In 2016, Democrats suffered the most soul-crushing presidential election defeat in recent memory, eclipsing 2000 in the despair it has induced among the party faithful. As unlikely as it seems in the midst of our collective post-election hysteria, it’s instructive to remember that Democrats have been here before.
After losing the presidential election in 2000 — an election where Democrats nominated a charisma-challenged DC insider who struggled to connect with voters — Karl Rove infamously dangled the idea of a “permanent Republican majority” led by George W. Bush.
Just a few election cycles later, Democrats retook the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and won a majority of governorships for the first time in over a decade.
Now, as we face an even bleaker electoral landscape, there are key lessons we need to take away from 2016. While there were some glaring missteps, there remains a clear path forward for Democrats and, yes, there is some reason for hope.
1. The American people vote FOR a president, not just against the alternative
It’s inarguable that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House accuses Biden of pushing ‘conspiracy theories’ with Trump election claim Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness Trayvon Martin’s mother Sybrina Fulton qualifies to run for county commissioner in Florida MORE put together some of the most detailed progressive policy positions of any Democratic nominee in history — whether on climate change, immigration, or the economy. Yet after the Democratic Convention, this affirmative platform was subverted to an almost one-note, anti-Trump message.
She and her Democratic allies ran ads accusing him of being reckless on foreign policy, casting him — accurately — as a crude misogynist, and highlighting his mocking of a disabled reporter.
While these ads helped drive Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate advances public lands bill in late-night vote Warren, Democrats urge Trump to back down from veto threat over changing Confederate-named bases Esper orders ‘After Action Review’ of National Guard’s role in protests MORE’s numbers to historically low levels, what they didn’t do was provide voters with any rationale for why Hillary Clinton should be president.
This was an especially stark contrast with President Obama’s strategy four years earlier, where he successfully drove a negative economic message against Romney, while making an affirmative case for why he needed to be re-elected.
This disciplined two-track message strategy, carried out in both paid and earned media, helped him beat back historic headwinds — 7.9 percent unemployment among them — and win every state he won in 2008 with the exception of North Carolina and Indiana.
2. Democrats need to reject false choices
Since the election, it has become fashionable for pundits and politicos alike to assert that Democrats lost the election because we can’t talk to white working class voters, noting the poor showing Hillary Clinton had in places like Mahoning County, Ohio — a bastion of Democratic white working class voters.
While it’s true that she didn’t have much of a message for them or put in the time that President Obama did in trying to win them over. But she also — despite the aforementioned reams of policy prescriptions — didn’t do a particularly effective job of communicating with Latino or Black voters either.
There were warning signs of this through the campaign, as local elected officials and activists in states like Florida warned that the Clinton campaign was not doing enough to energize communities of color. In September, renowned Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher exposed these weaknesses in a focus group of black millennial voters where one memorably compared the election to a choice “between being stabbed and being shot.”
President Obama’s victory in 2012 showed that it’s possible for a skilled candidate to avoid having to give in to false choices like the one currently being put forward by many Democrats.
He won over white working class voters in Mahoning County, by a nearly 30 point margin, and turned out black and Hispanic voters at historic levels. The President succeeded where Clinton did not by articulating a strong economic message, while also embracing and promoting inclusive policies on issues like immigration.
As President Obama has stated repeatedly since the election, Democrats can’t just wave a magic wand and expect the “Obama coalition” to turn out at the polls.
But as we look to who should be our next party chair and the leaders who can move our party out of the political wilderness, it’s important to remember the lessons of his campaign and not force ourselves to make a false choice between trumpeting an economic message and embracing inclusive social policies.
3. Competition helped, rather than hindered, the Republican Party
In the early days of the 2016 cycle, Democrats and political observers crowed over the size of the GOP field — 17 candidates to be exact — and referred to it derisively as a “clown car.”
The 10-person “adult table” debates, which often devolved into petty personal disputes, were dismissed with laughter. And surely the simmering “GOP Civil War” could bring an end to the Republican Party as we knew it.
In contrast, the Democrats had a far tidier affair on our hands, with superdelegates lining up in droves behind frontrunner in Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee scheduling just 4 debates before the Iowa caucuses.
Debates that didn’t begin for a whole two months after the Republicans faced off were also conveniently scheduled on weekends and at the height of holiday season.
This strategy, we were told, would minimize any intra-party squabbles and allow Clinton to coast unscathed into the general election.
Somewhere along the way, Democrats stopped laughing. The Republican debates became “appointment TV,” completely dominating the news cycles in the late summer and fall of 2015.
While the second Republican debate attracted 23 million viewers, a hair down from the record-setting 24 million who tuned in for the first one, the Democrats’ second debate flopped with just over 8.5 million Americans tuning in. For the record, that debate was held the day after the terrorist attack in Paris that killed 130 people.
With his showman’s skills, withering attacks on his feckless opponents, and ability to attract 24 million Americans to tune in to political theater, Donald Trump test-drove unorthodox messages, defied every law of political gravity, and dispatched his final opponent on May 4 — a full two months before Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill’s 12:30 Report: Milley apologizes for church photo-op Harris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Biden courts younger voters — who have been a weakness MORE dropped out of the Democratic competition.
The fight that we presumed would consume the Republican Party ended up injecting enthusiasm with which the Democrats could not compete, a hard lesson we learned when too many Democrats sat on their hands on Nov. 8.
To prevail in future elections, these are lessons we should never forget. There is as little reason to fear a permanent Republican majority following the 2016 election as there was in the years following 2000. And now, more than ever, we can recommit ourselves to rebuilding our party. But first we need to learn the lessons of 2016.
Lis Smith is a Democratic strategist & co-founder of 50 State Communications. She served as the director of rapid response for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaHarris grapples with defund the police movement amid veep talk Five ways America would take a hard left under Joe Biden Valerie Jarrett: ‘Democracy depends upon having law enforcement’ MORE’s 2012 campaign and deputy campaign manager for Martin O’Malley’s presidential campaign.
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