The exit polls from last Tuesday paint a grim picture for Democrats who are reeling from an electoral shellacking. On the surface it looks like Hillary Clinton won voters on the economy. Fully 39 percent of voters rated the economy as their most important issue and Clinton won them by 10 percent. But when it came to who voters trusted most to handle the economy Trump won by a narrow 3 percent. Additionally, among the voters who ranked the economy as poor Trump won almost 6-10 voters.
Democrats have rightly taken the Clinton campaign to task for its lack of a compelling economic message. A 100 policy positions and 50 bills proposed in the first 100 days does not a theme make. While the Clinton campaign does deserve a lot of blame for focusing on identity politics, intense scrutiny of Trump’s supporters and allegations of sexual assault, the party and its leaders also deserve quite a bit of blame.
As Democratic pollster Celinda Lake put it, “If Democrats don’t have something to offer on the economy we’re not going to win elections.” Well, no duh. But somehow the message voters sent you in 2010 and 2014 on that front did not penetrate the party’s group-think.
Democrats have spent thousands of hours in hundreds of campaigns over the last several years stressing issues from global warming to abortion and gay marriage. Yes, they have talked about the economy but the way they have gone about it has cost them dozens of Congressional and hundreds of legislative seats. You cannot argue for an economy that benefits everybody, embrace trade and shrug off the communities that feel left behind because of it. Rational or not, these are real concerns voters have and Democrats have not addressed them in the past decade.
Part of the problem stems from the deep divide the party has on the economy. Unsurprisingly, almost every member agrees inequality is bad. But, many coastal Democrats (an increasingly large faction of the party) see trades as a boon to the economy (and their reelection prospects). The remaining lawmakers in the Rust Belt do not.
The other part of the issue is that Democrats have increasingly catered to their up-scale, down-scale coalition at the expense of their older, former base. You can see this by the language they use to talk about the economy such as “fair jobs” vs. “more jobs.” Increasingly the party has increased its base in states they already dominate and have started to lose almost everywhere else.
It’s little secret Trump ran ahead of Romney among blue-collar, non-college educated whites. But, it is where these gains were made that is crucial. Trump made them in the Rust Belt whereas prior GOP nominees did it most in the already red South. Preliminary analysis shows 10 states broke for Trump by 5 points more than they did Romney. A whopping 8 of them were in the Midwest and included Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana.
The Clinton campaign’s talking point that the Comey revelation stole their momentum in the final weeks has been getting lamer of late. According to exit polls, late deciders broke for Trump by 5 percent nationally. But in the states that mattered it was a different story. In Michigan late deciders favored Trump by 11. In Pennsylvania, Trump carried them by 17. In Wisconsin, Trump won the 14 percent of late deciders by a massive 2-1 margin. The majority of these voters did it because of the economy.
For the most part Democratic candidates parroted Clinton’s campaign themes on identity politics and a fair economy. When surveys were showing voters concerned about the economy in their states and Gallup finding 6-10 parents felt their children would be worse off Democrats stayed the course of making the election solely about cultural, wedge issues.
Democrats can comfort themselves that they have won the popular vote in 6 of the last 7 elections. But, this covers up the fact they have only won 4 of the last 7 elections. More importantly, they have only won a majority of the popular vote 2 out of 7 times. Hardly something to celebrate.