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The hard question isn’t why Clinton lost — it’s why Trump won

Clinton’s loss can be explained. Trump’s win rewrites what we know about American politics.

President Obama Meets With President-Elect Donald Trump In The Oval Office Of White House Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

I’m struck, reading the angry and confident columns and tweetstorms as the left reckons with its defeat, how much the conversation among Democrats now mirrors the conversation among Democrats after 2004.

Then, like now, Democrats were shocked by a loss to a Republican they considered obviously unfit to lead, and whose win felt like a fundamental rejection of their worldview. Then, like now, Democrats blamed that loss on losing touch with the white working class. Then, like now, Democrats lamented nominating a charisma-challenged politician who comes off as an out-of-touch elite. The major difference is that the role same-sex marriage played in 2004 — the cultural flashpoint blamed for scaring and repulsing white Midwesterners — is being played by a combination of Black Lives Matter protests, viral comedy videos, and “wokeness” politics now.

The post-2004 consensus was that Democrats had to reconnect with the white working class — they should nominate a culturally conservative populist, like Montana’s Brian Schweitzer, or a smooth-talking Southerner, like John Edwards. And then what they actually did was nominate a liberal African American with the middle name “Hussein.” And it worked. Four years later, they won the White House in a landslide with a coalition that seemed impossible in 2004.

Which is to say that there are many ways to win elections, and when you’re talking about a 2-point swing, there are many ways to make up the gap.

Anyone who didn’t predict Tuesday’s election results should interpret them with humility. I did not predict Tuesday’s election results. So I begin this admitting I don’t really know what happened.

Worse, Tuesday’s election was more than close. Hillary Clinton looks likely to win the popular vote, albeit by a slim margin. Fewer people voted for Donald Trump’s agenda than voted for her agenda. Fewer people wanted Donald Trump to be president than wanted her to be president.

Nor is the data we have to interpret Tuesday infallible. Exit polls are, if anything, worse than normal polls — and the normal polls missed this election. Moreover, exit polls are particularly bad at measuring the Hispanic vote, and understanding racial and demographic trends is of particular importance this year.

All this creates a tendency to fall back on preexisting beliefs. Bernie Sanders fans think Democrats should have nominated Sanders. Critics of identity politics think the Democratic Party needs to rediscover its soul in economic populism. Believers in the Obama coalition wish Democrats had nominated a candidate who, like Obama, thrilled the black, brown, and young voters who built the party’s 2008 and 2012 margins. Centrist Democrats think the party needs to arrest its leftward drift.

But this loss is multi-causal. No one thing went wrong for Democrats. And lots of things could have gone right that would have made the difference.

The thin Democratic field

The post-election recriminations begin with the Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders’s supporters are reasonably furious their candidate lost to Clinton, given Clinton’s ultimate loss to Trump. They point to the fact that Sanders led Trump by more than Clinton in head-to-head polling during the primary.

But even if you’re skeptical that Sanders would’ve survived the general election with those numbers intact — and I am — this was a very strange, narrow field. The only two longtime Democrats in it were Clinton and Martin O’Malley. The entire rest of the field consisted of Sanders, who had to register as a Democrat to run; Lincoln Chafee, who was a Republican during his time in Congress; and Jim Webb, who had been a Republican for most of his career.

Democratic Presidential Candidates Hold First Debate In Las Vegas Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Why didn’t Elizabeth Warren run? Why didn’t Joe Biden run? And those were just the top-tier possibilities. How about Colorado’s Michael Bennet? Or Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar? Or Massachusetts’s Deval Patrick? Or Colorado’s John Hickenlooper? Or Ohio’s Sherrod Brown?

As best as I can tell, the clearing of the field was partly natural (people forget this now, but Clinton began with sky-high poll numbers) and partly purposeful (Biden was discouraged from running by Democratic elites). One way or another, it was a mistake: Clinton needed to be tested from more sides, with more arguments, by more kinds of candidates.

The white working class

The most popular post-election theory is that Democrats need to recapture the white working class. This theory is popular in part because everyone appears to believe that the precise cocktail of policy and messaging they wanted all along would have kept working-class whites in the Democratic Party. It’s the epicenter of I-told-you-so-ism.

The more of these arguments I read, the less I understand them. Liberals, in particular, blame insufficient economic populism for the white working class’s movement toward the Republicans. But the Democratic Party is more redistributionist than it’s been in recent decades and vastly more redistributionist than the Republican Party. I don’t think voters are dumb, and I don’t think they missed the fact that Democrats passed a national health care plan while Republicans wants to cut taxes on the rich.

Down-ballot races are also tough for this argument. In Ohio, for instance, Rob Portman — who negotiated trade deals and budget policy for the George W. Bush administration — ran way ahead of Trump in his race against Ted Strickland, a former governor and a genuine populist. Similarly, Ron Johnson, a former businessman, beat Russ Feingold, another Democratic populist, in Wisconsin.

I tend to take Trump voters at their word. Exit polls suggest Trump’s big issue margins were among voters who said immigration and terrorism — which Trump managed to turn into another form of immigration by focusing on refugees — were their top priority. I see no reason to doubt them. This is a place where Clinton and Trump really did disagree. And that makes this split harder to resolve, as I don’t think Democrats should turn against immigrants, or shut America to those desperately seeking safety.

Elites versus reformers

The broad narrative of the entire year has been elite backlash — America is fed up with its ruling class, and will turn to anyone, even Trump, willing to challenge it.

But I’m skeptical of the elite backlash theory: There’s no definition of “elite” that makes sense that doesn’t include Portman. And for all the derision of “woke” candidates, condescending liberals, and John Oliver clips, there’s no politician in America better at playing to the late-night comedy crowd or quicker to lecture the opposition than Obama, and his approval ratings are well above 50 percent, and it seems clear that he would have stomped Trump.

An argument that makes more sense is one that my colleague Jeff Stein makes: The problem isn’t that Clinton is an elite — Trump, after all, is a self-proclaimed billionaire who wants to deregulate Wall Street, and Obama is the president of the United States. The problem is that Obama and Trump are seen as political reformers and Clinton is seen as politically corrupt. Some of that is fair (the Goldman Sachs speeches) and some of it is unfair — the overblown emails, the disastrous Comey letter, and Americans’ distaste for career politicians — but it perhaps proved deadly.

Like a lot of journalists, I had a prewrite ready for a Clinton victory. It argued:

There’s deep ambivalence toward Hillary Clinton among people who otherwise share her values, and I think this is the reason why: The system we have is the problem. Hillary Clinton is part of that system. How can she solve the problem when she is the problem?

But Clinton has a different definition of success than the presidential candidates we’re used to. She is not running to change the system. She refuses to paint an inspiring vision of a political process rid of corruption, partisanship, and rancor. If anything, she is contemptuous of the quadrennial promises to remake American politics — she views them as distractions from the hard, important, unsexy work of politics. And she views her appetite for that work, and her readiness to work tirelessly and cheerfully within the system we have, as her core political attribute.

I think there’s a case to be made for Clinton’s political realism. But I don’t think it’s a case Clinton was comfortable making, and it clearly wasn’t a case voters wanted to hear. If exit polls are to be believed, voters thought Clinton cared more about them, had better experience, and had better judgment, but they thought Trump could bring about change.

Exit polls/CNN

I should say, though, that while the exit polls are convincing here, this is also a place where the down-ballot evidence is difficult to square. Russ Feingold is one of the Democratic Party’s true campaign finance reformers, and he was easily beaten by Johnson in Wisconsin.

Racial priming, and whites as an interest group

One question I’ve heard people ask since Clinton’s loss is how it can be about race if she lost states Obama won, and if Obama won more white voters than she did. This is not the puzzle many are making it out to be.

There’s a long and deep literature on racial priming that shows that when you make white voters think about their race, their political opinions shift right. As my colleague Dylan Matthews wrote:

Research by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos suggests that when confronted with different racial groups, even liberal white voters turn rightward. In one study, Enos sent pairs of native Spanish-speaking Latino men to ride commuter trains in Boston, surveyed their fellow riders' political views both before and after, and also surveyed riders on trains not used in the experiment as a control.

"The results were clear," Enos wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "After coming into contact, for just minutes each day, with two more Latinos than they would otherwise see or interact with, the riders, who were mostly white and liberal, were sharply more opposed to allowing more immigrants into the country and favored returning the children of illegal immigrants to their parents’ home country. It was a stark shift from their pre-experiment interviews, during which they expressed more neutral attitudes."

Enos’s commuter train experiment is Trump’s electoral strategy in a nutshell.

Obama’s campaigns were studiously nonracial. In 2012, he and Mitt Romney both primed the electorate to think about businessmen versus workers, capital versus labor, makers versus takers. Obama won that election in part by making it about economic identity.

But Clinton, in part because she couldn’t rely on Obama’s natural connection to the nonwhite electorate, was much more explicit about the nature of her coalition, and the importance of fighting racial bias and white privilege in America. Donald Trump, for his part, made fears of the brown Other the centerpiece of his campaign from the day he launched his candidacy. And the fights over police shootings and the rise of Black Lives Matter created a surrounding hum of racial conflict.

We have a lot of evidence that reminding white people of rising racial diversity makes them more conservative in the moment. This campaign did that constantly. To the extent that many have observed that white voters showed the voting unity associated with racial minorities, that might be why — this was an election that continuously activated the racial identities of all voters, and that could well have changed voting patterns.

The depressed Democratic majority

The focus on who voted for Trump obscures the question of who didn’t vote for Clinton — but given turnout numbers, that seems like it might be the more relevant question.

Clinton’s lost working-class whites were, in her campaign’s telling, meant to be offset by gains among college-educated whites and nonwhite voters. Those new voters failed to materialize. Was that because they assumed Trump wouldn’t be elected? Because they didn’t like Clinton? Because they were angry about trade deals from the 1990s?

I’ll lose my pundit card for saying this, but I genuinely don’t know. But if you’re the Democratic Party, Clinton’s loss probably makes you lean toward a theory of politics that emphasizes turning out your own party rather than persuading members of the other party.

Clinton wasn’t particularly well-liked by Democrats. But rather than repair that damage by playing for 51 percent and reminding Democrats that they’re Democrats, she sought a massive win by discrediting Trump with a strategy aimed, at least in part, at independents and even soft Republicans. This wasn’t the tried-and-true capital versus labor strategy Obama used against Mitt Romney. It was a competent versus incompetent strategy that, I’m sure, tested best in focus groups but ultimately didn’t deliver.

Criticisms of Clinton are easier than explanations of Trump

I want to end on a note of humility. It’s easy to second-guess failed campaigns. But even without access to the focus groups and polls the Clinton campaign had, emphasizing Trump’s manifest unfitness for office seemed like a reasonable strategy to me. I don’t know that I would have done differently in Clinton’s shoes. And I have no reason to be confident that a different strategy would have worked any better, or even that a particular candidate would have performed better (remember that Trump also beat 16 Republicans in the primaries, and in ways much more decisive than his Electoral College victory over Clinton). It’s always worth remembering that counterfactuals that look good in theory can turn out badly in practice.

But here’s the truth: The hard question isn’t Clinton and her candidacy. It’s Trump and his. As often happens after a campaign wins, we’re now taking his appeal for granted. We shouldn’t. Something scary and surprising happened here.

I don’t have a model of the American people that accounts for electing someone like Trump. He’s done too many things, said too many things, tweeted too many things that would typically be disqualifying in American politics. Remember when Mitt Romney was mocked for his car elevator? Trump has a house covered in gold. Remember when John Kerry was assailed for supposedly insulting the military by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth? Trump slandered war heroes and Gold Star parents despite getting repeated deferments from Vietnam. Remember when John McCain was dismissed for seeming ill-informed and out of touch amid the financial crisis? Trump doesn’t know how NATO works or what the nuclear triad is.

Sitting here and listing to all the normal political pivots that could have changed this election feels faintly ridiculous. For all the criticisms I just listed of Hillary Clinton, a majority of Americans thought Trump unqualified to serve as president, even on the day of the election. Most Americans heard Trump brag about sexual assault on tape. Voters knew Trump wouldn’t release his tax returns and probably hadn’t paid income taxes for decades. Voters saw Trump lose his ability to form coherent, factual sentences after the first 20 minutes of all three debates. Plenty of people knew Trump was buoyed by Russia’s direct intervention in the election. People had read his tweets, seen his bullying, watched replays of his cruelty.

CNN exit polls

It’s easy to come up with stories where Clinton could have gained 2 points, or to theorize that another candidate could have gained 4. But on the merits, this should have been 60-40, or 50-40-10. Trump’s victory is unnerving in a way nothing else in politics ever has been to me — it suggests there’s no bar, no floor, no you-must-be-this-decent to serve. I thought more of my country.

So I have my theories. I can argue hypotheticals about Clinton versus Sanders, or Clinton versus Warren, or whether more visits to Wisconsin would have changed everything. The argument I can’t make is why so many of my countrymen looked at Trump and deemed him acceptable. Polls show that in narrow ways, the voters saw what I saw — people did believe Trump unqualified, unkind, dishonest, indecent. It just didn’t matter.

To explain Trump’s competitiveness, if not his win, you have to search for truly primal appeals that overwhelmed all that — the power of partisan identity, the fear of Others, a dominant racial majority that rose in fury against the idea that it was becoming a political minority.

I hope Trump is a better man as president than he showed himself to be on the campaign trail. But I can’t confidently explain his win. In some ways, I don’t want to — I am scared of the conclusions it forces.

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