By Lachlan McIntosh
Democrats are licking their wounds after losing the 2016 presidential campaign to Donald Trump. Sure, Hillary Clinton got the most votes. Her margin is wide enough that there wouldn’t even be a recount required. Clinton’s margin is some four times larger than Richard Nixon’s 1968 victory over Hubert Humphrey. But for some reason that’s not how we elect presidents here and the Clinton campaign knew the rules going in. Their arrogance and elitism cost them what should have been an easy one.
Much has — and should be — written about the dangerous rising tide of nationalism and racism in the country and all over the world. Donald Trump played to the very worst in people and it worked. But to blame the outcome of the election solely on racism, sexism and nativism is flawed and incorrect.
Clinton lost the election in Middle America. She got blown out in several states President Obama carried in 2012, like Ohio and Iowa. She’s the first Democrat to lose states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in a generation. She almost lost Minnesota, which hasn’t voted Republican since 1972. These are places where Obama remains relatively popular. Clinton only received 51 percent of the votes from people living in Union households.
So, how could this happen?
As Obama said recently, to win you gotta show up. In Wisconsin, Clinton literally didn’t show up. But even in states she did campaign in, she was never speaking to working class voters looking for a candidate who cares about and understands their lives. In all honesty, it’s increasingly difficult for Democrats to communicate with these folks. Much of it isn’t their fault. Democrats are often too liberal on social issues for these voters and conservative media outlets like FOX News seem to have a strangle hold with these demographics which means they consume a lot of propaganda. Nevertheless, Obama worked hard to earn votes from working class whites. While he lost them as a group, he did compete. On November 8, millions of working class whites who voted for Obama — and likely would again — voted for Trump.
Yes, Clinton had detailed, in-depth policy papers on what she’d do to help the working class and Trump only had slogans. Yes, Clinton has a long history of promoting legislation designed to benefit working class families and yes, Trump has a long history of not paying working class people who build his resorts. But Trump chose to champion their cause in his unique and often disturbing brand of populism. He told them he’d bring their jobs back and they believed him. Clinton, on the other hand, didn’t highlight her plans to bring the jobs back. She made the entire election about Trump’s personality. According to exit polls, she was very successful in highlighting his shortcomings. By the end, Americans disliked Trump more than they disliked her. Voters even thought he was more dishonest than she. But it didn’t matter. They voted for him anyway.
Why? Because he was the only candidate talking to them.
I spent the last two months of the campaign on a project not related to the presidential race in a working-class area of Wisconsin. I hired over a dozen blue-collar type workers to help me. Every one of them voted for Trump. A few loved him; many were disgusted by him. But it was like he was the only candidate they had to choose from. A couple of them had supported Bernie Sanders in the primary because he, too, was talking about their concerns. Clinton never made herself an option to them. Not only did she never campaign there, I didn’t see a Clinton TV ad until the weekend before the election. And the commercial was all about Trump’s behavior. She didn’t talk about what she’d do to make people’s lives better. She forgot the basic rule that her husband’s 1992 campaign never veered from. It’s the economy stupid. It’s always about the economy.
This lack of an economic message didn’t just cost her votes from working class whites. Trump did better than Mitt Romney with African Americans and surprisingly held his own with Hispanic voters, despite his nasty rhetoric toward them. Many African Americans simply didn’t vote this time. Americans always vote (or don’t vote) with their pocket books. Always.
Some of Clinton’s failure to address the concerns of working class voters was due to faulty polling I am sure. But arrogance played a big factor in it. The Clinton campaign and the leadership of the Democratic Party are simply out of touch with working class Americans and they didn’t think they needed them. They are highly educated, urban dwellers who are more concerned about promoting their social agenda than they are listening to the forgotten working class. Clinton’s team laughed at and mocked Bernie Sanders supporters who were looking for better jobs and opportunities. They especially took venomous aim at young males who supported Sanders by referring to them “Bernie’s Bros.” They never bothered to listen to Bernie’s bros and never understood the real pain and desperation Trump voters felt. Clinton herself said she felt sorry for Sanders supporters (for believing Sanders could help them) and called Trump supporters deplorable.
By scaring the Trump out of them, her plan to win was to appeal to Republican-leaning women, to college educated voters who had voted Republican in the past and to the rising number of minority voters. She just assumed she’d get the same number of working class white votes that Obama did. She was wrong. She also did much worse than expected with women and college educated whites as well. Turnout was down among minority voters. Why? It’s the economy stupid. Remember?
Moreover, 22 percent of gay and lesbian voters didn’t vote for Clinton and instead voted for someone not committed to marriage equality. Why? See above.
While the Democratic Party should never back down from the commitment to progressive social policy, it’s time for them to break with the elitists who dominate the party’s infrastructure. Working class Americans are sick of being looked down on. They don’t appreciate the PC police chastising and lecturing them at every turn.
I have never been more committed to the values of the Democratic Party in my life. But, (other than staffing a client), I also haven’t been to a Democratic Party meeting in years. Frankly, those meetings have become almost intolerable for me due to the arrogance and elitism of so many of the participants. I’m honestly not sure how some of these people don’t have serious issues with their necks due to holding their noses so high in the air. This is the case here in South Carolina and across the nation.
Democrats can make a big step in the right direction by making immediate leadership changes. By thanking Nancy Pelosi for her many, many, many years in leadership and replacing her as minority leader with Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan, an economic populist from a blue-collar Trump supporting district, Democrats can send an immediate message that they are listening.
Democrats shot themselves in the foot for sure. Now our country is stuck with a demagogue whom I believe to be very dangerous to our shared American values. This should never have happened.
Lachlan McIntosh is a political consultant based in Charleston. He consults for Democratic and independent candidates throughout the southern United States. He is a former executive director of the South Carolina Democratic Party and aid to Governor Jim Hodges. www.mcintoshconsultingllc.com.