Looking Back at Election 2016, Part 2

The Washington Post had an article by Callum Borchers about Bernie Sanders on Stephen Colbert’s TV show, where Colbert is trying to draw out Sanders on criticism Hillary Clinton made of his 2016 primary run. Sanders, as usual, kept his response to what he saw as a digression short, noting that Clinton has cause to feel bad having lost the election to the most unpopular candidate ever to have run for the office. Borchers felt this wasn’t sufficient.

Sanders’s response was a bit of a sidestep. He certainly deserves credit for engaging young voters, but he arguably accomplished that goal long before he finally threw his support behind Clinton in July 2016, without actually suspending his own campaign. He didn’t really address the charge that he stayed in the race too long and hindered Clinton’s ability to rally the entire Democratic base.

As Borchers noted elsewhere in his article, Sanders had a purpose in being on the Colbert show, which was to promote his own book. And as anyone who watched Sanders in the debates and in dealing with the press in 2016 saw, Sanders is a master of getting back to his chosen topic in the shortest time possible. This is one reason “the charge” Borchers discusses got short shrift. The other, more cogent reason, is that “the charge” is complete bollocks.

I don’t think any post-election analysis faults Clinton’s rallying of the Democratic base on the numbers. She won the popular vote, after all, and you don’t do that without major support. In 2016, Clinton even got about 90% of the primary voters who supported Sanders then, a major improvement over the 74 to 75% of primary voters Clinton managed to deliver for Obama in 2008, and an indication of the unity of the party’s support. Even those analyses that found issues in change in within-party support, like this one by the New York Times, indicate that the overall effect was small. (And in that case, driven by defectors from Pres. Barack Obama who voted for Trump in the 2016 election. Funny how Clinton did not choose to go after former Pres. Obama over her loss, though multiple analyses point out that factor.)

Why should Sanders address a non-issue, a non-fact?

The real problem now as then is that people forget (as the Clinton campaign often did) that winning a presidential election requires pulling in a chunk of independent voters, not just turning out the party faithful. Gallup polling showed these numbers for the week prior to the general election for party identification of voters: 27% GOP, 31% Democrat, and 36% independent. The entire Democratic base could turn out and a Democratic candidate could still lose in a landslide. Heck, all the GOP voters could abstain and the Democratic candidate could still lose decisively, 46% to 54%. Also, if you aren’t going after those independent voters, they are more likely to consider voting for your opponent.

The Clinton campaign did just fine unifying progressives and the entire Democratic base, despite themselves, and where problems have been identified, they haven’t had anything to do with how long Sanders stayed in the primary race. The failure to capture a good share of available independent voters is the problem of interest, and one that cannot be charged off against Sanders. Winning a presidential election requires at least some coalition-building, some outreach to independents to assure them that the candidate is addressing issues of concern to them, too. Instead, the Clinton campaign’s actual outreach program was based on collecting Republican officials and voters whose dislike for Donald Trump would outweigh their dislike for a Democratic candidate, and a particular Democratic candidate named “Hillary Clinton”, a popularity-contest move without any policy content whatsoever. It should be noted that the GOP-for-Clinton campaign itself was seen as a problem for Clinton’s unification effort on the progressive/Democratic base front, showing that the Clinton campaign at the time could not have had doubts about the completeness of their party unity and progressive integration efforts. That makes trotting it out as a concern at this late date a hypocritical move. The GOP-for-Clinton outreach effort certainly could not have inspired much confidence in independents looking for a sign that the Clinton campaign even acknowledged their existence. Instead of concentrating on unifying Democrats, progressives, and independents at least somewhat skeptical of GOP policies, the Clinton campaign looked to create a chimera forged of Clinton-fans and Trump-haters, no matter how broad the policy gap between those groups might be. It was a doomed effort, both philosophically as just noted, and also numerically, as the proportion of GOP voters even willing to consider voting for Hillary Clinton was a tiny minority at best. One thing that must be conceded about the decades-long program of right-wing animus against Hillary Clinton was its effectiveness within the GOP. But this does not appear to have even been considered within the Clinton campaign, much less conceded.

So I think “the charge” in this instance is a perfect reminder of what went wrong in 2016, a blinkered view of electoral reality that handicapped both pundits and politicians. The contentious primary does not appear to have left any evidence that Borchers or anyone else can muster that there was some measurable out-of-the-ordinary detrimental effect the Sanders campaign had on unifying progressives (Colbert’s question) or the entire Democratic base (Borcher’s charge). Democrats and progressives came together, were with her, and still weren’t quite enough to make up for the plethora of factors that all contributed to the electoral loss. This is mainly because Democrats and progressives are not in themselves an electoral majority, or at least not an electoral college-filtered majority. Until we Democrats get comfortable with the notion that winning requires (1) making ourselves appear useful to at least some people outside the Democratic party who (2) aren’t completely at odds with the Democratic party ideologically, we can look forward to losing more elections and blaming other progressives or Democrats for that outcome, making sure this is a perpetual motion engine that works. At least, it works that way until it grinds to a halt with the friction of realization of the utter irrelevance of a party that doesn’t get its candidates elected from time to time, or it starts doing things a different and more effective way. Asking the right questions about what happened would be a good start toward that more effective political party.

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Wesley R. Elsberry

Falconer. Interdisciplinary researcher: biology and computer science. Photographer. Husband. Christian. Activist.

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