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What Should Democrats Do Now?

In this week’s politics chat, we assess Democrats’ options after Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome Harry and Clare to our first post-election politics chat! Our dear chat-mate Nate Silver is on a plane right now, so we’re doing this without him. (You both should be 30 percent more media-bashing than you normally would so people don’t miss Nate.)

But here’s our question for today: What the heck should Democrats do now?

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): Eat gallons of ice cream and cry.

micah: They hold very little power at any level of government. Here’s the RealClearPolitics election index, which measures the strength of the two parties by looking at the vote for the president, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House, as well as gubernatorial and state legislative elections:


Republican power has been creeping up all during the Obama administration.

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): Democrats have a problem up and down the ballot.

micah: They’re in the worst position they’ve been in since 1928:


harry: But that index also shows that power tends to swing back and forth. What happens this year is not predictive of what will happen next year.

clare.malone: I think Democrats are going to have to think about what issues they can get things done on with President-elect Donald Trump (they’re reportedly doing just that). They’re in the midst of battling him on what they see as a moral issue, like over the appointment of Stephen Bannon as his chief strategist — given that Bannon ran an alt-right publication that trafficked in white nationalist messaging. But then people like Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who’s hated NAFTA for years and years and years, has already reached out to Trump’s trade people.

So the Democrats are kinda begging for scraps here. I think that might be the nature of the next Congress for them.

But, Harry, you don’t think this loss of power lasts until 2018?

harry: One reason Democratic senators might be more open to working with Trump is because it’s difficult to see how they gain back the Senate in 2018. The map looks downright terrible. They have to defend seats in red states such as Indiana, Montana and North Dakota. The only two real pickup opportunities for them at this point are Arizona and Nevada. They, of course, need three seats to take back the Senate (assuming Republicans hold onto Louisiana in the December 2016 runoff). So I’m not sure the Senate will flip back very easily.

That said, someone like New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, for example, may have an easier run for re-election as a result of Trump’s win. Historically speaking, the party in the White House suffers big time in off-year and midterm elections.

clare.malone: I think that’s totally, totally true with de Blasio.

micah: One of the clearest trends in that RCP chart is that a party tends to gain power while it doesn’t hold the White House.

clare.malone: But does that account for it also not holding either chamber of Congress?

micah: I just think the country is in such an anti-Washington/establishment mood, and Trump/Republicans are now the establishment. So I’m not sure Democrats should freak out. The 2016 presidential election very easily could have gone the other way. It was really close … so a total party makeover might not be called for.

clare.malone: Well, OK, during George W. Bush’s first term, when the GOP had the White House, the Senate and the House, Republicans’ power went up and then down at the end (I think we all remember that …).

harry: The Sept. 11 terror attacks played a big role in that.

micah: I guess my point is just that basically every prediction in U.S. history that a party would have lasting political control has been wrong.

harry: This is a closely divided country. This election was not a blowout. Democrats nearly won the Senate and very nearly won the presidency. Even after being elected, Trump still has a terrible favorable rating.

micah: So maybe Democrats just need a fresh haircut and not a total makeover.

clare.malone: I think that’s true that they don’t need to do a full overhaul, but I think they need to do a MESSAGING overhaul.

micah: OK, so let’s break this into three parts:

  1. Policy
  2. Coalitions
  3. Messaging/messengers

There’s obviously overlap between those three, but let’s do No. 1: Is there evidence that Democrats need to rethink their platform?

harry: What was the policy position that hurt Hillary Clinton?

clare.malone: No one talked policy! People shouted “trade reform!” and that was about it.

micah: Well, should they adopt more populist positions like trade reform? Basically, should they go full-on Bernie Sanders?

clare.malone: Oh man.

micah: So, for example, should Democrats advocate for having the government pay tuition for all students at public colleges, rather than pushing for more marginal measures aimed at making college more affordable?

harry: Maybe — but that’s like saying you need more salt in your soup and then dumping a sodium mine on it.

clare.malone: I don’t know — I think that over the next few months, it’ll be interesting to watch how much power the progressive — Sanders/Elizabeth Warren — wing of the party wields, especially on Chuck Schumer’s Senate leadership team. Warren and Sanders have a lot of clout. You could definitely see the Democrats move in a more trade-protectionist direction with them.

But I think there’s such a huge difference between the nuance of trade negotiations of the kind that politicians actually engage in and campaign rhetoric. Frankly, the elimination of these trade agreements would be a process with a capital “P.”

harry: Let’s take a look at the 2016 exit poll: There was a question about the “effect of international trade,” and a plurality (42 percent) said it takes away U.S. jobs. But more people said it creates jobs (38 percent) or doesn’t affect jobs (11 percent).

I should, however, point out that the “takes away U.S. jobs” figures were higher in some traditionally blue states that Trump won, Michigan and Wisconsin, but not that much higher. It was considerably lower in Florida. So a mixed message.

micah: OK, so it sounds like we don’t think Democrats need a major policy re-write.

No. 2: Do Democrats have a coalition problem? A lot of post-election analysis has basically set up the Democrats’ choice as between courting non-white/college-educated voters and making more of a play to white voters without a college degree. That seems like a false choice in a lot of ways.

harry: Who says you just need to go after one voting bloc? You probably cannot gain a ton with both, but different states require different messaging.

micah: But it does seem like some Democrats had believed that the country’s growing diversity would guarantee them a winning coalition. That always seemed wrong, and especially does so now. But do they need to make more of a play to working-class whites?

clare.malone: Short answer: Yes, they do. But that doesn’t mean abandoning minority voters.

harry: What they cannot do is ignore whites without a college degree. Clinton didn’t visit Wisconsin once. She made only a last-minute push in Michigan.

clare.malone: Appeal to the “working class” is an economic message, not a racial one. The working-class in America is very much filled with minorities AND whites.

harry: And keep in mind, Clinton did better with lower-income voters than she did with upper-income voters, according to exit polls.

micah: OK, and this gets us into No. 3: Messaging. Some people are suggesting that the Democrats’ focus on things like transgender rights and police violence is alienating culturally conservative whites. IF that’s true, then they do face somewhat of a choice.

harry: I think the biggest problem was that they didn’t talk about economic stuff anywhere near enough.

clare.malone: Yeah. Here’s what I’ll say: Things like the North Carolina bathroom bill were just a mess for both Democrats and Republicans. But I think Democrats need to realize that there’s a balancing act to be done and that they need dynamic figures in the Sanders/Warren vein to be out there hammering home an economic message. The civil rights issues that the Democrats have championed over the past decade are definitely key to the party’s identity, but they may have lost ground in the battle of getting out their economic message to their traditional constituencies.

That’s why you see someone like Tim Ryan challenging Nancy Pelosi for the House leadership position. He’s a younger guy from Niles, Ohio (home of the excellent minor league team the Mahoning Valley Scrappers), and he’s been out on the Morning Joe circuit talking “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

harry: OK, here’s a statistic.

clare.malone: ooooh рџ“€

harry: In 2012, President Obama won 81 percent of those who said having a president who “cares about people like me” was the most important quality. In 2016, Clinton won just 58 percent of those voters. I think that speaks to a messaging problem, yes. But it speaks more about how certain voters felt the economic message of Clinton didn’t speak to them like Obama’s did.

micah: So maybe it’s more of a messenger problem, rather than a messaging problem?

clare.malone: Yeah. I think so.

harry: I mean it’s difficult to separate the two.

clare.malone: I don’t know. … Obama came in with a relatively outsider message. He came in and was making big steps to help in a financial crisis. He had both those things going for him. Clinton came up as an insider, and, frankly, Sanders stole the economic-message thunder. I think she was crippled by that primary, looking back, in bigger ways than we might have realized.

harry: I found the whole thing amazing that Clinton in 2016 lost many of the voters she won in the 2008 Democratic primary.

micah: When she was running against Obama.

clare.malone: Yeah. That’s true!

harry: And Obama won many of the voters in the 2012 general election that Clinton lost in 2016. It’s dizzying.

clare.malone: Well, it’s because they were still on “Team Democrat.” Then “Team Democrat” started to shift under people, as Trump stirred up that white-working class coalition.

micah: I think of all the Democratic “problems,” the realest might be their messenger problem. They just don’t have a ton of talented politicians ready to lead the party. Pelosi is still leading them in the House. Schumer has taken over for Harry Reid in the Senate. They don’t exactly scream “future.” But someone could come out of nowhere.

clare.malone: If only the Kennedys hadn’t gone downhill.

harry: This is why 2018 is so important for Democrats. They need to win governorships and fast. They need to win state legislature seats and fast.

clare.malone: Yes. Agree on both counts, perhaps more so with the state legislatures? They need to get talent spotting ASAP.

micah: Also, for the 2020 Census.

harry: Because that will give Democrats more power in redistricting. Which will then allow them to have more of a bench in the House.

micah: And if they get power at the state level, they can try to make voting easier.

clare.malone: “Text your vote!”


micah: I basically subscribe to the theory that the Democrats don’t have a major problem. Or that all their problems are marginal. They need a little better messaging, a little better messenger. Maybe they should tweak a couple of parts of their platform, emphasize economic mobility a bit more. They need a big tent so that more conservative Democrats can win in rural areas.

harry: Remember when Bush won a second term in 2004? Democrats picked Howard Dean to be the Democratic National Committee chair. Democrats then went on a tear. Things change.

micah: Yeah, I think the “DEMOCRATS SHOULD TEAR IT DOWN AND START OVER” arguments are as wrong as they were then. And those takes read too much into this one presidential election.

clare.malone: Yeah … but personnel change is still a big project. State legislature change is still a big project.

These are big projects.

micah: Very true. But those are things they had to do even if Clinton won.

OK, final thoughts?

harry: I guess my final thought is beware of the conventional wisdom. Democrats hold little power right now, but that could change in a jiffy.

clare.malone: I guess my final thought is that while “messaging” might seem superficial, it’s not. It’s not a simple fix for the Dems.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.