Nearly two years after the election of President Donald Trump, a comforting, yet dangerous, fantasy pervades liberal thought about the 2016 race: That Hillary Clinton not only could’ve won, had she made modestly different choices and that, by all rights, nearly any other Democrat could’ve beaten Trump. As New York Times reporter Amy Chozick (echoing numerous other pundits) describes it in her new book about the campaign, it should have been a cakewalk — the “most winnable” race ever
This is a comforting thought for Democrats in the Trump era, because it means that, if they merely run a different candidate in 2020, then victory is essentially assured. But it’s actually a dangerous fallacy: Donald Trump was and is an unusual candidate with a lot of unprecedented liabilities, for certain, but he also had some real strengths. Beating him as an incumbent president will require facing the latter head-on, not simply fixating on the former.
The idea that beating Trump should have been easy took hold because it seems intuitively right to some people — even today, it can be hard for educated liberals to take the idea of President Donald J. Trump seriously.
Any election decided by the kind of razor-thin margins the 2016 presidential election was, by definition, winnable by either candidate.
And there is some margin of truth to it: Any election decided by the kind of razor-thin margins the 2016 presidential election was, by definition, winnable by either candidate. And while it is impossible to explore a counterfactual with any real certainly, it is perhaps possible that different choices by the Clinton campaign could have captured the Electoral College, or that another Democratic candidate (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, etc.) could have won the race.
But the idea that the 2016 election shouldn’t have been close at all — which is at the heart of this idea — is itself counterfactual. The exceptionally high levels of partisan polarization in the last decade inherently puts a high floor and a low ceiling on the number of Electoral College votes even a weak candidate can obtain. In 2008, John McCain (running an unenergetic campaign in extremely unfavorable conditions for the incumbent party with a disastrous vice-presidential pick, against an uncommon political talent running a nearly flawless campaign) still got 46% of the popular vote and 173 electoral votes. For Clinton or some other Democrat to have won in a landslide would’ve required significant numbers of Republican voters to desert Trump in her or his favor. That didn’t happen in 2016 and, barring something akin to a complete economic collapse, it won’t happen in 2020 either.
The idea that a Democrat should’ve been a shoe-in in 2016 also reflects deep denial among mostly white liberals about the continuing potency of appeals to white supremacy in American politics. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put in his coruscating election post-mortem, “The First White President,” “[t]he scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness.“ Trump rose to prominence in Republican politics by popularizing racist conspiracy theories, including the false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. And then, starting with the opening day of his campaign — when he attacked Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and “rapists” — Trump abandoned the coded racial appeals of post-Goldwater Republican presidential candidates in favor of explicit racism.
The idea that a Democrat should’ve been a shoe-in in 2016 also reflects deep denial among mostly white liberals about the continuing potency of appeals to white supremacy in American politics.
Trump’s crude racist appeals carried political costs as well as benefits, and the coalition he assembled wasn’t significantly larger, numbers-wise, than Mitt Romney’s losing one. But by effectively swapping whites with college degrees for whites without them, Trump assembled a coalition that allowed him to capture several key Rust Belt states, which was better suited to winning the Electoral College (and thus the presidency) than Romney's was.
In the much longer term, demographic changes may allow the Democratic Party to counter this by winning states like Georgia, Arizona and even Texas (especially if the Republican Party continues to alienate Latinos). But in 2020, Trump’s marginal voters will remain overrepresented in the Electoral College and therefore a major issue for the Democrats.
Another reason that instinctively it seemed to liberals and the media that 2016 should have been easy is Hillary Clinton’s greater record of accomplishment in public service compared to Trump: Remember, of course, that Obama’s lack of a national record of accomplishments was a major campaign issue in 2008. But — especially with potential 2020 Democratic candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — it must be remembered that gender hierarchies confound such comparisons. As Rebecca Traister of New York observed in her own shattering postmortem, a “competent woman losing a job to an incompetent man is not an anomalous Election Day surprise; it is Tuesday in America.”
Even before they become presidents, American culture codes rich white guys in suits as competent irrespective of the evidence, while being suspicious of ambition and accomplishment on the part of women.
Even before they become presidents, American culture codes rich white guys in suits as competent irrespective of the evidence, while being suspicious of ambition and accomplishment on the part of women. This absolutely does not mean that a woman should not be the Democratic nominee in 2020 or that sexism cannot be overcome — but it should be clear to Democrats that, if greater qualifications for the office were insufficient before Trump was president, they won’t be enough to beat him after he’s served four years in it.
Whomever the eventual Democratic candidate is will need to do two big things: Put together an appealing policy agenda, and look ready to fight for it. So far, the work being done by potential 2020 candidates has been promising. For example, Gillibrand has been strongly touting her longstanding support for Medicare for all, while her consistent opposition to Trump’s nominees reflects an understanding of the Mitch McConnell-era of American partisan, obstructionist politics. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., proposed a federal job guarantee even before Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., did.
And the progressive economic agenda promoted by Sanders — who has yet to say he won’t jump in the 2020 race — galvanized a lot of support in 2016. The Democratic nominee in 2020 will almost certainly run on a similar agenda, which should look good in comparison to a Republican Party that will still be Rep. Paul Ryan’s, R-Wisc., even two years after he leaves the speakership. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, there is no evidence that a progressive economic platform doesn’t appeal to the educated suburbanite voters most likely to be disgusted by Trump.
But it would be a mistake to think that running on attractive economic agenda can, in itself, make the election “about economics” and disarm Trump’s powerful appeals to white identity.
But it would be a mistake to think that running on attractive economic agenda can, in itself, make the election “about economics” and disarm Trump’s powerful appeals to white identity. As Coates argued, economic issues cannot be neatly isolated from so-called “identity politics” — which is one reason that many people who support programs created and expanded by Democrats but opposed by Republicans nonetheless vote for the latter party.
The Democratic nominee will thus also have to emphasize the threat Trump poses to vulnerable populations and mobilize the nonwhite base of the party. Fortunately, the leading potential candidates for the nomination seem to understand this, going off of Sanders’s successful recent appearance in front of a predominantly African-American crowd in Memphis to Gillibrand’s vigorous advocacy for victims of sexual violence and harassment to Booker’s leadership on criminal justice issues.
In short, the Democratic field seems to be reacting to the shocking loss in 2016 the right way, by recognizing Trump’s weaknesses and how to exploit them, rather than rehashing Clinton’s potential campaign errors. But make no mistake: Unseating Trump will be far from easy, just as besting him was terribly far from preordained.
Scott Lemieux is a lecturer in the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. He is the co-author of Judicial Review and Democratic Theory and contributes regularly to The Week, Reuters and the New Republic.