Why Identity Politics Failed Clinton

In 2002, “The Emerging Democratic Majority” was published.  Written by Democratic strategists John Judis and Ruy Texiera, the book alleged that a modern Democratic majority was brewing composed of college educated whites, minorities and urban, affluent voters.  Despite a hiccup in 2004, the book proved to be prophetic in 2008 and 2012.  2016?  Not so much.

Coined the “Rising American Electorate” or “Coalition of the Ascendant,” these voters put Obama over the top twice but failed to deliver for Clinton.  The proof is in the exit polls.  Among Hispanics an 18-29 year olds Clinton performed 6 points worse than Obama, she dropped 5 points among unmarried women and blacks.  In states from Ohio all the way to New Mexico her numbers were strikingly below Obama’s.

So why did the Coalition that twice voted for Obama fail to turn out?  Because Democrats overestimated the appeal of identity based politics.

Democrats largely based this strategy around the “Emerging Democratic Majority.”  They believed via micro-targeting and specific messaging they could get growing blocs of voters to always turn out in their favor.  In 2008 and 2012 the strategy worked.  But in 2010, 2014 and now 2016 the strategy failed.

Republicans did this by convincing white, blue-collar men and women that Democrats did not care for them.  They also were able to gain enough of a foothold in the suburbs they garnered winning numbers in many swing and purple states.

Democrats then turned to a modified version of the book’s theory.  In the absence of repeated victories the party convinced itself that demographics were trending in their favor.  If they just focused on these voters they could overwhelm the votes of GOP leaning groups.

The Clinton camp went full in on this theory. They ran over 2,500 Spanish language ads from January to September.  The campaign brought in celebrities like Katy Perry and Lebron James.  But, the campaign invested almost nothing in winning the votes of blue-collar whites.  Indeed, When Bill counselled their campaign to go after blue-collar voters they ignored him.

She sought to unite her coalition with a vision of inclusivity based on an economy that work for everybody and being welcoming of immigrants.  In addition, she promised to give every group something they wanted.  Hispanics got immigration reform.  Muslims did not get profiled.  Students received student debt relief. The list goes on.  Democrats were boosted by the fact that Trump went out of his way to insult all these groups at least once.

But while it is certainly true that Trump did insult these groups Clinton did not make a case for her candidacy.  Indeed, if anything, this election shows Democrats cannot win based just on the Rising American Electorate.  Today, these groups do not constitute a majority unless Democrats win absolute majorities in each group and Republicans a bare majority among their base.  Except while the rapidly trending Republican white-blue collar population is declining the numbers of farmers, businessmen, college educated white men and seniors is not.  Worse, the assumption Clinton would finally win a majority of college educated white women tested and failed.

While these GOP leaning groups might not be able to swing Virginia or Colorado anymore they are predominantly in big, electoral college vote rich swing states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Michigan).  The GOP routinely wins around 60 percent of their vote and when these voters make up around 70 or 80 percent of the electorate they drown out massive Democratic margins among other groups.

But Democrats can be optimistic about the future, right?  A majority-minority nation in 2044 coupled with a diverse Millennial and Facebook generation should lock in a Democratic majority right?  This assumption rests on the growing Latino and Asian blocs who right now are Democratic leaning.

But there are signs this assumption is starting to tread water.  Beyond this election, the National Election Study found that college educated Hispanics supported Obama with close to 70 percent.  But, among college educated Hispanics the number was closer to 55 percent.  Additionally, polls found there was a divide between 1st generation Hispanics and American born Hispanics (2nd generation and later). A Gallup poll in August found Clinton led by a much bigger margin among foreign-born Hispanics vs. American born.  A Pew study found bilingual Hispanics were much more supportive of Clinton than English only speaking Hispanics.

Among Asians, while they are more educated and Democratic than Hispanics they have shown they have a proclivity to support GOP led efforts on education such as vouchers and oppose Affirmative Action (ie. California).

There is a further complication to this belief.  According to sociologist Richard Alba, the white majority is here to stay.  It is here to stay because when Asians or Hispanics intermarry they are more likely to identify their children as white.  Of course, we are defining elusive sociocultural designations.  But, we are not arguing the accuracy of Census categories but how voters identify themselves.  If voters identify themselves as white they are more likely to live in Republican areas and associate with like-minded people.

After this election it is equally difficult to argue the young will remain Democratic.  For example, in Wisconsin Donald Trump lost young voters by a few points.  Trump split the young vote in Iowa.  He won the youth vote in Missouri by double-digits.  Additionally, Trump ran surprisingly strong among 30 year olds in contrast to the popular belief he only won older, blue-collar men.

This does not suggest Democrats are doomed and the GOP is saved.  Rather, it suggests political environment and candidates still matter.

Due to the American political system our party coalitions are heterogeneous.  Just look at past party coalitions.  The FDR, New Deal coalition melded Southern conservatives with liberal Northerners.  The Reagan coalition brought together Wal-Mart and affluent Republicans.  But the key to victory has always been to define a majority that can include your current coalition with room to include a slice of your rival’s as well.

The formula for this has always been fairly simple. The out-party will purport to represent the small man/woman and rail against entrenched interests.  In FDR’s case it was Wal-Street.  In Reagan it was politicians being soft on Communism.  For Trump it was the metropolitan, PC believing, college educated elite.

Clinton never tried to follow this strategy.  Instead, her opponent was the “basket of deplorables” that supported Trump.  Worse, the perception her charge was meant to include all Trump supporters was reinforced by the media.  So, Clinton was never able to expand her coalition beyond Obama’s base.

Not that she tried that hard.  Clinton wrote off time and time again the significant slice of voters in the Midwest who had voted for Obama twice.  She did not visit union shops like Obama.  She did not go to Milwaukee like Obama.

She also failed to rouse her target groups in large numbers.  Despite the millions she spent on voter targeting the campaign largely fell short on their targets in Philly, Detroit and Milwaukee and Madison.  Turns out college students care about more than student debt, white women about abortion and equal pay (enforced by such an efficient government) and Hispanics don’t necessarily vote solely on immigration reform.

Turns out many of these voters wanted a broader vision for the future than Clinton offered.  As a result, she fell short of the White House and again was defeated by an opponent most in the media dismissed as flawed and likely to lose.  For all his faults, Trump offered a broad enough vision that a large coalition of different groups could rally behind.

For Democrats the message is clear.  You might have a demographic advantage going forward.  But candidates, the political environment and message matters.  Worse, your demographic advantage might be fleeting and you might already be wasting what little advantage you have.

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