Democrats Haven’t Learned Much From Last Year

Last weekend, Kamala Harris met with Clinton operatives and fundraisers in the Hamptons.  Such a meeting is an indication the Clinton team is seriously considering, if not already decided, to support Harris for President in 2020.

Harris, the freshman Senator from California, elected in 2014 against another Democrat, has made a name for herself among the liberal elite for not being talked “down” to by white, Republican men and stonewalling almost every Trump nominee.  So, Democrats have learned from last year, right?

You would think so on the surface.  Harris represents the business-friendly, progressive wing of the party, comfortable with diversity and safe spaces but also recognizes the party relies on big money and big business.  She also, like Clinton, understands you cannot upset the apple cart too much in white, liberal suburbia where progressives can tolerate tax increases and new regulations as long as they can afford them.

Further, Harris, as a college educated black women cannot only win college educated women but she can also bring back into the fold Hispanics and blacks that either did not vote last year or pulled the lever for another candidate.

Unfortunately, what the Clinton team, not to mention Democratic leadership, still fails to understand is that Democrats did not lose last year because of demographics.  In terms of sheer numbers more blacks, Asians and Hispanics voted for Clinton than Obama four years earlier.  Last year, they did not vote in big enough numbers in the RIGHT places!

The examples of this abound.  In suburban and urban Cleveland Trump did better than Romney.  Turnout in majority black Philly counties dropped.  Even turnout in Chicago lagged.  But, race is only part of the story.  Clinton did not do worse than Obama because she was or not black or a woman.  She did worse because she never spoke the issues these votes care about.  Ya know, issues other than their skin color.

Right now, there are two schools of thought in the party.  One school, backed by Clinton, argues the party should appeal more to race, youth and ethnicity (identity politics).  The other, epitomized by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, says the party needs to speak to voters beyond just race and to other factors such as class and opportunity.

It’s obvious what school Harris falls under.  But a Harris candidacy would not fix the Democratic Party’s inability to appeal to blue-collar and downscale whites.  And lest we think it was just racist, xenophobic, sexist white voters who put Trump in the Oval Office, let’s remember these were the same voters that supported Clinton in the 08 Democratic primaries and Barack Obama in 2012 over Mitt Romney.

It’s often unrecognized but Obama ran a pretty populist campaign in 2012.  He did not dwell on government failures or the past but relentlessly focused on the heartless, plutocratic nature of Mitt Romney.  Just like Democrats did with Clinton, Republicans then thought it would not matter with Romney.  Boy, did it.

It is not even just that Harris would fail to appeal to working class whites and voters in certain regions.  But, she also would likely lose key constituencies that should be the bread and butter of the party (ie. working class white women, Hispanics, blacks, etc).

A little noted facet of 2016 requires digging beyond the topline numbers.  Democrats often tout their struggles with working class whites and boy do they have one.  But, they also have deep issues within their own party’s working class base.

On issues such as immigration, the cost of education, healthcare, and ultimately, class, the party loses left leaning voters.  It is impossible to know exactly how many young progressives or working class, minority Democrats voted for Jill Stein, Gary Johnson, or not at all, but obviously some did, and that had serious electoral consequences.

Many, many Republicans, Democrats and Independents see benefits to immigration (cheap and advanced labor).  But, they also worry about costs.  It is possibly why Trump did surprisingly better in majority-Hispanic Southern Texas than either Romney or McCain as these 2nd and 3rd generation American Hispanics saw firsthand the costs of caring for illegal, new immigrants.

On economic issues such as financial security and trade Democrats face serious issues.  Democrats wrote off their losses in 2010 due to a sluggish economy, conservative electorate and uncertainty over healthcare.  They assumed after 2014 the same dynamic was occurring where conservatives were galvanized and their base just did not show up.  But, they never have taken the time to understand why.

Well, it’s not hard to visualize a scenario like this.  You’re a young, struggling, college educated black progressive paying off student debt.  You turn on the TV to see a story about another bailout for a big bank or talk of more subsidies for health insurance companies.  It’s hard not to feel annoyance and anger at money being thrown at the elites and not your working class struggles.

On trade, the Democrats adherence to the the TPA distances them from many voters of all races and ethnicities.  The TPA would benefit many, many voters of all partisan persuasions in big cities.  But, it’s impact in Southern Texas, Grand Junction, CO or Akron, OH would be minimal if not damaging.

This leads into the last element of the Democratic dilemma.  The party has aligned itself with the cultural and economic interests of America’s urban, elite and ascendent metropolitan residents.  Democrats dominate in these areas and it is not because minorities dominate in these areas.

This is why until November, 2016, almost every Democrat in Congress gave a glowing review of America.  Clinton hardly mentioned student debt, the increasing cost of living, or pocketbook issues unless it played into a plan to create another government program to woo voters.

The Trump campaign, finding its base in downscale suburbs and surprisingly rural areas like Southern Texas came into the game late playing up Clinton’s liberal elitism.  But, by the first debate, it was clear that Trump’s pitch was she is a cultural elite who does not understand anybody outside urban America.  Clinton’s final travel schedule of visiting urban Raleigh, Detroit, Miami, Chicago, Cleveland, and Columbus certainly did not help alleviate the problem.

A startling example of this dynamic was the Democratic drop among single, white women.  Democrats actually lost unmarried white women by two points despite winning them by five points four years earlier.

Single, white women, like many other single women of other races are fast becoming the new face of the working class. They might like the ideas of paid maternity leave but also worry about practical issues like balancing their family budget.  Thus, their concerns over the costs of immigration, unchecked free trade and welfare spending impacts their electoral decisions.

Unsurprisingly, then, these women were about 40 percent of the Independents and Democrats who voted for Trump.  This group, unlike other Trump groups, are pro-union and would struggle to handle an expense of $500 or more.

It borders on campaign malpractice the Clinton campaign suddenly went dark about talking about these economic issues in the final weeks of the campaign.  Even knowing the Comey revelations threw the campaign off kilter they should have broadened their base instead of purposely shrinking it.

Epitomizing this, Obama’s final campaign speeches spoke of an economy moving from recession to recovery, 15 million new jobs created and rising incomes and reduced poverty (maybe in urban America).  Many people scorned that view as they looked out at poverty in rural areas, stagnant wages, and a sluggish economy barely providing full-time workers a living wage.  The chart below illustrates this in clear detail.  Even a majority of Clinton backers in general did not have such a rosy view of the economy.

Source: Democracy Corps for Roosevelt Institute, Election Night survey of 2016 voters

Figure 7: 2016 Election Night Survey


Harris did not create these issues.  But, cut from the same cloth as Clinton, she has the same biases as her would-be benefactors and also hails from urban San Francisco.  Not only is this a progressive mecca but it is one as far distanced from the rest of America as one can think of.

This would open up the party to losing Michigan, Ohio and Iowa all over again.  I suspect they could hold Pennsylvania with the right turnout numbers but even then if the rest of the map stays stagnant the party still loses the election.  It’s unlikely with the same cultural and economic message the party would make inroads with many current voters and that would mean they have to rely on up and coming voters (the least reliable of any voter).  Clinton became stuck in this dynamic in lagging in the Rust Belt and needing changing demographics in Georgia, Texas, Arizona and elsewhere to swing these states her way.

If Democrats embrace Harris in 2020 they will be setting themselves up to suffer the same cultural backlash as they did last year and in the last two midterms.  The party should be striving to address voters economic needs and not just the urban elite’s wishes.

The problem for the party is they need their urban elite for money and what little electoral power they have.  Which means the party is left trying to thread as thin a needle Republicans are.




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