality and power. They propelled him straight to the White House.
The Democratic party must find an acceptable answer on these issues. If the Democratic Party is going to return as a truly national party it is going to have to change its approach to something different on at least some of these issues. There are very real political risks if it does not.
For example, in the 2016 presidential election the Democratic Party enjoyed an immense lead with Hispanic voters. However, while Hispanics have favored the Democratic Party over the Republican Party in every presidential election since at least the 1980s, their electoral impact has long been limited by low voter turnout and much more important as this election has proved, a population concentrated in non-battleground states. This support was so even though Hispanics are generally Roman Catholic and the Catholic Church takes a very dim view of abortion. This creates a huge opportunity for Republican politicians like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz to penetrate Democratic strongholds just as Mr. Trump penetrated traditional Democratic states in 2016 with his message on job losses.
As for Trump and the Republicans, I was as dumbfounded as most were by his nomination and then by his election. He tapped into long simmering voter anger and exploited it ruthlessly. It remains to be seen whether this compulsive dealer can retain his support as he actually begins to make choices, to make deals. It will also be interesting to see if Speaker Ryan can deliver the votes necessary to create a Trump Administration program.
For my part, I remain as doubtful of the success of a Trump presidency as I was of his candidacy. As an American I hope that I am wrong again.