Democratic Party Faces Tough Questions in Defeat, With Few Answers

Clinton’s loss draws more attention to Bernie Sanders’ competing theory: to reach voters on the basis of their socioeconomic class, which cuts across identities and seeks a mandate for progressive change.

Election Upset: What Happened in the Rust Belt States?

When Democrats woke up to a President-elect Donald Trump on Wednesday, another harrowing reality began to sink in.

The most stunning political upset in American history shattered the last seemingly safe vestige of Democratic power: the White House. In recent years, the party has been decimated in governor's mansions and statehouses, and has lost both chambers of Congress. But demographic trends also appeared to give them a presidential edge. 

Yet the "rising American electorate" of Latinos, African-Americans, millennials and unmarried women that powered President Barack Obama to two victories has proven to be fickle and unreliable when he is not on the top of the ticket. Their poor turnout for Hillary Clinton dashed her hopes and helped Trump bust up the party's so-called "blue wall." Trump won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—three Rust Belt states that haven't voted for a Republican since the 1980s.

In fact, Democrats have won just one election in the 21st century without Obama's name on the ballot — the 2006 midterms, when voters rose up against the bloody occupation of Iraq.

"We’d be foolish not to question every assumption we’ve made about how Democrats win," said Faiz Shakir, a senior adviser to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid.

Another senior Democratic operative said that party sages remain shell-shocked by the magnitude of Tuesday's disaster, putting postmortems on hold at least for now. 

Steve Schale, a Florida-based Democratic strategist, said personalities aside, there were echoes of the 2004 loss this year. "We got absolutely just crushed in exurban and suburban counties."

Schale said the assumptions about Clinton a more diverse electorate and turnout among people of color were right in many cases but more than offset by Clinton getting a lower share of whites than did Obama.

For years, Democrats have thought the best way to appeal to voters is on the basis of identity — their race, color, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Bill Clinton's coalition in the 1990s seems like a parallel universe in comparison to his party today. Twenty years ago, he carried Pennsylvania by 10 points; Hillary lost it by 1 point. Bill won West Virginia by 15; Hillary lost it by 42. Bill won Louisiana by 12; Hillary lost it by 20.

Clinton's defeat will draw more attention to her opponent Bernie Sanders' competing theory: to reach voters on the basis of their socioeconomic class, which cuts across identities and seeks a broad mandate for progressive change.

The self-described democratic socialist presented himself as the candidate who would upend business-as-usual and jettison the party's neoliberal, corporate-friendly policies to spark a "political revolution" against "billionaires" and "oligarchs."

Yet while political elites were preoccupied with discussing the GOP's problems among minorities, Trump was barnstorming the country scooping up millions of white working-class voters who used to be the life blood of the Democratic Party.

Trump's victory was fueled by a backlash among whites, particularly men without a college degree, against a diversifying country with more immigration and a globalizing world with more trade. He won a shocking 72 percent of non-college white male voters, according to exit polls reported by CBS News. At the same time, he slightly outperformed Mitt Romney with the Latinos and African-Americans that turned out.

"Sometimes politics is simple: Democrats did not show up to vote and now Trump is President by getting the same number of votes as [Mitt] Romney," former Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote on Twitter.

Democrats' aging leadership and depleted bench raises tough questions about who will be their next standard-bearer. A Bloomberg Politics poll last month showed that if Clinton were to lose, 32 percent of Democrats want her to continue to be the face of the party, just above the 31 percent who said Sanders, and the 23 percent who wanted Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator and Wall Street crusader.

The dilemma comes as Democrats are on the cusp of a congressional shift with Senator Chuck Schumer expected to succeed the retiring Reid. When Clinton delivered her concession speech before a tearful crowd of staff and supporters Wednesday in New York, behind her stood former President Bill Clinton, who looked pained and exhausted as his wife congratulated Trump and urged Americans to give him a chance to lead.

It was no longer his party.

—With assistance from Margaret Talev.

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