Guest Columnists

How did democrats lose in 2016? Let us count the ways

Steffen Schmidt
Steffen Schmidt

The Republicans won the 2016 election with astonishing success. But today let’s talk about the Democratic Party failures.

Even if Hillary Clinton’s secret, private Email server was not criminally illegal, it played into the narrative of the Clinton’s obsession with secrecy and was a hug distraction that proved deadly to Clinton.

The relentless attack by conservatives and Republicans against Hillary and Bill Clinton surely took its toll. This should have been a warning to Democrats that Clinton would be an attrited, vulnerable and weakened candidate — as unfair as that may seem.

Clinton Foundation money and Clinton Wall Street Speeches came back to deeply hurt the campaign. Secrecy about what was in those speeches was more impactful than Trump’s secrecy regarding his tax returns.

Russia and WikiLeaks provided a devastating drip, drip, drip of information that included some juicy revelations about the inside politics of the campaign and the Democratic national Committee — including the forced resignation of Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the final stretch of the campaign — which was very disruptive.

The FBI Anthony Weiner email investigation turned out to be a cruise missile into the hull of the Clinton campaign ship. FBI Director James Comey’s late-in-the-campaign letter to Congress was actually identified by Clinton as one of the main reasons she lost the election.

The Democratic Party and Clinton campaign emphasis on black voters, women, LGBTQ, and Black Lives Matter issues was identified by my focus group as “micro targeting” which alienated many voters who turned to vote for Donald Trump. Analysts have also argued that in a diverse country like the United States, “identity politics” which stress the differences between groups is actually divisive and dangerous. At the same time racism, contempt for women, fear of Islam, and homophobia are a simmering danger to national unity.

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Immigration and border security was a high-salience issue in the 2016 contest. The Clinton campaign largely ignored the legitimate concerns about immigrants here illegally. She appears to have conceded that issue to the Republicans. As in Europe, Americans are concerned about uncontrolled migration and illegal entry to the United States. Small town, rural, and largely white voters have been concerned about this issue. Hispanic voters were concerned about immigrants here illegally driving down wages, thus giving Trump a larger share of Latino voters than Mitt Romney had earned.

The Clinton campaign lacked a coherent campaign theme, such as Ronald Reagan’s Morning Again in America, Bill Clinton’s It’s the Economy Stupid and Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow, George W. Bush’s Compassionate Conservatism, Barack Obama’s Hope and Change. Clinton’s campaign started with “I’m With Her” but quickly abandoned it because it was so self-indulgent. “Stronger Together” came too late.

The campaign never stuck with the premier concern among voters: bringing back jobs, creating jobs for displaced coal workers, and others affected by the challenges of the global economy. It’s hard to understand how the Democrats could not have offered coal miners the hope of new coal liquefaction and “clean coal” research, even if that would be a far reach. Bernie Sanders made a strong case that the “Clinton Democratic Party” is not the party of the working class but it has been the party of the rich and powerful interests (think Goldman Sacks and Clinton Foundation).

Clinton’s remarks describing 50 percent of Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables” that hold certain beliefs was the nail in the coffin of her campaign. It was the equivalent of Mitt Romney’s comment that “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what,” who are “dependent upon government … and entitlements.”

It was not just Hillary Clinton who lost to the Republicans. During the eight years of the Obama administration Democrats lost over 1,000 political offices nationally. Most swing states are now controlled by the Republicans which shows that the GOP was connecting with people at the grass roots. It is also a potential Democratic disaster for reapportionment in 2020.

As we leave the incredible 2016 election season we ask ourselves who now leads the Democrats? That question that will consume much of my time until the 2018 elections. Stay tuned. I will report back on what’s unfolding.

• Steffen Schmidt is a professor of political science at Iowa State University. Comments: steffenschmidt2005@gmail.com

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