How Democrats defeated themselves – Seite 1

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What fueled Trump's improbable victory was a profound sense among working class White voters that the United States is losing control of its borders, its basic identity and its ability to generate good jobs that deliver decent wages to ordinary Americans. Trump engaged with voters on the topic of how global economic forces are changing America. Trump's recognition that this is a major concern for many Americans gave him a powerful message that allowed him to win states that have traditionally voted Democratic for President, and it allowed him to overcome significant concerns Americans have about his judgement, qualifications and even character.

Trump's victory should be a major wake-up call for the Democratic Party because it demonstrated deep-seated hunger among American voters for leaders who will address voter concerns about their future – and their ability to get good jobs in the future. While there are clearly uglier aspects to Trump's appeal, I believe this core appeal will continue to win support for Trump (and by extension other Republicans) if Democrats fail to engage in this conversation with voters.

Trump did not win the most votes; Hillary Clinton won at least 1,5 million more votes than Trump. And Trump did not win over the public on many of his signature issue positions per the election day exit polls. But Trump won the most votes in three traditionally Democratic states, while Clinton won the most votes in three states that are traditionally "swing states" (she won Colorado, Virginia and New Mexico – states that are not traditionally reliable for Democrats). Why did these states shift? The answer lies in their demographics. Among the electoral "battleground" states, Trump won three states that are low on diversity and high on non-college White voters while Clinton won states that are high on both diversity and on college-educated White voters. In short, the American electorate divided significantly by both racial lines and by education level. 

There were other changes in the electorate if you compare 2016 with the Obama-Romney contest of 2012 but they are less significant. For instance, the percentage of the electorate that identify as "liberal" did not change – it was 21% of the electorate in both 2012 and 2016 and Clinton won the same share of the liberal vote as had Obama.

That raises the question – why would the electorate divide along educational level lines? What would make a White voter in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania or Michigan who supported Obama (twice) vote for Trump?

One theory about what happened in the elections is that in the three states Trump added to his column, voters supported him because of their "anger" about economic policy such as tax breaks for wealthy people and corporations. If this is true, the path forward for Democrats would be clear: recognize the anger, address the causes of the anger such as a "rigged" or "stacked" political system and a tax system that favors the wealthy. The problem is that if we listen to voters, it's clear that this is not what they voted for in this election.

Twice last year I polled voters to ask their state of mind. I did this in a general election poll of voters in battleground states (conducted for Progressive Policy Institute, or PPI) and in a national poll of non-college White voters (done jointly with Jill Normington for House majority PAC). In both cases, voters overwhelmingly said they described their frame of mind as worried, not angry or optimistic: in the late June survey of White non-college voters, 65% said they are worried about the future of the U.S. economy while 13% said they are angry and 23% said they are optimistic. This data is consistent with what I have been hearing voters say for the past ten years – that they are worried about how changes taking place in the world are leaving them behind. These concerns are most acute among non-college voters.

People still demand industrial jobs

Additionally, the three states that were key to the Trump victory (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan) are currently all governed by pro-business Governors. It seems unlikely that voters in these states elected this type of Governor but are now clamoring for anti-business populism. More likely, they are looking for leaders who will help create good jobs.

Some context on this topic is important. When we asked non-college White voters if they aspire to have a factory job that pays well or an office job with a salary, by a 72% to 28% margin, these voters said they aspire to a factory job. This means that they feel the economy is shedding exactly the type of job that they want. In our PPI poll, we found that by 49% to 40%, voters in battleground states preferred a focusing on increasing the skill level of workers to prepare them for jobs in high-tech manufacturing, as opposed to focusing on bringing back manufacturing jobs that do not require advanced education or training. That means Democrats should engage in a conversation with voters about how to prepare people for the manufacturing jobs of tomorrow. Democrats also need to recognize that for many people offering free college education largely misses the point – they want jobs that do not require college and they do not want to go to college. In other words, many of the voters in question are non-college educated by choice, not because the educational system is rigged or out of reach.  

Voters' concern about the changes that are taking place in America also has a cultural component. When we asked non-college White voters what concerns them, 64% expressed concern about the increasing presence of mosques in America, 57% are concerned that same- sex couples can get married, 59% said they are concerned that White people will no longer be a majority. However, the concern that was shared by almost these voters was economic – 80% were concerned that the rich are getting richer all the time.

So how does this all relate to this year's election? In the exit polls, voters identified the economy as their top issue concern and the same exit polls said that Trump was viewed as better equipped to handle this issue. 

One lesson that Democrats – and all incumbents – need to learn from this experience is that if we do not tell the voters how we are making economic progress, we should not be surprised when voters fail to recognize our economic progress or the work the government is doing to improve the economy. That is one reason why the economy remains the top concern among voters despite the progress of recent years.

Three lessons für Democrats

This is a problem of Democrats' own making. During the entire Obama Presidency, many Democrats have advised Democratic officials to stress the problems in the economy instead of talking about the progress we made. The rationale for this advice is that voters might think we are "out of touch" if we say we are making progress and that is certainly a danger since many people are struggling in today's economy. But because Democrats rarely made a case for how they are providing the change people want, voters give Democrats little credit for the changes that are occurring and underestimate the progress we are making. The Republicans will not make this mistake. In fact, in 2014 when the Republicans won the majority of seats in the Senate their leader, Mitch McConnell claimed that the economy was improving just at the prospect of the Republicans assuming the majority. 

A second lesson we need to learn is that elections are usually about change – even when the incumbent is popular. Even though on election day, 53% of voters approved of the job President Obama is doing, more voters said they were looking for a candidate who "can bring change" (39% said this) rather than a candidate who offers the right experience (21%), good judgement (20%) or who "cares about me" (15%). Clinton won among voters who wanted experience, judgement or a caring candidate but voters who sought change opted for Trump over Clinton by a 83% to 15% margin. At the same time, Clinton got 85% of the vote among those who approved of the job Obama was doing but Trump got 90% among those who disapproved – so Clinton got more of the down-side than upside of the President's popularity.

Ronald Reagan got this right when heading into his re-election he defined himself as the candidate of change. Former President Clinton understood this. At the Democratic Convention, he delivered a significant speech about how Hillary Clinton is a life-long "change-maker" but the theme was otherwise not part of the general election focus.

And in the end, the Clinton campaign was successful at making the case against Trump: on election day, 60% said he was not qualified to be President and 63% said he did not have the right temperament. However, Trump won the votes of about 20% of voters who said he did not have the judgement or temperament needed to serve as President.

Third, we need to recognize that Trump engaged voters on the topic that they wanted to have addressed. His campaign was detoured by countless side controversies but it featured some signature issues: the wall with Mexico, attacking trade, banning either Muslims or people from majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States. The common element between these issues: they relate to America's place in the world and concern that we have lost control over how these changes are affecting our jobs, our national security and to some extent our culture. And Trump's message provided many people with a sense of control. He emphasized strength in both his rhetoric and the way his campaign was staged – big rallies where he would single out people and show his control over others. He said he would save people's jobs and their lives.  He said he would stop bad things from happening. That's a compelling message that clearly resonated with many people in the three targeted states that voted for Bill Clinton, Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama but then voted for Donald Trump. 

Despite this, most voters do not support Trump's agenda. In the election day exit polls, most said they oppose a wall on the border with Mexico, and while many expressed concern about trade, all the other research I have seen indicates that few Americans believe we can be successful without trade agreements. In fact, Trump changed his positon on trade during the campaign from an initial blanket opposition of trade agreements to a more nuanced opposition to TPP and NAFTA. That change never got highlighted during the campaign. 

This election was also not a vote for angry attacks on companies. Many Americans are clearly about American companies that that no longer have loyalty to their employees or strong ties to America. And many Americans want to see stronger accountability in corporate governance and fairness in the tax code. But the bottom line is this – if American's main pre-occupation is in re-establishing job security that means starting by talking with voters foremost about how we can make sure that companies are successful and providing good jobs. Instead, Democrats usually start by talking about corporate accountability, or raising the minimum wage, or increasing taxes on high earners – issues that have plenty of support but that do not tell voters how we plan to create good jobs.

If you go back to the finding that non-college White voters want to work in a factory – they are saying they want to work for a large company. In fact, when in an April battleground state poll, I conducted for PPI we asked if voters agree with several statements, 90% agreed that "it is important to create an environment that allows American companies to be competitive with foreign business." In the same poll, 75% agreed that "to have a strong economy, the U.S. must rely heavily on trade with other countries, which makes trade agreements with other countries important."

Moving forward, if Democrats listen to voters we will hear that many of them are concerned about our place in the world. Donald Trump engaged voters on this topic, heightened their anxiety and told them he will essentially make the changes taking place in the world stop at our borders. It's time for Democrats to fully join this conversation and alleviate people's anxiety instead of just amplifying it. If we do so we will win the hearts and minds of voters who know that America's greatness involves creating good jobs, engaging with the rest of world and competing based on our great workforce, embracing the diversity of our country and creating opportunity that lifts more people up economically.

This text is based on a discussion paper of Progessives Zentrum Berlin.