In the year since the 2016 election, we’ve never stopped speculating about the reasons behind the results. Twelve months ago, CNN outlined 24 theories of the election, U.S. News and World Report offered a restrained five, and even the British media got in on the act. But it seems that there are as many hypotheses now as there were then.
All elections are subject to interpretation, and developing an explanation for an election outcome is always a political process. But election stories usually fade away as the business of governing takes over. Not so for the 2016 election. Election narratives continue to play a recurring role in President Trump’s rhetorical strategy (to the extent that it’s a strategy). And what people believe about why Hillary Clinton lost to Trump has the potential to shape both parties going forward. Here’s a look at just how this election has lingered, and why.
Trump has been preoccupied with the election result
Throughout 2017, Trump has talked about the “reason I was elected” and connected that to policy aims. This is a pattern that’s proven durable throughout American history: From Andrew Jackson to Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, presidents have tended to talk about having a mandate when they’re pushing the boundaries of the presidency or they need to defend themselves to critics.
In Trump’s case, just two weeks into office, he used one of his regular radio addresses to defend his executive order establishing the first “travel ban,” with a connection to the election: “The forgotten men and women will be never be forgotten again, because from now on, it’s going to be America first. That’s how I got elected, that’s why you voted for me, and I will never forget it.”
But Trump also does something much less common for Oval Office holders: crow about his electoral victory. One of Trump’s favorite lines in speeches last spring was some version of, “We may not have had a path to 270, but we had a path to 306.” (Trump’s claims to an electoral mandate have themselves had some unusual elements — he incorrectly stated that he had the largest Electoral College victory since Ronald Reagan. And, technically speaking, he received 304 Electoral College votes, not 306.) He has also brought up the election in some odd contexts, like a speech at the Boy Scouts Jamboree and in response to a question about anti-Semitism during a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Why has Trump’s attention remained on his election longer than his predecessors’? Trump’s idiosyncrasies are surely part of the story. But also, defining the meaning of an election gains special relevance when the legitimacy of the presidency, and the political system in general, is in question — even, possibly, for the president himself. Trump, and Democratic primary candidate Bernie Sanders, spent much of 2016 calling the system “rigged,” and Trump won the White House while losing the popular vote. In the face of those factors, it shouldn’t come as a shock that Trump would want to reinforce his win.
Republicans are facing an identity crisis
Trump may have no doubts about how to interpret his electoral success, but for Republicans on Capitol Hill, it’s been a challenge. It’s not all that rare for a majority party to have some tug of war over priorities, but Trump and the 115th Congress have had a particularly hard time figuring out a direction. One aspect of this has been figuring out whether the 2016 victories translate into public support for the party’s usual policy priorities; support for Trump’s many contrasting stances or personal brand of politics; or merely a rejection of Clinton as a candidate and/or fatigue with Democratic control of the White House. In the last case, the policy implications are a lot more limited.
On multiple occasions during the 2016 campaign, Trump broke from Republican orthodoxy, including on issues such as free trade and health care. His win thus raised questions about what party adherents want the GOP to stand for versus the beliefs of those in power — and who should answer to whom. This is a reflection of the long-standing struggle over the party’s identity and what policies it should advocate.
Not only did the election result not resolve these disputes, but it’s provided an opportunity for a more full-fledged split over policy. There were some claims that the election was a mandate to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but multiple attempts have proven unpopular and unsuccessful. Republican lawmakers have also challenged Trump’s views on foreign policy and pushed back on his approach to the military, including his announcement banning transgender military personnel.
The party has been left with more questions than answers. The GOP-controlled Congress has largely pursued traditional Republican policies. But, again, those efforts have mostly been unsuccessful. Do Trump’s voters want a more distinctly Trumpian agenda? Trump is deeply unpopular, so maybe not. But if that’s the case, then what do they want the Republican Party to do?
The Democrats have an identity (politics) crisis, too
For the losing side, figuring out what went wrong and reconsidering its policy positions, campaign practices and internal procedures is a normal preoccupation. Clinton herself has weighed in, publishing a book succinctly titled “What Happened.” Her own explanation emphasized sexism, as well as Russian interference, media narratives and, in some cases, her own statements.
As part of the effort to reconsider the agenda, we’ve seen Democrats move left on policy issues since the campaign, especially single-payer health care. And in the category of addressing internal procedures for selecting candidates — deciding “who will run the party and how,” in the words of political scientist Phil Klinkner — we saw the struggle over who would become the next chair of the Democratic National Committee. The competition between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota for the top organizational position became a proxy battle for the Clinton wing of the party and that of her primary rival, Bernie Sanders. (Ellison was subsequently appointed deputy chair in an attempt to smooth over the party rift). Last week, a controversial piece by former interim DNC chair Donna Brazile allowed Democrats to revisit some of their 2016 feuds about Clinton’s candidacy.
But more unusual is a wholesale reconsideration of which voters make up the backbone of the Democratic Party. The most explosive and potentially consequential argument about the election result concerns how the Democrats should deal with the party’s loss of support among white working class voters and whether they should overhaul their political game plan as a result.
Historian Mark Lilla, among others, has argued that the party should try to find more unifying themes rather than engage in “identity politics” — a term used to describe political messages designed to stress the concerns of racial and ethnic minorities, women and LGBT Americans. These narratives suggest that the party has gone too far in embracing cultural issues, alienating crucial constituencies, and should instead focus on economic and class concerns.
There’s been considerable pushback against this view, however. The modern Democratic coalition has relied heavily on group appeals to build both a coalition and a political message. Minority voters are a core constituency for the party. A decline in black turnout was as much a part of the 2016 loss as were the party’s struggles with white rural voters. How the Democrats interpret the 2016 loss has the potential to affect what the party stands for, how it campaigns and what kinds of candidates it nominates — not just in 2020, but for decades to come.
Interpreting election tea leaves hasn’t stopped with the 2016 race. This year’s special elections and primaries have taken on new significance as referenda on Trump, the Democrats or the Republican “establishment.”
Indeed, throughout 2017, the public has remained preoccupied with the election outcome. According to a recent poll, 42 percent of voters don’t regard the results as legitimate (a development that is consistent with recent trends of declining voter confidence in the legitimacy of the voting process). Last week’s indictment of Trump campaign officials opens up this line of questioning even further.
Will we be this preoccupied with the 2020 presidential contest? It’s hard to imagine at this point that future elections will have candidates as distinct or outcomes as surprising as 2016. But other considerations suggest that interpreting elections is a way for parties to make sense of their fates and for politicians to respond to declining legitimacy. As long as these factors remain pressing, we might expect election narratives to keep playing a big role.