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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Skocpol and Judis: An Exchange on the Presidential Election Outcome

Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com, presents an illuminating exchange of views on the presidential election results between two of the sharpest progressive thinkers, John Judis and Theda Skocpol.

Responding to Judis’s earlier TPM post, “Why Trump Won – And Clinton Lost – And What It Could Mean for the Country and the Parties,” Skocpol writes:

John, your piece is an elegant example of a genre of post-election autopsy that works no better, I fear, than those polling models.

You offer speculative interpretations of exit poll responses (known to be problematic data) presented as margins for various voter blocs in an aggregate national election. A lot of creative argument that HRC was a poor candidate because voters did not hear the economic message you wish she had delivered. Two problems: national polls showed that voters said she was better than Trump on plans for the economy. That is a small problem, however, because virtually no real policy discussion occurred in this election. Second, huger problem: HRC actually won the national aggregate election you are imagining in the TPM piece by a whopping 2.5 million or more votes. If America were what you measure here, she would be President-Elect.

Judis believes that Skocpol underestimates the public opinion reaction to the economic hollowing-out in rust belt states. As Judis writes,

If you look at a map of where the U.S. has lost manufacturing jobs since 2000, the two leading places are Michigan and North Carolina, and not far behind are Ohio, Pennsylvania (especially in the western half), and Indiana – all states that Trump won, and in the case of all but Indiana, states that Democrats campaigned in, and had won in the past. They are states where many of the voters blame trade and runaway shops — two of Trump’s big issues — for the loss of their jobs.

I haven’t seen any polls asking residents of once-thriving, but now depressed former factory towns in the Rust Belt how they feel about the presidential candidates. But Nate Cohn notes further at The Upshot,

Youngstown, Ohio, where Mr. Obama won by more than 20 points in 2012, was basically a draw. Mr. Trump swept the string of traditionally Democratic and old industrial towns along Lake Erie. Counties that supported Mr. Obama in 2012 voted for Mr. Trump by 20 points.

Skocpol is correct that polls show voters liked Clinton’s economic views better and that policy discussion was weak throughout the presidential campaign. But Trump and the GOP nonetheless succeeded in branding in the minds of millions of voters the image of Clinton as a ruling-class elitist, who cozied up to Wall Streeters. I heard some media-driven version of that throughout the long campaign, even in “liberal” media — despite the fact that Clinton supported clear, strong positions favoring Wall St. reform and against off-shoring jobs.

Regardless of how accurate was the meme, it was repeated ad nauseum until a critical mass of persuadable/lazy voters bought it. That’s not to say a majority of white working-class voters believed it. But it sure looks like a lot of them did.

Further, Clinton certainly should have been considered much more “trustworthy” than Trump on these concerns, given both his lengthy track record of screwing workers and his daily whoppers and contradictions. His campaign will hold the Pinnochio record for a long time, but none of his supporters seemed to care much. They wanted their anger at liberal failures vented, and Trump delivered. Never mind the fact that it was almost completely Republican obstruction that prevented any hope of forward progress.

Trump and the Republicans were able to do this by deploying ‘the big lie’ repeatedly. In one of  the most compelling insights of the exchange, Skocpol notes,

Previous work shows that Trump voters are NOT disportionately affected by trade disruptions, factory closings, etc. What is more likely is that these nonmetro areas had organized networks – NRA, Christian Right, some RNC and Koch network/AFP presence – that amplified the right media attacks on HRC nonstop and persuaded many non-college women and some college women in those areas to go for Trump because of the Supreme Court…HRC’s narrow loss was grounded in this absent non-metro infrastructure – and Dem Party losses in elections overall even more so.

There is no question that the Republicans have a louder echo chamber, as Skocpol cites, in their “longstanding natural organized networks” that penetrate into the rust belt and heartland, more extensive, disciplined and cooperative than the Democratic hodgepodge of single-issue constituent groups concentrated in coastal areas. The conservative organizational commitment to meme repetition is enviable, and the 2016 campaign shows the power of it. Repeat the big lie often enough and resistance to it eventually evaporates, especially when it goes unchallenged. It’s a scary phenomenon, and Democrats better find a creative way to address it.

Skocpol’s reminder that “HRC actually won the national aggregate election you are imagining in the TPM piece by a whopping 2.5 million or more votes…If America were what you measure here, she would be President-Elect” may be scant comfort in light of the fact that Clinton lost the electoral college majority. But it is worth repeating every time Trump or his minions try to infer that he has a genuine mandate.

Democrats should leverage the moral advantage that can be gained from reminding the public of the injustice that that the nation-wide popular vote margin, no matter how large, is irrelevant in selecting  America’s chief executive. Two million votes isn’t chicken change, and every Democrat called on to comment should say so until it sticks. It won’t give Dems back the white house; but it could help to prevent a stampede to repeal some Democratic reforms.

The Republicans got off easy in 2000. This time their presidential candidate will lose the popular vote by at least four times Gore’s popular vote margin, and Hillary Clinton’s popular vote edge will be greater than that of both Presidents Nixon and JFK. If Democrats let the public forget that, Trump and the GOP will be emboldened to eradicate all of the hard-won reforms Democrats have achieved in the 21st century — and maybe more.

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