Remember all those posts explaining how the Democrats had a demographic lock on the Electoral College? Yea, well I have some unsurprising news about that.
A careful look at the numbers reveals some insights into how the Blue Wall failed Democrats in 2016. It seems to come down to a single conclusion – Democrats did not effectively communicate a message to their base, white, black or otherwise, to persuade them that the party would take their concerns seriously.
One can acknowledge the way Trump has stirred our darkest national demons without losing sight of a critical reality. Trump’s support among racist groups is not what put him over the top. Critical to the GOP victory was this small, but crucial fraction of Obama voters who switched their support. These voters may be comfortable enough with racism to elect Trump, but they enthusiastically supported a black President when they thought he was going to drop a hammer on Wall Street banks. When he failed to do that, they began to drift away. Combined with softening enthusiasm from black voters who turned out in lower numbers than expected, these white swing voters doomed the Clinton campaign.
Erie County supported Obama by a 20-point margin in 2008. That margin dropped by a quarter in ’12. This year Trump carried the county.
Trump’s appeal certainly stirred a white nationalist element that had never felt represented in the past, but that fraction of Trump voters who had supported Obama must have been moved by another force. Ask blue collar voters in this region what the Obama Administration accomplished for them and even among committed Democrats answers are vague. What did they expect from Clinton? More of the same. Democrats’ steadily declining support among this thin tier of the blue-collar vote is the political dynamic that eventually broke the Blue Wall.
There was ample good news for Democrats in the 2016 results, but without some coherent vision it won’t matter. Clinton was remarkably popular in suburbs everywhere, even across the South and especially in Texas and Georgia. Trump is on track to finish this race with a lower popular vote percentage than Romney, and will possible reach McCain’s level by the time the last ballots are counted in California. Republicans won the generic national Congressional ballot with barely 51%. The last two Republican Presidents will have assumed office while losing the popular vote, finishing with 47% and 46% of the vote respectively.
More ominously, we haven’t seen such low levels of ticket-splitting in a national election since the decade before the Civil War. We no longer have two national parties, but rather two regional parties. This is not healthy. Three of our last four Presidents have assumed office without winning a popular vote majority, a streak we haven’t seen right after Reconstruction.
My estimate that Clinton could continue to hold enough blue collar white Obama voters in blue states was simply wrong. Declining enthusiasm in general and the alienation of rural and small town white Democrats gave Trump just enough of an opening to climb into the White House. I got it wrong.