Democrats are searching for the answers as to why they lost the 2016 election. It’s really pretty simple. Nationally, Democratic voters didn’t show up. Clinton attempted to reassemble the Obama coalition that elected him in 2008 and 2012. Unfortunately, 5 million of those 2012 Obama voters either didn’t vote, or voted for third party candidates in 2016. Hillary received 5 million less votes than Obama did in 2012.
However, those 5 million voters didn’t all move from Hillary to Trump. Trump received less votes than Romney received in 2012. Certainly some working class voters and rural voters that generally vote for Democrats did move from Clinton to Trump. They were the deciding voters in states like Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. However, had those 5 million Obama voters shown up and voted for Clinton she would have won. Nationwide it appears Clinton may end up beating Trump by 2 million votes; she’s ahead by 1 million right now and counting continues.
Democrats are left asking the same question they asked in 2010 and 2014 mid-terms. Why aren’t Democrats able to consistently get their voters to turn out? Democrats won in 2008 and 2012 but couldn’t turn out voters in the mid-terms. It was assumed that in this presidential year the enthusiasm and turnout level would rebound to the levels of 2008 and 2012, but that didn’t happen.
Was it the Democratic message that created the enthusiasm gap? Did that lack of enthusiasm create Democratic voter apathy? Democrats bragged about their organizational superiority. They touted their national ground game claiming it would make the difference in turning out voters. However, that ground game failed to bring those 5 million voters to the polls. Obviously, candidate Clinton was closely identified with the Democratic message. Was it the lack of enthusiasm for her and/or her message that dragged down turnout?
Talking to volunteers in the weeks preceding the election, it was obvious voter and volunteer enthusiasm didn’t reach the levels of 2012. The one glaring messaging error was her inability to overcome Trump’s negative character assaults leveled at her. She was never able to overcome his vicious attacks on her character and trustworthiness. No question the FBI investigation decision just prior to the election added to that distrust.
The answer to increasing low voter turnout requires effective, inspiring and motivating messaging. Democrats must plug into voters’ concerns and needs. Let’s compare and contrast both the Clinton and Trump campaigns messaging. Nearly everyone would agree this campaign was different than anything seen in recent history. Trump was a totally non-traditional candidate and defied historical campaign strategy. That should be taken into account in any comparison. Trump said and did things that no other candidate in history ever could do and survive. That points to the unflagging enthusiasm and power of his message. His supporters were willing to overlook all his horrific language and still remain rabidly committed.
It’s obvious that Clinton and Trump approached messaging entirely differently. Trump’s basic message was very simple and easily understood. Trump’s success in reaching working class voters may have been his extremely simple messaging that targeted their concerns and needs. His targeted audience are folks that probably don’t follow politics closely and are just grabbing the key talking points.
“Make America great again” is pretty easy to understand. His central theme was building the wall, restoring jobs, bringing back factories and ending bad trade deals (that he claimed encouraged job loss). His economic argument was easily understandable and directly appealed to working class fears and concerns. He hammered that over and over. He was never forced to prove that he could or would do any of these things. In fact, he resisted laying out specific proof that he could accomplish any of his agenda.
However, it sounded good to voters that have lost good paying jobs, can’t find work or are seeing their small towns dying as factories have fled to foreign countries. In addition, it was a message of change and a rejection of the establishment. He used it successfully against his 16 Republican primary opponents and then directed it at Clinton in the general election. All of those Republicans as well as Clinton represented the hated establishment.
The Clinton campaign had plenty of definitive plans and proposals on numerous policy positions. For the policy-wonk voter, she presented thorough and comprehensive solutions on a long list of issues important to Democrats. In addition, she reformed her message to meet the demand of Bernie Sanders and progressives.
Her theme of “Stronger Together” was understood by Democrats as inclusive, an end to obstruction and the uniting of the country. However, was this the best message to appeal to working class voters? The fact that the African American vote was off from Obama’s numbers suggest the “Stronger Together” message didn’t resonate. The shortfall in millennial and progressive voters suggest that message didn’t get their attention either. Many of these millennial and progressive voters either didn’t vote or may have voted third party. Obviously, working class and rural voters weren’t sold on that message.
In reshaping the Democratic message, it must be tailored to the needs of all the Democratic constituencies. If working class voters, African American voters or progressive voters feel they are left out or taken for granted, they will simply stay home.
Powerful messaging in 2018 will be more important than ever. Typically, mid-terms begin with an enthusiasm gap compared to a presidential year. Democrats must overcome that natural lack of mid-term enthusiasm and inspire and motivate their base. The one positive is that the out-of-office party generally has an advantage after the first two years of a new president’s term.
Democrats must begin now to develop a compelling and winning message for 2018. The sooner Sanders and Clinton people unite, the quicker that message can be forged.
by Rick Smith