On November 9, scenes of shock among the crowd gathered for Hillary Clinton’s victory speech plastered televisions and online news sites throughout the country. Many Democrats had taken it for granted that Hillary Clinton, the political giant with a resume more impressive than any candidate in recent memory, would be the next president of the United States, especially given that her opponent was a former reality television star who spouted racist and sexist rhetoric. But something went very wrong for Democrats on election night. Clinton, who held a narrow three-point lead in the polls over Donald Trump a week before the election according to a New York Times poll, found herself losing east coast and Rust Belt swing states so quickly that Trump’s victory became very likely early in the night. Post-election night maps show a nation painted red. Trump won every southern state besides Virginia, most of the Midwest, and almost all the Rust Belt states that are usually steadfast members of the Democratic coalition.
On top of losing the presidency, Democrats failed to break Republican control of both the House and the Senate, and a conservative is likely to be appointed to the empty ninth seat on the Supreme Court, pushing the court to the right. Their losses in the federal government were mirrored in state elections. Republicans now control 33 governorships, the highest number since 1922.
Republicans’ widespread victories were staggering to many Democrats, especially given the narrative that the Republican Party is weakened by infighting. Between the rise of the anti-establishment Tea Party movement in 2009, divisions between Christian, social conservatives and moderate fiscal conservatives, and the ominous rise of the “alt-right”, many Democrats assumed that Republican Party was limping along, especially given the leadership’s failure to nominate an establishment candidate. Additionally, the GOP’s concerted effort to reach out to minority voters after their defeat in the 2012 election was all but reversed by Trump’s blistering and racially charged rhetoric. Astonishingly, despite Trump’s dog-whistle rhetoric about Hispanics and African Americans, referring frequently to “illegal immigrants” and hellish “inner cities”, he actually managed to outperform Mitt Romney in these demographics.
This election cycle illustrates a growing disconnect between the Democratic leadership and its voters. In light of their widespread defeats, the current leadership will likely struggle to maintain control of the party from the more progressive wings who want to push the party to the left. House Democrats recently voted to reelect Nancy Pelosi as House leader after a challenge from a young congressman from the Rust Belt, Tim Ryan, who said that the party was losing its connection to the working class. In the primary, Bernie Sanders exposed a deep animus among progressives toward the party establishment. His platform, which consisted of sweeping campaign finance reform, protectionist trade policies, and robust student financial aid, resonated with young voters and blue collar whites more than the Democratic establishment’s centrist policies. Although the “Sanders revolution” fell flat, progressives, seeing his unlikely success and popularity, are likely to take advantage of public resentment of the establishment and attempt to take the reins of the party. Whether or not they succeed, many voters feel like the Democratic Party has failed them, and it will have to make substantial reforms to earn back their support.
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