Are Democrats Over-Learning the Lessons of 2016?

One of the biggest mistake pundits and consultants make is overlearning the lessons of history–and particularly those of the last battle they lost. Democratic leadership is relying on misguided historical parallels in avoiding impeachment, and various historians and talking heads continue to bring up the specter of George McGovern and  Walter Mondale as if the politics of America in 2019 were remotely comparable to that of 1984 or 1972.

As a matter of campaign strategy, veteran candidates are particularly prone to overcompensating for past defeats. While “Hillary didn’t go to Wisconsin” has become a running joke in some circles and countless pixels have been spilled analyzing Rust Belt white working class voters, one of the most underreported causes of Democratic failure there was a matter of misguided field strategy. Back in 2008 the Obama campaign successfully overwhelmed the Clinton campaign in the Democratic primary partly through the use of sophisticated big data operations to gauge their likely voter pool and turn them out accordingly. Clinton was determined not to let this happen again, and wisely hired on many Obama campaign veterans. But they overlearned the lessons of 2008: the 2016 campaign failed to adjust to changing political and cultural conditions even when state and local field organizers were reporting trouble on the ground. Instead, Team Clinton insisted that their big data models were the ones to trust–and in the process wound up turning out a large number of Trump voters that their local field team tried desperately to tell them were no longer in the fold.

Democrats may be on the verge of a similar error in approaching the 2020 election. One thing that both progressives and moderates in the party seem to agree on is that Democrats spent too little time in 2016 talking about kitchen table issues and the practical ways that Democrats would make people’s lives better. The Bernie and Biden wings of the party argue endlessly over the specifics of that, and over which segments of the electorate can or cannot be won over with which specific economic appeals–but everyone seems to agree on the general idea. Traditional Democratic leadership wants to avoid focusing too much on Trump’s crimes because they don’t matter enough to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s fictional Bailey and O’Reilly families; much of the progressive left feels they’re an unwanted distraction from large scale economic solutions at best, and an intentional ploy to take attention from corporate malfeasance at worst. And nearly everyone seems to agree that Trump will be a formidable general election opponent.

But this, too, may be a mistake of over-learning the lessons of the last election. The focus on Trump’s criminal misbehavior has indeed caused his approval ratings to sag, and his 2016 victory was in itself something of a fluke. Yes, Trump tapped into a significant combination of bigotry and anxiety that Democrats failed to adequately address. But he also benefited from a nearly perfect storm of Russian interference, campaign hacking, and a last-minute boost from a feckless James Comey. Democratic enthusiasm from the Obama coalition was weak, leading to the failure of both moderate and progressive Democrats nationwide down ballot–in fact, 2016 would have remained something of a disaster for the Democratic Party even if Clinton had barely held the blue wall and gained the presidency.

But today is a different story. The Democratic base roared back into action in 2018, and signs are strong for a repeat in 2020. As for Trump? His approval rating is shockingly low, historically speaking.

What’s all the more remarkable about Trump’s blast crater of an approval rating is that it occurs at a time when traditional economic indicators are performing strongly–which means public distaste for Trump is intensely focused on him, and to a large extent on modern Republican policy and culture in general.

And, importantly, the fallout of the Mueller report does seem to be taking its toll. Trump’s approval rating did not improve as a result of the wildly misleading Barr letter, but it has dropped several points after the release of the full (though notably still redacted!) Mueller report. And there is good reason to believe that further revelations about both obstruction of justice and the Trump Organization’s financial underbelly will do even further damage. Meanwhile, both the 2018 election and recent polling show that Trump will have a difficult time holding onto Michigan and Wisconsin, even as he will struggle to maintain control of some previously reliable red states like Arizona and Georgia, as well as eternal swing states like Florida. And nearly every poll shows Trump losing to almost every Democratic challenger.

In other words, there is good reason to believe that Democrats, after underestimating Trump in 2016, may be overestimating him now. Most of Trump’s base will stick with him, true–but his base is shrinking with every passing day, and he needs to grow it past where it was in 2016 just to keep up with increased Democratic enthusiasm and general demographic change.

And while Democrats do need to do a better job than they have historically done of promoting policies with universal benefits and explaining just how those policies will improve people’s lives, it’s not necessary to only focus on those things. Trump is in a weak position overall, and focusing on his wrongdoing is an effective strategy. The public has the bandwidth to pay attention to both.

And, importantly, it’s the right thing to do on general principle for the country and for democracy.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.