Democrats Have A Broken (But Fixable) Coalition Problem
Of all the statistics to emerge in the wake of Hillary Clinton’s achingly close loss in the pivotal swing states of this election, the below chart may hurt the most (courtesy of Matt Karp of Princeton University):
Essentially, it shows that while Trump inspired and got his people to the polls in the Rust Belt and Upper Midwest, Hillary’s base and leaners stayed home. Certainly, a small portion of those could be Obama-Trump voters, but the increase in Trump voters is nothing compared to the Obama voters who didn’t bother to vote at all or voted third party.
What makes this doubly frustrating is that Hillary is poised to receive just as many if not more votes than Obama did in 2012. Indeed, when you look at the overall national picture, Hillary’s team did its job of winning over a commanding slice of the young, diverse electorate that makes up a major portion of the nation’s voters. The problem is, of course, that these voters are huddled into blue states and urban metropolitan areas where those large vote totals are essentially “wasted.”
It sucks, but we have an electoral system designed (some may say “rigged”) to give more power to rural voters and voters from smaller states. And that doesn’t include a ridiculously successful gerrymandering following the 2010 elections that gave Republicans an even greater advantage in the House and state legislatures. But to unrig the system, you have to win elections first.
In the past, I’ve fallen for the “demographics is destiny” argument whenever the Democrats have lost elections. After all, with the nation’s electorate getting 2 percentage points (on net) more non-white every four years, it’s easy to advocate sitting back and saying that time will make everything right. But as we just saw, the rest of the electorate isn’t static—they’ll fight back and solidify into a bloc to counter this growing block of younger, more diverse voters. There is no demographic destiny.
And this is where Democrats face a two-headed beast of a problem. They’ve built a coalition on a growing population that has shown little interest in voting in midterms and other non-presidential elections, and even though this coalition is in theory big enough to win in Presidential elections, these voters are geographically isolated in metropolitan areas. Indeed, the real lesson seems to be that the 4 million voters in California who voted above Trump’s margin should be given cash grants to go move to the heartland.
On the positive side of things, it looks like the Democratic Party can grow without fear of losing a lot of the base. Even if you think Hillary Clinton was a historically bad candidate to nominate, that she took just as many votes as Obama and won the popular vote by 2% should tell you that all hope is not lost. There will be people who say the party needs to become more socialist and far-left, or the opposite, that the party needs to concede that younger, more diverse voters are just too damn hard to motivate to vote when it matters. I really hope everyone will reject such false choices. Successful big tent parties offer a lot to various constituencies and give them a place of power in the party. Big, sustainable coalitions are very possible with the right platform and organization.
For example, the Democratic Party needs to get very serious about ditching the big money game. Beyond a base amount of resources to run a national party, there are such diminishing returns on campaign spending, it can’t possibly be worth the while. Plus, too much big donor money limits the kind of promises you can make and locks you into policy positions that can betray working and middle class interests. And if you you indeed find yourself with a horde of cash, let's invest more of it in the parts of the country where Democrats have lost ground this past decade. A 50-state strategy and investing far more of the pie in local and county parties will grow the party organically.
On the policy side, it’s clear we have to shoot for the moon. For better or worse, Democratic voters on the margin have to be utterly inspired and motivated to vote. You don’t want to overpromise things, but at this point, I think voters understand that all of their dreams won’t come true. They know that and are get understandably mad when that’s used to dismiss their interests. They just want candidates who share and will work towards those dreams. Even in 2012, after the shiny gloss wore off of Obama, he was still able to win because his vision of a united, forward-moving country still rang true with voters.
It’s also high time to start embracing a credible reform agenda. Anyone who has any disposition to vote Democratic wants to get money out of the system in the worst way, and we need to commit to clean elections and putting caps on political spending. Let the Supreme Court strike it down if it wants—that will only highlight the need to appoint judges on the Democratic side of the debate. Reducing the influence of lobbyists, strengthening ethics, and adhering to high moral standards are utter no-brainers for growing the party.
A serious reform agenda needs to include economic reforms as well, which also have the benefit of not costing much in the way of taxpayer dollars. Breaking up monopolies, going all-in on “Buy America” provisions, pushing for higher wages at every turn, and generally siding with workers will build back the brand slowly and in the parts of America where we badly need it. Any state or national Democratic Party that doesn’t get serious about these kinds of reforms will be relying on Donald Trump and Republicans to fail, which isn’t much of a strategy.
It’s been a rough stretch for Democrats, but I would still rather be on Team Democrat than on Team Republican. They just elected the most unfit candidate in modern American history, and they are ill-prepared to govern a country hasn’t really ratified an agenda of tax cuts for the wealthy, massive deregulation, and taking away people’s healthcare. They are going to crack badly.
But Democrats can’t assume voters will automatically reward Democrats for such failures. The Democratic Party has to be ready to bounce back with a credible alternative to the coming mess. It has to speak to voters on a deep level on their hopes for the future. And if we can’t do that, I’m sure the voters on Election Day will gladly remind us once again of the consequences.