Just another election post-mortem

The Donald, the deplorables, and the decades long fight that brought us America’s first Reality-TV show President

via Politico
via Politico

Since election day there have been more “post mortem” accounts of what went wrong, from messaging and strategy, to candidate hypotheticals (Bernie would’ve won) and a fuck-ton of finger-pointing. Few of the articles have been particularly illuminating. Most have served to reinforce the biases of the writers. Individually, most have lacked the multi-tiered complexity that is required to really see what was going on in the minds of voters that caused them to deliver the election to the President-Elect.

I can say with a 100% certainty that this post will not encapsulate everything that led to the surprise result. I’m not arrogant enough to claim that I can get inside the minds of the millions of voters who voted the way they did. Nor am I arrogant enough to believe that I have all, or even most of the answers.

I’m merely one blogger who has less time on his hands than he once did, but still spends an inordinate amount of time on questions such as this.

I am, however, arrogant enough to point out some connections, ask some questions, and show some data on where and how the election turned out the way it did. I’m not going to talk about Fake news, because while that played a role, I think there’s still a lot of that story out there that hasn’t been told. I’m also not going to talk about Russian involvement, because that story is playing out as we speak, and will continue to play out for several months while the GOP led Congress makes playtime with committee investigations.

I will talk about “the deplorables”, some data, and the decades old strategy that, I believe, paved the way for our first Reality-TV President.

Les Deplorables

Deplorable Donald
Deplorable Donald

First things first: I’m not aware of any Presidential candidate who insulted a segment of the electorate and had the negatives going in to that statement that Hillary Clinton did, and still won. I’m not saying Clinton was wrong. I’m saying some things just don’t get said out loud (a lesson I could learn myself from time to time).

Insulting even a segment of the electorate just weeks before an election when you yourself have very high negatives only drives people who don’t support you to the polls. Its a stupid thing to do all the time, but its especially stupid and arrogant when you’re in the lead.

America is a lot of stories, but our origin story is a small group of scrappy rebels defeating a world power whose empire was so vast, the sun was literally always shining on it. When you insult a group of people who, under ordinary circumstances, have no hope of winning you are inviting them to fight harder. As I’ll show later in the data I’ve compiled, that’s exactly what they did.

So it shouldn’t be surprising when I say its a bad idea to continue to insult these very people when they’re faced with the fallout of their choices. Just like I don’t think you should beat up people on food stamps for buying steaks every now and then, I don’t think you should beat up Coal Miners in Appalachia for voting against their economic interests. Or a person who didn’t think the President-Elect was serious about repealing Obamacare. Or this lady, who is having second thoughts now because her home was repossessed by a bank owned by the President-Elect’s Treasury nominee.

These folks voted their interests at the time…no matter how flawed you or I think that determination may have been. They voted the way they voted because something about the President-Elect’s message or messenger status resonated with them in a way the Clinton’s just didn’t. And even though I like me some Schadenfreude as much as the next guy, beating up on them now doesn’t help our cause in 2018, 2020 or ever. Now, and through the next four years, if we want to win these people over, we have to reach out, and love them, every flawed inch of them, just like we love our flawed friends, our flawed families, and our flawed selves, to help them through the hellscape that is undoubtedly on the horizon.

I think its fair to say that many of these voters fell in love with notions they can’t explain. That now, in the face of an “all Wall Street and Warfighter” cabinet, they might make a different choice. At the time, something spoke to them, and they literally pulled the trigger.

It could be that they felt they were being listened to in a way they hadn’t been in a long time, or maybe ever.

This article from NPR about how the President-Elect’s campaign targeted “low propensity voters” (people who don’t vote regularly) explains a lot about how his campaign pulled off the surprise wins in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin that literally turned him from a loser (SAD!) to a winner, with very little real ground game, and a small (in Presidential election terms) investment.

Understanding who those voters are, and where they hail from is going to be critical to building back the Democratic Party brand.

The data

Perhaps the most surprising thing about election night, was what happened in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Alone, none of these states would have won Clinton the Presidency. Together, it would have added 46 Electoral College votes…enough to win her the Presidency.

The margin of loss across the 3 states is less than 100,000 votes. In Pennsylvania, Clinton lost the state by 44,312 votes according to US Election Atlas.

What went wrong in Pennsylvania? That’s a somewhat complicated story, but from a numbers standpoint its pretty straightforward.

Fewer people voted Democrat in 2016 than in 2012. But where did those votes come from?

As you can see in this chart, large counties played a role, but that only accounts for about a third of the loss differential. Medium and Smaller metro counties (Counties with populations of 100k to 500k) performed much worse for Clinton than they did Obama in 2012.

Here’s a side by side comparison of the data. You should be able to roll over the bars to see the data, though that works best in Chrome.

That last chart is a little complicated, but there’s one group of counties that is the difference maker, and its not the “rural counties” people say it is.

In Counties with a population of 250k to 500k, a population tally well beyond “rural” some 73,000 more voters voted for the GOP in 2016 than in 2012. At the same time, the number of Democratic voters in those counties slipped by just over 27,000 votes. That 100,000 vote “swing” in PA, made all the difference in the world. Had Democratic and GOP turnout been similar in percentage (if not number) to 2012, Clinton would have won Pennsylvania handily.

I’m not finished with Wisconsin and Michigan, but I feel confident that a similar trend will emerge there.

Another important distinction to the media narrative about this election is that I don’t think people “changed their minds” about the Democratic party, particularly in Pennsylvania as much as Democratic voters they weren’t as motivated to vote this time around. A steady but sluggish recovery and an air of inevitability probably played a role in that, as well as other well worn hypotheses. What does appear to have happened, especially in those counties of 250k-500k is a whole lot of people who don’t normally vote, voted…and they voted en masse for the President-Elect.

Now were left with the big question…why? That’s a much harder nut to crack but I believe it starts in 1968.

Nationalizing the “Southern Strategy”

One reason to love memes
One reason to love memes

I wasn’t sure if this quote from President Johnson was real, so I looked it up on Snopes and apparently it happened right here in Tennessee.

The politics of racial resentment aren’t new. In fact, throughout the early and mid-20th century, the unsteady alliance of northern and southern Democrats was only really maintained by northern acquiescence to Southern demands.

FDR had to contend with Huey Long from Louisiana while crafting early provisions of the New Deal to ensure local patrons could decide who got what benefits and when.

In 1948, some southern Democrats split from the party to form the State’s Rights Party (aka Dixiecrats) formed in response to President Truman’s Committee on Civil Rights.

After the signing of the civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 Democrats lost 47 seats…many of them in the South partially as a result of backlash to those bills.

That trend continues to this day thanks to a novel idea put forward by the Nixon campaign…the Southern Strategy.

Now, a lot of people, including media folks, have said the words “Southern Strategy”. Lots of folks think they know what it is. But it is perhaps best described by two practitioners of it.

(A word of caution, some of the language in these two quotes is pretty damn offensive)

From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are. Without that prodding from the blacks, the whites will backslide into their old comfortable arrangement with the local Democrats.

 

– Kevin Phillips, Nixon Political Strategist in the New York Times, 1970

Then there’s this….

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

 

Lee Atwater, Reagan Administration Official – as told to political scientist Alexander P. Lamis

Now I’m sure someone out there will want to argue with me about what Atwater meant by “doing away with the racial problem”, but the effect seems clear. By cutting programs, it hurts blacks more than whites, and even though it hurts poor whites too, like Johnson said, poor whites will fall for it…even when they get their pockets picked.

So in 2008 when President Obama beat a war hero, it was heralded as the dawning of “post-racial America”.  Of course, it didn’t work out that way.

“I think there’s a reason why attitudes about my presidency among whites in Northern states are very different from whites in Southern states,” Obama told Fareed Zakaria in an interview for “The Legacy of Barack Obama.” “Are there folks whose primary concern about me has been that I seem foreign, the other? Are those who champion the ‘birther’ movement feeding off of bias? Absolutely.”

As Cornell Belcher writes in his book, A Black Man in the White House

“The changing cultural and racial demographics of the country had, indeed, finally allowed the nation to overcome a monumental electoral political barrier, but they did not ‘exorcize the racial ghost.’”

There’s a great interview with Belcher at this post at Vox.

The long and the short of the interview is that even though our country overcame this huge obstacle, there are still many obstacles concerning race out there, and Obama’s Presidency wasn’t the balm that suddenly cured it.

Ta-Nahesi Coates throwing down the gauntlet
Ta-Nahesi Coates throwing down the gauntlet

In fact, much like Trump’s campaign in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, ignited a group of voters who don’t regularly vote, President Obama’s election in 2008 ignited a simmering resentment of people who didn’t regularly vote (Tea Partiers) in the south that led to states who had been solidly Democratic, at least in State House and Senate contests, falling to Republicans who vowed to do everything they could to make sure the nation’s first black President didn’t do too much to upend the longstanding social order.

And now, there’s a chance the Southern Strategy that underpinned the past 40 years of mostly GOP rule, might have been exported to large swaths of the north all underpinned with the “other” of liberal elites who just don’t get “regular folk”.

The resonance of the “other” has a long reach. And Democrats have exacerbated this problem by writing off whole swaths of the country. First with the South in just about every Presidential election since 2000 (Al Gore would have won in 2000 if he’d have just carried his home state of Tennessee, instead he pulled out just weeks from election day). Now by writing off everything but our major metropolitan areas (which counties of 100-250k are not).

While I’m sympathetic to folks who say we need to push a more robust economic message to win back the areas we lost in this election, and I certainly think that would help, I’m not convinced we could get all of our electeds on board with it, or that it would work to sway these voters even if we did. There’s no amount of messaging that will overcome a deeply held worldview, and that’s ultimately what we’re up against.

No matter what you say, you will be viewed as the outsider. Even in the small towns I grew up in, the differences in the way I saw the world, the way my parents raised me to see the world, and the way other folks in the town saw the world were obvious. Nothing I could say, no level of empathy I could deliver could change the fact that I was looking at the world from a completely foreign perspective in the eyes of the multi-generational locals.

Messaging alone won’t work. It has to be messenger…actually, a whole helluva lot of messengers.  And I think that’s the pickle we’re in now, and the challenge for Democrats going forward.

Conclusion

Since the election there have been a ton of obituaries for the Democratic party. One writer says it died in 2009. Another says it deserves to die.

I don’t think the party is dead, but it’s definitely on the ropes.

We’re the minority in the majority of state legislatures, not to mention the US House and Senate.

We’ve got 4 years of what’s shaping up to be an oligarchy. Some could argue that started with the Citizen’s United decision in 2010.

Seriously, its ugly.

But we’re not going to get out of it by paying high priced consultants in DC or New York to “figure out this mess”. The areas we need to win back aren’t in DC or New York, they’re Wilkes-Barre, Chattanooga, Little Rock, Grand Rapids and Green Bay.

What we do need is people who have a particular set of skills when it comes to running a campaign and cultivating talent. People who can help train volunteers to be super-volunteers so they can recruit more volunteers. Who can help cultivate new and young leaders to be the next candidates on the ballot, or the next Campaign Director, Field Organizer of Volunteer Coordinator.

We need experienced hands who can guide folks who want to be able to do a whole lot more, but don’t want to sit in a local Democratic Party meeting arguing about whether they’re gonna have a chili supper or a spaghetti supper fundraiser.

We need people who are more willing to listen than to just tell us what works in Chicago…because a lot of that shit just won’t work in Murfreesboro.

Most of all, we need to stop being scared of our voices and start being more aggressive. Aggressively fighting for the economic justice that is a basic right, and not letting Andy Holt, Brian Kelsey, Tom Cotton or Paul Ryan have the last word.

It has to be a coordinated, concerted effort in every state in the nation. And it has to have a commitment from the folks in DC, New York and the California Coast to stick with it for no less than 10 years for there to ever be a hope of winning back these State Legislatures, State Capitols and Congress.

We can keep doing what we’ve been doing and win about half the Presidential elections we come up against. But if we want real lasting change, we’re going to have to be willing to invest heavily in places that won’t see a return for some time. Because what’s happened in a lot of these places is durable absent a real hard fight that takes place on the ground in smaller and more rural communities who are still struggling to get back on their feet, as well as a national fight pushing that message from the coasts.

We have to speak with one voice, in a way that gives us enough wiggle room for local flavor.

But most of all, we have to stop marginalizing through mockery the very people we need to get this done. Demographics might eventually favor us, but if we marginalize ourselves by not reaching out beyond those demographics, we’re lost for sure.

Because while the folks who are overt racists will never see it our way, the ones who aren’t, could. And could is a good enough reason to reach out and listen and try to help them make their lives and the lives of the kids a little bit better.

And for me, that’s all any of this is ever about.

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