Jump to Any Race
National Politics|By Charlie Cook, December 23, 2016

If Demo­crats want to keep blam­ing oth­ers for their sorry per­form­ance on Elec­tion Day, they’re ob­vi­ously free to do so. Yes, they were hurt by the dis­clos­ure of Hil­lary Clin­ton’s private email serv­er, claims that the Clin­ton Found­a­tion was a “pay-to-play” op­er­a­tion, and even fake news. Yes, if FBI Dir­ect­or James Comey hadn’t re­opened the Clin­ton email in­vest­ig­a­tion, the vot­ing needle might have moved in states like Wis­con­sin, Michigan, and pos­sibly Pennsylvania. Yes, Rus­sia’s email hacks might have den­ted Demo­crats’ sup­port.

But to simply blame these things is a form of deni­al. Demo­crats may see Don­ald Trump as a hor­rif­ic freak of nature, but the fact re­mains that he re­ceived 63 mil­lion votes—2 mil­lion more than Mitt Rom­ney in 2012 and 3 mil­lion more than John Mc­Cain in 2008. While Demo­crats can blame ger­ry­man­der­ing for their fail­ure to win a House ma­jor­ity, fig­ures com­piled by Cook Polit­ic­al Re­port House Ed­it­or Dav­id Wasser­man show that Re­pub­lic­ans beat Demo­crats in the na­tion­al House pop­u­lar vote, 63,153,387 (49.1 per­cent) to 61,776,218 (48.0 per­cent), with in­de­pend­ent or oth­er-party can­did­ates pulling an­oth­er 3,682,600.

In­creas­ingly Demo­crats are be­com­ing a party of urb­an areas, col­lege towns, minor­ity voters, and the East and West Coasts. The heart­land, of­ten de­rided by Demo­crats as “fly­over coun­try,” is now be­com­ing a no-fly zone for the party. Wasser­man fig­ures that while Pres­id­ent Obama won 690 (22 per­cent) of the na­tion’s 3,113 counties, Clin­ton car­ried just 487 (16 per­cent). Every single Sen­ate elec­tion in 2016 was won by the same party that pre­vailed in the pres­id­en­tial race in that state. The ad­age that “I vote for the per­son, not the party” has nev­er been less true than today.

Simply put, Demo­crats need to ex­pand their sens­it­iv­ity-train­ing courses to in­clude people who live in small-town and rur­al Amer­ica—middle-class white voters, people who live paycheck to paycheck, and whites who at­tend church at least once a week. Frank­lin Roosevelt’s New Deal co­ali­tion of voters is now of­fi­cially dead. Demo­crats were los­ing these voters be­fore Don­ald Trump came along and will con­tin­ue to do so bey­ond his pres­id­ency un­less they show genu­ine con­cern for these con­stitu­en­cies. To be sure, the coun­try is chan­ging and be­com­ing more di­verse, but it is not do­ing so at the same pace every­where. Demo­crats are run­ning up the score in places that do not help them win ma­jor­it­ies in the House, Sen­ate, and Elect­or­al Col­lege.

An ana­lys­is by Tyler Fish­er and Alyson Hurt for NPR found that Trump won 70.6 per­cent of the vote from rur­al counties and places with pop­u­la­tions un­der 2,500 that were not near metro areas, com­pared to 25.1 per­cent for Clin­ton. Trump won 66.1 per­cent of the vote in small counties that were near metro areas (Clin­ton 30.1 per­cent), 65.8 per­cent in counties with pop­u­la­tions between 2,500 and 19,999 not near metro areas (Clin­ton 29.4 per­cent), and 66.3 per­cent in sim­il­arly-sized counties near metro areas (Clin­ton 29.5 per­cent).

While many Demo­crats and journ­al­ists are busy read­ing Hill­billy Elegy: A Mem­oir of a Fam­ily and Cul­ture in Crisis (I per­son­ally find the title of­fens­ive), far more can be learned from The Polit­ics of Re­sent­ment by Uni­versity of Wis­con­sin polit­ic­al sci­ence pro­fess­or Kath­er­ine Cramer. It is the product of nine years of in­ter­view­ing rur­al Wis­con­sin voters to learn about their anxi­ety, fears, and re­sent­ment of urb­an Amer­ica and its elites.

If any Re­pub­lic­an can­did­ate in mod­ern his­tory should have done badly with white church­go­ers, it was Don­ald Trump. And yet, exit polls show that Trump car­ried the 26 per­cent of the white elect­or­ate who con­sider them­selves evan­gel­ic­al or born-again voters by a 65-point mar­gin, 81 to 16 per­cent. Among the 33 per­cent of voters of all races who at­tend church at least once a week, Trump won by 16 points, 56 to 40 per­cent, and among those who go at least monthly, Trump won by 12 points, 54 to 42 per­cent. Demo­crats can take solace in win­ning people who say they nev­er go to church by 31 points, 62 to 31 per­cent, but they will be dis­tressed to learn that this group makes up just 22 per­cent of the elect­or­ate.

Demo­crats wor­ried about their poor show­ing among church­go­ers would be well-ad­vised to read God’s Polit­ics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It by So­journ­ers pres­id­ent Jim Wal­lis, whom I would de­scribe as a lib­er­al evan­gel­ic­al. Wal­lis ar­gues that con­ser­vat­ives have no corner on re­li­gion in gen­er­al or Chris­tian­ity in par­tic­u­lar, but that Demo­crats are in­creas­ingly be­com­ing a sec­u­lar party while Re­pub­lic­ans are be­com­ing the party of people of faith.

In short, Demo­crats need to get over Don­ald Trump and the spe­cif­ics of what happened in 2016 and be­gin to think about how, in their rush in­to Amer­ica’s fu­ture, they left be­hind a large num­ber of voters who are still very much here, right now. To ma­lign these people as big­ots, ra­cists, and miso­gyn­ists ig­nores the fact that some ac­tu­ally voted for Pres­id­ent Obama at least once, have voted for wo­men in pre­vi­ous elec­tions, or have voted for Demo­crats in the not-so-dis­tant past.

Iron­ic­ally, in Clin­ton’s in­art­ful but mem­or­able “bas­ket of de­plor­ables” talk at an LGBT Gala for Hil­lary in Septem­ber, she ali­en­ated many of these people in the first half of her speech while squarely ad­dress­ing many oth­ers in the largely over­looked second part of her re­marks. As re­por­ted by Poli­ti­Fact, she said:

But the oth­er bas­ket—and I know this be­cause I see friends from all over Amer­ica here … people who feel that the gov­ern­ment has let them down, the eco­nomy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody wor­ries about what hap­pens to their lives and their fu­tures, and they’re just des­per­ate for change. It doesn’t really even mat­ter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be dif­fer­ent—they won’t wake up and see their jobs dis­ap­pear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to un­der­stand and em­path­ize with as well.”

The af­ter­maths of elec­tions are filled with “what ifs.” What if Hil­lary Clin­ton had omit­ted the sec­tion of the speech on the bas­ket of de­plor­ables? What if Demo­crats take to heart the para­graph quoted above? It would cer­tainly be a good way to get back in touch with the heart­land.