Trump’s election carries lessons for Democrats and Republicans

Trump’s election carries lessons for Democrats and Republicans

Trump’s election carries lessons for Democrats and Republicans
November 14, 2016

This was no ordinary election. The results were a shock to just over half of the electorate who did not vote for Trump. Moreover, as of Wednesday afternoon Hillary Clinton narrowly won the popular vote by 200,904 votes (47.7 percent for Clinton to 47.5 percent for Trump).

First, Democrats were justifiably outraged when Trump questioned in the third debate whether he would accept the results of this election. But now that Trump has carried a majority in the Electoral College, Democrats must accept the results, as Secretary Clinton so graciously stated in her concession speech.

Second, both parties should internalize the core truth of Larry O'Brien's observation that there are "no final victories" in American politics. In victory, the ashes of future defeat can be found in today's flowers and the seeds of future victory lie in the ashes of every defeat. Those elected officials who forget that truth do so at their peril.

Third, I spotted several trends or factors in the exit polls regarding lessons to be learned by both Republicans and Democrats.

Democrats woke up aghast on Wednesday at how effectively Trump had played the identity card with whites, while actually gaining ever so slightly over Mitt Romney's share of the minority vote in 2012.

Trump won white voters, according to exit polls, by 21 percent (58-37 percent) improving the GOP spread among whites by 1 percent over Romney's lead. Trump also won both ends of the equation on the education scale with white voters. Trump carried whites with a college education narrowly, 49-45 percent (a gain of 8 percent for Clinton from 2012) while carrying whites without a college degree by a 67-28 percent landslide (an increase of 14 percent in the spread from 2012).

Trump therefore prospered in the Electoral College, where the share of non-white voters was under 25 percent of the total vote, driven by blue collar voters outside the big cities (e.g., Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin). In retrospect, Trump's winning strategy was always through the Electoral College, not the popular vote.

But Trump's gamble at playing the white card paid off precisely because minority voters, especially Latinos, did not fully repudiate Trump for his anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Surprisingly, Trump cut the Democratic lead among Latinos by 8 percent (he lost by 65-29 percent vs. Romney losing Latinos by 71-27 percent) and Asians by 11 percent (also losing Asians 65 to 29 percent vs. the 73-27 percent spread from 2012). This slight but significant minority bump enabled Trump to avoid losing in North Carolina, Florida and Arizona – three states, which, had they gone for Clinton, would have reversed the outcome in the Electoral College.

But there is a larger lesson to be drawn. The gravitational force in this general election was that whichever candidate the public focused on dropped among moderate independents, especially college educated women (this year's swing voter). James Comey's announcement on the FBI investigation just before Halloween shifted the attention of swing voters irrevocably away from Trump's antics to their mistrust of Hillary Clinton. This hurt Clinton in the suburbs of key Electoral College states (Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, all of which went for Trump).

You can see why in the exit polls along gender gap. Trump added 5 percent to the GOP margin among men (53-41 percent), while Clinton, the first female nominee of a major party, added only 1 percent (54 to 42 percent) to Obama's spread among female voters. Trump carried the suburbs by 5 points (50-45) whereas Obama narrowly carried the suburbs in 2008 and tied Romney among suburban voters in 2012. This swing in the suburbs was fatal to Clinton given the bump in margin and turnout Trump got from exurban and rural white voters.

Had Comey made but one announcement that the emails were looked at and there would be no prosecution, Clinton would probably have won in the Electoral College, because Trump would have remained the center of attention, but her chronic underperformance problems with these key voting blocs would still have existed.

Which directs us to the final lesson to be learned. Democrats must learn relearn how to play the Al Smith card.

As governor of New York, Al Smith learned to knit together larger crazy quilt coalitions on behalf of social justice around industrial reforms (especially women and children) among folks who did not much like to socialize with each other (among the emerging ethnic groups in the early 20th century: Irish, Italian, Eastern European and Jewish voters) in the industrial North and Midwest. Smith did that weaving issue-based coalitions uniting disparate constituencies, rather than pursuing identity politics, given the rivalries within his party's ethnic stew.

Today, the Democrats desperately need to give working-class whites and struggling middle-class white families the real feeling based upon style as well as substance – that they are fighting for them when they speak for social justice. Knitting together the common aspirations of both white and minority working-class voters is essential for the Democrats, without losing in the fiscally conscious suburbs may be a tall order but it is essential for political success in 21st century American politics.

Alternatively, if Donald Trump's Republicans want to prevail in future elections as the minority share of the electorate continues to grow (in 2016, the exit polls revealed that the aggregate minority share continued its growth rate of 2 percent per presidential cycle hitting a 30 percent share), they must show working-class minority families in terms of tone and content that their economic message will be of benefit to their families, and not just white families. Especially since the looming Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress means the GOP will own all that happens over the next two years.

In the final analysis, those pleasantly surprised, as well as those depressingly shocked, by Trump's victory, should remember Churchill's observation. Democracy is the worst form of government except for all others. Both parties’ elected officials and our president-elect need to respect the need to nurture our democracy. They should not presume that bonds won't fray dangerously in our nation.

Because, if our governmental leaders forget that central truth, I believe that the voters will hold them accountable. The old African proverb that Adlai Stevenson brought back from the United Nations is a worthy guidepost: "I have learned that in common places, reason abounds, and that in quiet people there is vision and purpose, and that many things are revealed to the humble which are hidden from the great." Both those who won and those who lost Tuesday's elections would be wise to follow that proverb as a governing creed.

Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany.

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Bruce Gyory
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