Dissecting Election Autopsies
Andrew Broering, Politics Contributor
OPINION - Why did Democrats lose the Presidential election and so many down-ballot races nationally in 2016? In April, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) attempted to answer that question, at least on a superficial level. The introspective report was intended to assuage calls from Party donors in December, when they demanded accountability for what many saw as a wasted billion dollar effort to elect Hillary Clinton and take back control of Congress. The official presentation delivered by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney focused primarily on the DCCC as a fundraising apparatus, how its funds are managed and allocated to locations across the country. It was a surprisingly secret, closed door affair in what mainly involved financial spending information which was for the most part publicly available. The donor audience members were not permitted to have personal copies of the report to take with them. The reason for this may be innocuous (that it’s simply not in the party’s interests to have public discourse over its findings) but some suggest the DCCC is concerned that the few findings unrelated to fiscal matters would embarrass Democrats. According to Politico, “The document is also said to criticize the organization for the lack of diversity in consultants whom the DCCC employs.”
While such a finding is not something the Democrat Party wants associated with them due to the risk of appearing hypocritical on racial and gender diversity issues, it probably will not have much impact outside the liberal base and pundits on both sides of the political spectrum. The focus on fundraising prowess and spending strategy for federal elections in accounting for the 2016 defeat is almost equally misguided. Democrat voters and Democrat-leaning Independents might at least have something to salvage from these election autopsies if at a minimum, they remind the Party establishment of an important lesson: political movements (and the entities meant to advance their interests) are largely sustained through a bottom-up dynamic. Setting a monolithic, across-the-board list of talking-points and demanding Democrat politicians toe the party line on all major issues regardless of local sentiment, is likely to not be any more effective in 2018 and 2020 elections. An establishment lacking passionate grassroots support remains an empty shell.
Instead, listening to Democrat state and local officials in crucial rust-belt swing states where Hillary Clinton lost and encouraging more healthy, vigorous debate during party primaries could be a starting point. The latter would a be constructive if it meant the Democratic Party establishment did not engage in a self-fulfilling prophecy to show bias towards its favored candidate in major primary elections. Nothing bleeds base voter support like Party activists feeling betrayed. The November election showed how it is nearly impossible to encourage a “circle the wagons and support the nominee” mentality in the general election after appearing to stack the deck against those same voters’ preferences during the primaries.
The Clinton Campaign has chosen to go a more limited route. Adamantly refusing to conduct a thorough election analysis, they generally assert that, but for FBI Director Comey’s letter to Congress roughly a week before Election Day and Russian information warfare, the electoral map would have looked considerably bluer. Democrats would have taken back the White House and won enough important Senate races. Although statistician Nate Silver’s analysis provides some modest support for this conclusion, it ignores the substantial ambiguity in his own findings. As the liberal New Republic argues, such self-serving analysis hampers the party’s ability to course-correct politically. The Republican Party conducted similar spending audits and election post-mortems after the 2008 and 2012 Presidential elections. Various Romney campaign officials helped in that effort. The Clinton Campaign’s stubborn posture and refusal to engage in any critical thinking has placed the onus on liberal interest groups, since conducting over ten separate election autopsies, often duplicating efforts to cover the same areas.
Then again, perhaps Republicans should also be engaging in self-reflection. One writer makes a persuasive case that the tried-and-true partisan formula of attempting to obstruct the majority party’s governing agenda will yield the same results for Democrats in 2016 as it did for candidates opposing President Bush in 2006 and for Republicans during the Obama administration. Moreover, the Republican National Committee’s (RNC) 2012 autopsy recommended that the party take a less aggressive tone on illegal immigration and tailor its outreach to minority voters. Primary voters later nominated Donald Trump, the candidate who shortly after announcing his Presidential campaign, referred to illegal immigrants as “rapists and murderers” along with proposing construction of a border wall. Now President Trump has assured so-called “Dreamers” that they can “rest easy” without fearing deportation. Conservatives may debate whether this makes the Republican standard-bearer ambiguous and untrustworthy or shrewd and balanced. It certainly dilutes the effort to determine whether a Presidential candidate lacking Trump’s celebrity status and facing a more popular opponent can launch a successful campaign focused on immigration. Yet, Republicans do appear to have marginally politically benefitted from an RNC-led effort to recruit more minority and women candidates in both national and state-level races.
It may be that both parties are in for a rude awakening. Yes, the voter trend against incumbents seems to weigh against Republicans currently. Conservative radio host Mark Levin might have nailed it when he called the special elections in Kansas "the canary in the coal mine" for Congressional Republicans. There was a similar trend in special elections and gubernatorial recall efforts yielding Republican victories before 2016. If so, Democrats can presume that they will begin seeing an avalanche of Congressional victories without any adjusting of the Party’s messaging or changes allocating more resources to state and local resources. However, Democrats could be making unreasonable and overly broad inferences from these isolated races. Committing to the notion that complete opposition to an unconventional Republican President will reward Democrats down-ballot as well as it did against George W. Bush may not be a solid calculation. All of the daily tactical success in the world can still amount to a strategic failure. Either way, this results with Washington operating business as usual.
You can follow this author on Twitter: @AndrewBroering
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