Russ Feingold, one of the original Midwestern, populist Democrats was defeated by a traditional, conservative Republican.
Russ Feingold, one of the original Midwestern, populist Democrats was defeated by a traditional, conservative Republican.

To hear Democrats tell it they lost in 2016 because they simply did not discuss the economy enoigh.  After witnessing Donald Trump’s stunning economically populist pitch succeed some Democrats are echoing the party needs to follow suit.  The party simply cannot cobble together an electoral majority without a stronger economic pitch that protects the interests of the average American from the power of big corporations and the wealthy.

This is music to the ears of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.  Sanders, afterall, found strong success in his primary challenge to Clinton by parroting populist themes such as debt-free college, higher taxes on the wealthy and universal health care.  But, short of Sanders and Warren the number of populist wielding figures in the Democratic Party is virtually zilch.  Worse, the party has moved ideologically away from populist pitches and become more friendly to big business and big government.

Still, some in the party wonder if a more economically populist candidate like Sanders or Biden would have feared better in 2016.  Well, we can take a look at a few examples to answer this question.  We can do this by looking at how Democratic Senate candidates did compared to Clinton in 10 states widely considered to be competitive (see the table below).


From the table we can see that there was little variation between Clinton’s vote total and Democratic Senate candidates.  But, most notable of all were how Midwestern Senate Democrats did compared to Clinton.  In 4 of the 5 states (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois), Senate Democratic candidates ran worse than Clinton.  The exception being Evan Bayh who ran on his father’s record and name ID.

The two Democrats that ran the hardest on populist appeals, Russ Feingold and Ted Strickland, actually did worse than Clinton in their states by decent sized margins.  Even Kate McGinty and Tammy Duckworth who ran on more traditional, progressive platforms did better.  If a populist theme would benefit Democrats you would think it would show up in Senate races where the former senior Senator from Wisconsin and former Governor of Ohio were running.

In fact, the candidates who did the best relative to Clinton in their states presented a moderate image.  Jason Kander ran as a pro-life, pro-gun, Midwestern Democrat in the mold of other successful Missouri Democrats.  Bayh tried to thread the needle in his home state but was done in by the GOP wave and being hit by allegations of being out of touch with Indiana voters.

The Senate is not the only example we can look at.  A number of Governor’s races were also decided and they present a more nuanced view than the Senate contests.  For example, Governor Steve Bullock ran 15 percent ahead of Clinton in Montana and was reelected.  His pitch was not exactly populist but it was a far cry from parading around the idea of debt-free college.  Likewise, Jim Justice in West Virginia ran as a pro-life, pro-gun Democrat who used some populist themes like defending coal jobs from clean energy businesses and regulators.  He outran Clinton by a massive 21 percent margin.  Again, like in the Senate contests, Indiana’s and Missouri’s Democratic candidates for Governor outperformed Clinton.  But, they also lost despite presenting a moderate image.

Now, every state and race is different.  Democrats have a track record of winning state contests in Montana and West Virginia.  Likewise, Democrats have been able to be competitive in federal elections in Missouri and Indiana despite the increasingly progressive inclinations of their party.  It is possible a better candidate than Clinton would have been able to run circles around Trump and appeal to Midwestern voters.  But we will never know.  All we can do is look at these and other examples and judge from there.

Still, these examples fall far short of proving Democrats would be better served by going full populist in the next few election cycles.  Odds are good their base of increasingly white collar men and women, minorities and technocrats would not show up in droves to support the party.  Further, it is possible at this point, short of a few isolated states (WV, Montana, etc.) voters do not buy that Democrats are the party of populists anymore.  I mean, when Russ Feingold, who advocated for single payer health care and campaign finance reform is defeated by a traditional conservative Republican, it says a lot.


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