Understanding the 2016 Election Part III – The General Election

Virtually every major media outlet has given their take on the 2016 Presidential election, to the point where these examinations feel more indicative of each outlet’s identity than any real, comprehensive explanation of the event. Statistics-driven 538’s series focuses on how the rest of the media misinterpreted the polling data, perennial news explainer Vox largely covered the mentality of a confused electorate, Time’s immediate post-mortem reflected the magazine’s bias toward conventional media wisdom, etc. For media organizations, the 2016 election is a grand and complicated Rorschach test: what you see in the pattern is about you, not the pattern.

With this three part series looking back at the election, Torchlight hopes to cut through the distorted, ideology-driven conversation by laying out the facts to draw clear and comprehensive conclusions about the nature and causes of the event.

On Monday, Tom Rich talked about the Republican primary resulting in the nomination of Donald Trump. Wednesday, I discussed the Democratic primary resulting in the nomination of Hillary Clinton, and the series concludes today with Andrew Coleman’s examination of the many significant factors that led Trump to victory and the Presidency over Clinton. We hope you find the series enlightening and clarifying.

– Josh Kyu Saiewitz


I. What Actually Happened?

Democrats are still reeling after their defeat in the 2016 presidential election. Many of us feel like the loss to Donald Trump means that we do not understand our country and that is a far more jarring realization than the political defeat in and of itself. How did we lose to that guy? My goal with this piece is to look at all the factors that led to Trump’s victory in November and what Democrats can do going forward to win elections.

To start, we need to take a look at what happened specifically. Trump won the electoral college, 304 votes to 227 with 7 faithless electors voting for Colin Powell (3), John Kasich, Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Faith Spotted Eagle. He did this powered by narrow victories in three industrial Midwestern states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He won those three states by a total of around 80,000 votes. Meanwhile, the popular vote was a slim but decisive Clinton win of 2.1%: 65,853,516 to 62,984,825, with about 7 million third party votes, the majority of which went to Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson (4,489,221), Green nominee Jill Stein (1,457,216), and independent Republican protest vote Evan McMullin (731,788). At the same time, Republicans won the Congressional popular vote nationwide by 1.1%, 63,173,815 to 61,776,554 with about three million third party votes, mostly going to the Libertarians, independents, and the Greens.

The major conclusion I take from those numbers is that any argument that looks at Hillary Clinton’s loss should also examine why Congressional Democrats underperformed her.

II. The Fundamentals

Political scientists will tell you that the major factor in any campaign for the presidency is not campaigns, or even the candidates really, but what they call the “fundamentals.”  Nate Silver has a good run down of this element in his attempt to tackle the same issue of how Clinton lost. The fundamentals are the political climate entering the election which usually focus on three factors: the economy’s performance, military casualties, and incumbency. The definition of the first varies by model: some just look at GDP growth, while others use the change in GDP in the year before the election. I’ll give a couple examples: In the former if the GDP is growing at 1.5% in the year of the election, that’s not great for the incumbent party. However, if the year before the economy had been in a recession, the latter model would note the significant positive change in GDP and say that was good for the incumbent. Other models use the unemployment rate as a proxy for the same idea. I think the second model is better, because it helps us explain how Barack Obama could win re-election fairly easily despite a relatively weak economy. It was getting better, so voters stuck with him.

Going into the election, things were relatively weak and, importantly, not going as well as they had been in the spring and summer of 2015, as we can see in this chart from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. That created a bad atmosphere for the incumbent party. The third quarter boost and associated gains in real income might have helped, but by the summer, partisan inclinations were starting to harden.

The second element, military casualties, is straightforward. The more of these there are, the worse it is for the incumbent party. This crippled Lyndon Johnson in 1968, for example. For this election, the Military Times lists 24 deaths in 2016 in Afghanistan. Most other American operations were theoretically non-combat adviser roles or air campaigns, which are low American casualty affairs. This was a non-factor, and with the exception of the IAVA forum, neither this nor related issues received much attention.

The third factor, and probably the most important one, is that Americans tend to not stick with the same party in the White House for longer than eight years, especially post-WW2. Since the end of that war, only Truman in 1948 and George H. W. Bush in 1988 have won a third or more consecutive term for their party. Democrats lost in 1952, 1968, 2000, and 2016, while Republicans lost in 1960, 1976, 1992, and 2008. Clinton was working against this headwind and when combined with the mediocre economy, a generic Democrat was probably a slight underdog to a generic Republican. Of course, we got neither in this election.

III. Racism

In his piece looking at the Republican primary, Tom Rich explained how a key predictor of Trump preference in the primary was racial attitudes. The more likely a voter was to express skepticism or hostility towards diversity, the more likely they were to prefer Trump over his Republican rivals. What has been less well documented is that the same pattern held with swing voters who switched from Obama to Trump. Hostility to diversity was a strong predictor of voter defection from Obama to Trump, which were approximately 9% of voters. Meanwhile, the swing voters who switched from Romney to Clinton were more likely to be comfortable with diversity. This indicates that hostility to diversity was a key factor in the decision for the crucial Obama to Trump voters.

Does this mean those voters are unwinnable for Democrats? It’s hard to say. Both campaigns treated race differently than the campaigns of Obama and Romney. Trump was far more hostile towards minority groups, whether it was his taking an extreme line on Mexican immigration, questioning Judge Curiel’s ability to impartially adjudicate a Trump University case, launching his political career by advocating birtherism, or describing African-American neighborhoods as being so dangerous that merely walking down the street was likely to make one the target of gunfire. Republican campaigns have long used so-called dogwhistle politics, best explained by this Lee Atwater quote (warning: racial epithets) about the Southern Strategy. The essential idea is that you use increasingly abstracted issues, like busing or welfare, as stand-ins for outright racism. Trump went back to saying the quiet parts loud, which was different.

President Trump, trailed by senior adviser Steve Bannon, boards Air Force One to return to Washington after spending the weekend at the Mar-a-Lago Club. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


Meanwhile, Obama often relied on his status as a black man to convey messages about racial equality during his campaigns. Examples include brushing off his shoulders or singing a few lines of Al Green. He rarely, with the exception of his
“A More Perfect Union” speech in response to the Rev. Wright controversy, explicitly dealt with race in his campaigns. And that speech was all about unifying his identity as a black man with his identity as the son of a white woman, and particularly as the grandson of white grandparents from Kansas. People read into that an ability to unify and heal the country’s long, sordid history with race (although he discounted the idea in that very speech). What I’m saying is that Barack Obama is an exceptionally skilled politician, not that this is news, and that his concomitant ability to speak to race without triggering too much racial anxiety allowed him to pick up some voters a generic Democrat probably could not.

Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a gifted public servant, but not a brilliant politician. She had the support of the African-American community, but could not count on turnout the same way that Barack Obama could because of the historic nature of his candidacy. Black turnout in Detroit, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Columbus, Chicago, and Philadelphia is a huge factor in whether or not Democrats can win elections in those states, so she needed those turnout numbers. The Obamas as prominent surrogates helped, but Hillary decided–out of political necessity and, I suspect, moral imperative–to highlight cases of racial injustice during the campaign in a way Democrats had not since the 1960s. The “Mothers of the Movement,” women whose children had been killed by police or vigilante shootings, got a prominent speaking slot at the convention, and Clinton frequently used the term “systemic racism,” asking all Americans to examine the way that society, rather than individual racist actions, harms minorities.

It is possible that by addressing these concerns directly, Clinton activated racist sentiments in a way that even a black man running for President did not. Racial anxiety often manifests itself in ways that do not seem predictable, as a study by Ryan D. Enos of Harvard showed. He put a pair of native Spanish speakers on commuter trains in Boston and had them engage in a Spanish conversation. This dramatically changed the opinions of white passengers on immigration compared to commuters who did not witness the Spanish conversation on their morning commute. Perhaps Clinton expressly discussing systemic racism caused a similar occurrence in swing voters? This issue needs further study, but I suspect it is true.

We can see additional support for this theory in responses from whites when Obama did discuss race directly. The most memorable of these situations was the Henry Louis Gates controversy, which ended in the “Beer Summit.”  Jamelle Bouie writes about it for Slate here. What I want to focus on is the poll numbers Bouie cites. Before Obama characterized the policeman’s arresting Gates for breaking into his own home as stupid, Pew had the president’s job approval at 53% among whites and Gallup had it at 51%. After Obama’s comments, both polling operations found his approval dropped to 46%. It would never reach 50% again among white voters, despite his general approval ratings becoming quite high in 2016.

The other way in which race impacted the campaign was through voter ID laws. The Brennan Center for Justice has a report on which states enacted new voter registration laws for the 2016 election. Voter ID laws are legislation seeking to solve a problem, in-person voter impersonation fraud, that does not exist. Again using the Brennan Center, studies have shown that in-person voter fraud,which would theoretically be solved by voter ID laws, has an occurrence rate between .0003 and .0025 percent. It almost never happens and is not swinging elections.

Why are these laws passed, then? To target Democratic voters, especially students and minorities, who are less likely to have photo ID, or at least photo ID the law considers valid. Courts have repeatedly ruled these laws discriminatory. North Carolina’s particularly was called out as being discriminatory in intent. The Shelby County ruling which overturned Section V (pre-clearance) of the Voting Rights Act was a disaster for Democrats. Now voting restrictions have to work their way through the courts before they are struck down, rather than the Department of Justice stopping them before they hurt voters. This effect was likely decisive in Wisconsin, where Barack Obama received 328,090 votes in Milwaukee County while Hillary Clinton received 288,986 and Trump did much worse than Romney. That 40,000 vote gap is larger than Trump’s statewide margin of victory statewide.

IV. Sexism

There is less explicit research about sexism’s impact on the election, which is interesting in its own right, but stories like these are easy to find. They describe swing voters in the key upper Midwest states who did not want a woman to be President, or who categorized women as having qualities we do not associate with leadership. This implicit bias is pervasive in society. Studies show that while about half of us have no preference about our boss’ gender, the other half prefers a man at a 2:1 ratio. This extends across women and men. This phenomenon extends naturally to the presidency.

While there does not seem to be much in the way of explicit linking of sexism to Clinton’s loss, we can conduct a little thought experiment for ourselves that reveals the nature of privilege. Imagine for a moment a woman with Donald Trump’s life story. Inherited her wealth, bragged about her numerous affairs, declared bankruptcy numerous times, lost money at a consistent rate, but had an impressive ability to attract media attention and get herself a reality TV show. That woman would not be a somewhat well respected businessman who could conceivably run for President and end up winning. She would be Paris Hilton.

V. James Comey

FBI Director Comey made himself a part of this campaign twice. The first was during the summer, when he held a press conference indicating there would be no charges filed in connection with Hillary Clinton’s private email server. This hurt Clinton by an average of about two percentage points. However, the story faded as other stories took precedence and her numbers recovered.

The more devastating event was Comey’s revelation that there might be new emails found via Anthony Weiner’s connection to Huma Abedin on October 28, 10 days before the election. This was the single most decisive moment of the election. How do we know? Vox has a great primer here. As they did over the summer, Clinton’s numbers dropped two points nationally and more in the states. Her support collapsed from a lead in the early vote to being crushed on Election Day. It is worth noting that these were two of the three times her numbers dramatically fell during the campaign, with the third being the pneumonia fainting spell on September 11.

We also have this from Brad Fay, whose firm Engagement Labs tracks conversations about brands. What he saw was that most conversations about the candidates were negative, which fits what we know about their approval ratings. Additionally, Trump was consistently more disliked. However, in the closing days of the campaign, after the Comey letter, the numbers suddenly flipped and Clinton was the more disliked candidate. Given how narrow Trump’s victory was, this suggests to me that the Comey letter flipped the outcome of the election.

VI. Russian Interference and the DNC/Podesta Leaks

This is where things get a little murky for obvious reasons. First, let’s establish that almost all analyses of the DNC/Podesta leaks indicate they ultimately originated from Russia. The CIA asserts it is so, as does the most well respected private internet security firm, CrowdStrike. To the best of my knowledge, there is no credible counter explanation.

These leaks purportedly indicated that the DNC was actively working on Clinton’s behalf during the Democratic primary. The claims were dramatically overstated by Wikileaks and people who should have known better, but that was the perception they helped created. This belief was most prominent among liberals who supported Sanders in the primary, for obvious reasons. Most of these voters supported Clinton in the general election. There were some, however, who voted third party, and we have less of an idea of how many of those voters stayed home on Election Day. Could this have swung the election by itself? Maybe, but it’s doubtful.

VII. Third Parties

In CBS’s exit poll (unreliable, but indicative), they asked third party voters how they would have voted in a two candidate race. 60% would have stayed home. 25% preferred Clinton, 15% preferred Trump. This would have flipped Michigan by itself, but it would not have been enough in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania. Third parties did not swing the election by themselves.

VIII. The Media

I’ve already written about the media’s failures in general. This word cloud by itself damns the media’s treatment of this race. What I think is really important is that the DNC leaks and the Comey interference could not have proved decisive without the media enabling them. A proper handling of the e-mail story would have been a few days of coverage, deciding the whole server thing was a red herring, and moving back to covering issues of importance to Americans, like health care or the economy.

The DNC leaks followed a pattern standard to Wikileaks: they hype a story and frame it for the press. Because they release an overwhelming number of documents at once, journalists don’t have time to sort through what’s accurate, and end up adopting Wikileaks’ framing. Such was the case with the DNC hacks, where routine political actions and conversations were portrayed as nefarious, reinforcing the perception that Clinton was untrustworthy and hurting her campaign. Given that her consistently weakest trait was public perception of her as “honest and trustworthy,” this media treatment may have been decisive.

Meanwhile, key Trump stories dominated the news cycle for a few days, possibly as long as two weeks, and then faded into the background in a way the email story was not allowed to. Prominently, the Access Hollywood tape just kind of mysteriously disappeared and did not remain a major issue even though a major party candidate admitted to serial sexual assault before a number of women came forward corroborating those claims and alleging other cases of sexual harassment.. The press was also far too accepting, with some exceptions, of the “locker room talk” defense. We’ll have more to say on this front in a future article.

There was also the media’s fascination with Trump, best encapsulated by this event:

“Last week, none of the three major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC — carried Mrs. Clinton’s speech to a workers’ union in Las Vegas, where she debuted sharp new attack lines against Mr. Trump.

Instead, each chose to broadcast a live feed of an empty podium in North Dakota, on a stage where Mr. Trump was about to speak.”

Coverage was unequal and thus biased against Clinton. She struggled to get her positive message out and this is one reason why.

IX. Flawed Democratic Strategy

Note that literally none of the above contributing factors were really in the Clinton campaign’s control. Yet they still could have won had they swung 80,000 voters total in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and a number of Democrats look at Donald Trump and say it’s embarrassing they did not manage to do so. They point to the Clinton campaign’s strategy and indict them for a profound failure. And they’re not wrong.

The Clinton strategy was essentially to try to win a landslide victory to repudiate the politics that won Donald Trump the Republican nomination. There was a lot at the Democratic Convention focused on traditionally Republican images invoking feelings of patriotism and optimism about the future. Michael Bloomberg was given a major speaking position, and a number of the major speeches focused on themes of inclusion and bi-partisan consensus about everyone being a part of America. The intention was to peel off moderate Republicans, especially whites with college degrees, who were disgusted by the worst impulses of Donald Trump. The goal, in short, was to kill Trumpism, not just defeat Trump. They also hoped that this would create a wave election, giving Democrats control of Congress.

A noble goal, and with a candidate who had not been subjected to twenty years of attacks by the Republican Party poisoning those soft Republicans against her, it might have worked. They had a backup plan, too: in the worst case scenario, they would pick up the West Coast, New England, the mid-Atlantic, and the “blue wall” of the Rust Belt: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, which had all consistently voted for Democrats over the past six presidential elections.

Obviously, both the main strategy and the backup plan failed. The main strategy failed somewhat predictably, as Republicans consistently come home to their candidates on Election Day. Trump did underperform among college educated whites, but not by enough to swing states like Arizona, North Carolina, or Georgia, where the Clinton campaign invested resources. And Trump dramatically over performed among non-college educated whites, who are more common in the industrial Midwest. Why?

A large part is racism, as explained above. But another factor was messaging. Speaking as a Michigan resident, the main Clinton ad we saw looked like this, attacking Trump for being a bad role model for our kids. It didn’t work. Contrast that with the main ad we saw in 2012 from Obama. It used Romney’s “47%” comments to devastating effect. Michigan voters responded to that kind of populism against the rich people they know have screwed them. The other main ad we saw concerned the auto bailout, which makes sense given Michigan’s industrial base. This statement from Trump not appearing in every Clinton ad in Michigan and Ohio is political malpractice: “You can go to different parts of the United States and then ultimately you’d do full-circle — you’ll come back to Michigan because those guys are going to want their jobs back even if it is less.”

The Clinton campaign failed to read the mood of the country, which some read at the time in Trump’s win and Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly strong showing in the primaries. The tools were there to attack Trump on a populist basis, but they chose to attack Trump as a racist, sexist, ignoramus. Which was true, but did not fit the mood of the country–especially the mood of white voters, who still make up a majority.

X. Expectations

Clinton was widely expected to win. This was conventional wisdom in the media, the forecasting services all had her as the prohibitive favorite (though some, like 538, gave Trump a better chance than others). This alone may have lowered Democratic turnout. It also could explain why Clinton did better than Democratic candidates for Congress. Americans like divided government for whatever reason, so there may have been some small but significant subset of people who expected Clinton to win and voted for her (people like voting for winners) while also voting for Republicans down ballot.

XI. The Future

What should Democrats learn from the 2016 election? It is worth emphasizing that most of the reasons for the loss outlined above were not entirely in Democrats’ control and won’t be in the near future. Ending racism and sexism is a societal problem that require governmental action to ameliorate. This is impossible without power, which Democrats need to win elections to acquire. But there are lessons for the party to learn here.

First, sell a positive message for people, not necessarily an abstract message about the country. “Stronger Together” is a great sentiment, but what does it mean for me, the individual? What does it mean about my ability to pay for college for my kids, get good health care, or have a secure retirement? Even a simple abstract message like “Change We Can Believe In” demonstrates this by saying: not what we have right now. This also helps Democrats create investment in the party for their voters. It is much easier to support a party that is selling a message that tells people what they will gain for that support.

A second lesson would be to not appoint Republicans to key positions in government. Comey was in position to sabotage Clinton because Barack Obama appointed him to head the FBI. The actions Comey took were unprecedented and should be investigated for illegally using a government position to influence an election. When Democrats return to power, they should avoid appointing future Comeys, given the long history of partisan interference from Republican officials.

One lesson we cannot “learn” is that we need to pander to racism, or to soft pedal the real problems faced by minorities in this country because we think it might affect our electoral prospects. Besides, the Democratic base is partially or even mostly those same minorities and we need to advocate for their issues just as much as every other issue.

Finally, we should remember that this was a close election and Americans historically turn against the party in the White House, because we are a fickle people. Donald Trump, despite his victory, remains deeply unpopular with a majority of Americans, and unlike most presidents, has not been given the benefit of the doubt by people who did not vote for him. As demonstrated by the way turnout at Congressional town halls helped to stop the AHCA, Trump and his agenda can be defeated. If Democrats harness that grassroots energy, they can win the 2018 midterms and 2020 presidential elections.


Understanding the 2016 Election Part II – The Democratic Primary

Virtually every major media outlet has given their take on the 2016 Presidential election, to the point where these examinations feel more indicative of each outlet’s identity than any real, comprehensive explanation of the event. Statistics-driven 538’s series focuses on how the rest of the media misinterpreted the polling data, perennial news explainer Vox largely covered the mentality of a confused electorate, Time’s immediate post-mortem reflected the magazine’s bias toward conventional media wisdom, etc. For media organizations, the 2016 election is a grand and complicated Rorschach test: what you see in the pattern is about you, not the pattern.

With this three part series looking back at the election, Torchlight hopes to cut through the distorted, ideology-driven conversation by laying out the facts to draw clear and comprehensive conclusions about the nature and causes of the event.

On Monday, Tom Rich talked about the Republican primary resulting in the nomination of Donald Trump. Today, I’m discussing the Democratic primary resulting in the nomination of Hillary Clinton, and the series concludes on Friday with Andrew Coleman’s examination of the many significant factors that led Trump to victory and the Presidency over Clinton. We hope you find the series enlightening and clarifying.

– Josh Kyu Saiewitz


I. The Democratic Primary and Why it Hasn’t Ended Yet

Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.” He might have been talking about the 2016 Democratic primary. The contest for the Democratic party’s nomination for President was an event that should have ended even before it officially concluded with Hillary Clinton on stage at the Democratic National Convention last July; yet it’s still going on. Why?

The fight between the progressive wing of the party, as represented by Bernie Sanders, and the rest of the party, as represented by Clinton during the election and Democratic Congressional leaders since then, has been happening for a long time and probably would not have been fully quelled even in the wake of a Clinton victory in the general. But Clinton’s loss to Trump was a traumatic event ensuring lingering division amid a mood on the left of national PTSD. As Gulf War veteran Anthony Swofford says at the end of the movie Jarhead, “We are still in the desert.” Maybe if we backtrace our steps, we can find a way out. The past may never be dead, but eventually it might at least be past.

II. The Candidates

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton greets supporters after speaking at a primary night party in Columbia, South Carolina, February 27, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Long before she announced, the narrative surrounding Hillary Clinton was that of inevitable ascendancy. Arguably this is the only story the media correctly predicted during the entire 2016 election season, and that’s probably because the one thing pundits consider to be most important–Washington insider perceptions–turned out, for once, to be decisive.

Clinton’s connections to the Democratic party went back decades, from her role as First Lady in Bill Clinton’s administration all the way up to her term as Secretary of State under President Obama. A strong runner-up in the 2008 presidential primaries, when her presumptive nominee status was upended by an upstart Senator from Illinois, Clinton learned the value of heading off strong rivals in advance. Secretary of State was a powerful resume builder for a future run, particularly as foreign policy was something of a weak spot for her in ‘08. Between her experience in government and as a candidate and her party connections, Clinton was so well positioned in the invisible primary (where potential candidates compete for fundraising, staff, and party endorsements) that many who might have been serious challengers decided not to enter the race. (Some of those names were suggested later on as candidates for Vice President, while others are being bandied about already for 2020.)

The result was a field consisting of presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton and a bunch of people who barely deserve the phrase also-rans: Baltimore mayor and character on HBO’s The Wire Martin O’Malley, glass of room temperature tap water Lincoln Chafee (top campaign issue: the metric system), Jim Webb (basically a Republican who wandered onto the wrong stage), and single issue/single term/single serving candidate Lawrence Lessig (an admirable academic and activist who had no business running for office). Thanks to Clinton’s obvious qualities and strong establishment ties, she secured a near insurmountable advantage from the field itself.

But that same situation bred resentment that powered yet another insurgent primary campaign against Clinton. Enter Bernie Sanders.

Bernie Sanders speaks to his supporters during his five state primary night rally in Huntington, West Virginia, April 26, 2016. REUTERS/Marcus Constantino

Hillary Clinton is sometimes called an imperfect vessel for the Obama coalition. To continue the metaphor, Bernie Sanders was also an imperfect vessel, but for a very different group. A 74-year-old Independent Senator (caucusing with the Democrats) from Vermont with a give-no-fucks haircut and self-proclaimed Socialist beliefs, Sanders was a seemingly unusual choice to become the darling of the progressive wing of the Democrat party.

But in reality, all of the things that make Sanders different made him wealthy in the coin of the realm: authenticity. Many Americans, particularly progressives, are frustrated with politics and distrustful of politicians, whom they view as dishonest or otherwise disingenuous. Sanders’ entire career and personality reflected someone who stood by his principles without altering or softening them to win votes. If democratic politics is a mechanism for finding and empowering those individuals who reflect mass trends, Sanders definitely embodied a certain kind of person. According to entrance polls conducted among Democratic voters at caucuses in seven states (check the bottom of the link for the others), Sanders voters tended to be young, white males with an income of less than $49,999 per year who considered themselves very liberal, many of whom identified as Independent rather than Democratic. (One modern political trend has been voters on both sides shifting their political identification from either party to Independent; the vast majority of these vote consistently with one party, making the identification a social label rather than a predictor of swing status.)

The most telling data in those polls, however, are the places where Sanders and Clinton supporters strongly agree and where they strongly disagree. With a few exceptions (income equality being a major one), both candidates’ followers more or less agree with both candidates on the issues, with more than half of polled caucus voters stating that both Clinton and Sanders shared their values.

But massive disagreements arose when it came to character and strategy. When asked what candidate quality mattered most of them, Sanders voters overwhelmingly chose “Honest and trustworthy,” while Clinton won voters who cared most about “Has the right experience,” “Cares about people like me,” and–an issue of strategy–”Can win in November.”

This data lays bare how the two wings of the party found themselves at odds. Policy differences between the two candidates were relatively minor, with Sanders’ positions typically being either identical to Clinton’s, or slightly further left (but less realistic). For example, both candidates were for raising the national minimum wage, with Sanders calling for $15 per hour nationwide and Clinton suggesting a more nuanced policy ranging from $12 to $15 per hour depending on locality. A few issues saw the candidates a little more divided, particularly trade, but for the most part the gap between Clinton and Sanders was a matter of strategy, not ideology. By voting record, both candidates’ Senate records showed them as left of center for the Democratic party (for example, both were further left than Senators Obama, Kerry, and Reid). The chief difference was that Sanders was willing to make Trumpian promises about grand policy initiatives (promising to release more prisoners than exist in the federal system, for instance) while Clinton was more cautious and pragmatic, choosing to sell policy she believed had a better chance of implementation, especially given the possibility of having to work with a Republican Congress as historically obstructionist (or even more so) as they had been under President Obama. In debate after debate, these minor policy differences were exaggerated throughout the primary.

III. The Campaign

Perhaps as a result of there being limited daylight between Clinton and Sanders on policy, the primary race ultimately became about process as a proxy for character–a battle that predicted and even exacerbated the general election contest. Contention is strongest when differences are fewest… which is to say that things got pretty nasty.

The reason that process had to stand as a proxy for character, rather than character dominating the debate directly, comes down to the campaigns’ respective strategies. Clinton’s establishment ties, massive advantage on endorsements, and broad support among the party led her to take a cautious road. Her campaign took few risks throughout the primary, including refraining from going negative against Sanders. (The Clinton campaign had access to significant opposition research it generally declined to use against him.) Her decision was to play to her numerical strengths, particularly among the minorities who represent the broad base of the Democratic Party, and wait Sanders out. By mid-March, she had a near mathematical certainty of victory thanks to a sizeable delegate lead requiring Sanders to win by bigger and bigger margins in order to catch up as the primary process continued.

Sanders, meanwhile, didn’t share Clinton’s advantages and couldn’t afford to play it safe. His early strategy was in a certain sense a rejection of strategy itself–arguably Sanders entered the race intending to get his message out there, not to win, and only shifted his plans once it became clear that there was a significant contingent of the party, mostly the progressive wing, who didn’t like or trust Hillary Clinton and that contingent was large enough to potentially win him the nomination. Early Sanders campaign maneuvers, like his reliance on fundraising from small donors, his pledge to maintain a positive, policy-based campaign, and his dismissal of the emails issue in the first debate on October 13th (“The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!”) helped attract a large and dedicated following.

The Sanders paradox is that he became a real contender to win the nomination by convincingly portraying himself as someone who didn’t care about winning (at least, not enough to make the traditional moves that many in the party had tired of–fundraising from wealthy and corporate donors, attacking opponents on issues of character, etc). But as soon as he started winning, the situation reversed itself, and eventually so did Sanders–for example, by May, when the delegate math was becoming unbeatable, Sanders was calling for more attention, not less, to be paid to Clinton’s emails issue:

“That is something that the American people, Democrats and delegates are going to have to take a hard look at. I mean, everybody in America is keeping it in mind, and certainly the superdelegates are.”

– Bernie Sanders on Face the Nation

This was the period in which Sanders’ candidacy arguably did the most damage to Clinton in the general. Arguably after March and certainly by May, Sanders had virtually no chance of winning the nomination. But he continued to campaign in increasingly strident fashion, focusing on process complaints about the primaries themselves. Some were credible–for instance, how New York’s rules required voters to register too far in advance of the primary–but most were at best overblown. Superdelegates, for instance, serve a moderately valuable role in building consensus and protecting the party from troublesome outsiders like Donald Trump, but like the Electoral College in the general, don’t ever actually swing elections against the will of the voters. Their only downside is that they play into ginned-up perceptions of unfairness.

Supporters cheer as Bernie Sanders addresses supporters following the closing of the polls in the California presidential primary in Santa Monica, California, June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson


And that right there is the problem–the perception of unfairness in the primaries is a festering wound that remains open to this day. The idea that the primaries were rigged was
gleefully picked up by Trump and then “coincidentally” (read: via as-yet-unproven collusion) reinforced by the Russian-orchestrated hacked DNC emails misleadingly released by Wikileaks during the general election. The effect of these attacks in the general remains difficult to gauge, but there’s a reasonable argument to be made that by encouraging mistrust of the Democratic Party establishment, Sanders inflamed existing perceptions of the establishment politician in the race, Hillary Clinton, as equally untrustworthy or even illegitimate as the nominee.

An aside: the corruption insinuations against Clinton by way of delegitimizing her victory in the primary gains an added ickiness from the fact that Clinton was the majority choice of the Democratic Party’s base–ie., women and especially people of color. Sanders, who has long argued that his “revolution” requires the party to embrace the (white) working class and issues of economic inequality over so-called identity politics, certainly continued to run that way during his campaign. This was particularly noticeable in his tendency to answer any question on race by pivoting to his stump speech, arguing that a rising tide lifts all boats–i.e., if we fixed the class divisions in America, it would also heal our racial struggles. This answer is unsatisfying for a number of reasons, perhaps most simply because even within class struggles lies racial disparity. The richest blacks live in neighborhoods on economic par with those of some of the poorest whites, for instance. Likewise, a rising economic tide brought on by a higher minimum wage doesn’t help those who can’t get a job in the first place because their race puts their resume below that of a white person with a criminal record. The conflict between white identity politics hiding behind class issues (racism masquerading as “economic anxiety”) and racial identity politics, nascent in the Democratic primary, would explode in the general and continue to linger on in post-mortems of the 2016 election.

At any rate, the charges that Clinton benefitted from a rigged primary exist despite the basic truth that she was an enormously advantaged candidate due to her experience, policy acumen, and strong appeal to the party’s base in her sales pitch as essentially Obama’s chosen successor. Whether the primaries were rigged or not (they weren’t) is really immaterial, because discounting actual vote tampering (which nobody alleges), Clinton was as inevitable a victor as everyone thought, even if Sanders gave her a race along the way.

IV. The Results

Clinton officially declared her candidacy on April 12, 2015, won 30 primaries and six caucuses, and received 55.2% of the vote, translating into 2,205 delegates and 602 superdelegates. She officially accepted the nomination July 26, 2016 at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

Bernie Sanders officially declared on April 30, 2015, won 11 primaries and 12 caucuses, and received 43.1% of the vote, translating into 1,846 delegates and 47 superdelegates. He officially conceded on June 16 and endorsed Clinton for President almost a month later. Sanders then leveraged his followers to win significant concessions in the party platform at the convention, particularly an emphasis on his plan for free college tuition (without the work requirements present in Clinton’s college tuition plan).

Hillary Clinton went on to a narrow loss in the general against Donald Trump. More on that in Andrew Coleman’s final part in our series, which will post Friday.

V. “Last Year at the Primary”

Sometimes discussing the 2016 election is like watching the 1961 French art film Last Year at Marienbad. The film concerns three individuals, two men and a woman, who travel in endless verbal circles, discussing and analyzing events that took place the year before. None of them can agree even on basic facts, and the repetitive, obsessive nature of their talks eventually makes you question whether reality is fundamentally knowable. In this sense, even the left is now “post-fact,” not necessarily because they don’t believe in evidence but because the primary is the perfect locked box upon which anyone can project their opinions, their beliefs, their damnable counterfactuals. My own analysis in this article is basically accurate, but every line could be disputed by someone more or less sympathetic to either candidate, more or less engaged in the minutiae of who said what and which emails were sent when and to whom. As they say in the film, the discussion itself is a rigged game:

“I have another game to suggest instead. I know a game I always win.”

“If you can’t lose, it’s not a game.”

“I can lose. But I always win.”

This is the same fundamental illogic that underlies the way the primary fight has continued on long after the general. Sanders fans argue that Sanders would have won a fair contest, or that if he won the primary he would have beaten Trump in the general. Just last week, Joe Biden said in a Q&A that he should have ran and might have won both the primary and the general. While I disagree with both those notions, that’s not the point. You can’t rewrite history, and while you’re busy trying, you’re losing the future. The Democratic party desperately needs to agree on a narrative so that it can heal–but like those French aristocrats, nobody can find common ground, even as they all stand in the same room, making new memories that could replace last year’s if only they’d let them.

Nowhere was the issue clearer than in the recent DNC chair election, where progressive Tom Perez and progressive Keith Ellison somehow came to be seen as proxy champions for the Clinton and Sanders wings of the party. Ellison/Sanders supporters argued that he was the only possible leadership, new blood from outside the establishment (Ellison has been in Congress for seven years) to shake up the party after the scandalous (or at the very least, electorally ineffective) chairmanship of Debbie Wasserman Schultz. For their part, Perez/Clinton supporters argued that there was nothing wrong with running against Ellison and that as Obama’s former Secretary of Labor, Perez had progressive bonafides to go along with his support within the party. The entire thing was a textbook case of collectively displaced emotion, Democrats trying to deal with the still unresolved conflict between the left and the center of the party. (For their part, Perez and Ellison tried to quell the fight by agreeing beforehand that the winner would nominate the loser as Deputy Chair, which Tom Perez did immediately after winning the election.)

Both sides are at fault here, if not entirely equally. The left tars the center with all of the known issues with politics as a process–sometimes there’s waste or corruption, sometimes compromises have to be made, sometimes noble ideas are hampered by the pragmatic needs of reality. For its part, the center hesitates to take on progressive policy because it can’t do so without electoral support, and the far left have a history of abandoning the party at the first sign of impurity, voting for a third party or simply staying home. Neither side wants to reach out because they’ve been burned before, the left fleeing when it gets let down by the center’s compromises, the center only compromising when the left leaves stronger policy no cover at the voting booth. But if the Hatfields and the McCoys are ever going to stop killing each other, somebody has to choose peace.

Because both sides need each other. Sanders’ big, bold, simple ideas like the Fight for $15 or free college for all are just what the party needs to capture the hearts and minds of low information voters nationwide and get Democrats excited about voting again. But Clinton’s understanding of how to turn progressive ideas into pragmatic, enacted policy is a skill we need, too. Meanwhile, if the party remains divided, it has no hope of defeating the perennially united Republican party.

If Democrats are going to come together, they need to get past the 2016 primary. They need to say to themselves, “Even if the DNC didn’t play fair, Clinton would have won anyway; even if Sanders had won, he would have lost in the general. None of us disagreed then or disagree now with one another more than we do with Trump and the Republicans.” Even if it glosses over the details, even if it’s inaccurate. Because we don’t need the “truth” right now, whatever that is. We need a story, something that feels true enough–a story we can share together and heal and bond over so we can stand arm in arm for the next fight.


Understanding the 2016 Election Part I – The Republican Primary

Virtually every major media outlet has given their take on the 2016 Presidential election, to the point where these examinations feel more indicative of each outlet’s identity than any real, comprehensive explanation of the event. Statistics-driven 538’s series focuses on how the rest of the media misinterpreted the polling data, perennial news explainer Vox largely covered the mentality of a confused electorate, Time’s immediate post-mortem reflected the magazine’s bias toward conventional media wisdom, etc. For media organizations, the 2016 election is a grand and complicated Rorschach test: what you see in the pattern is about you, not the pattern.

With this three part series looking back at the election, Torchlight hopes to cut through the distorted, ideology-driven conversation by laying out the facts to draw clear and comprehensive conclusions about the nature and causes of the event.

Today, Tom Rich will talk about the Republican primary resulting in the nomination of Donald Trump. On Wednesday, I’m discussing the Democratic primary resulting in the nomination of Hillary Clinton, and the series concludes on Friday with Andrew Coleman’s examination of the many significant factors that led Trump to victory and the Presidency over Clinton. We hope you find the series enlightening and clarifying.

– Josh Kyu Saiewitz

If we’re going to understand where we are, it’s worth understanding how we got here. For our purposes, the beginning of that story is the Republican primary. How did the party of Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Eisenhower become the party of Trump?

Blogger Doug Muder has a general theory of how Republican primaries function, or at least how they functioned before last year. Broadly, Muder divides the party into four factions: Corporatists (think Jeb Bush or Chris Christie), theocrats (Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee), neo-conservatives (John McCain and Lindsey Graham), and libertarians (Rand Paul). Like everything in politics, the definitions are murky and the borders fluid, but the model is a useful approximation of reality. Muder goes on to suggest that, in general, a Republican candidate wins once he or she is positioned as the favorite of one faction and can convince the other factions not to revolt. For instance, in 2012, Mitt Romney emerged as the corporatist choice, but took a while to convince the theocratic, neo-conservative, and libertarian voices that he wasn’t a threat to their slices of the Republican pie.

Notably, Donald Trump doesn’t make sense for any of the factions Muder describes. As a businessman, he’s most at home among the corporatists, but a good corporatist likes free trade and immigration because they bring in low-wage workers. The theocratic wing of the party pushes social issues, such as bathroom bills and opposition to abortion, but Trump’s divorces, adultery, and comparatively soft stances on abortion and LGBT rights all place him at odds with this wing. The neo-conservatives want the kind of muscular, villain-busting American global leadership they believe we exercised in the Cold War, but Trump’s fondness for Russia and disdain for NATO leaves him out in the cold with them. The libertarians would like a government that simply leaves people alone; there is little that is small or non-intrusive in Trump’s plans for military expansion and wall-building. It is true that Trump proposes to lower taxes and cut regulations, which would endear him to both the corporatists and the libertarians, but his host of negatives made it difficult for him to find a home in any one faction.

Marco Rubio files his declaration of candidacy to get on the New Hampshire primary ballot in Concord, November 5, 2015. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Certainly we can attribute some of Trump’s success to the large and fractured field of candidates: in the summer of 2015, there were 17 notable Republicans running for the nomination. Some, like George Pataki and Bobby Jindal, were the sorts of also-rans you expect in any campaign, but others (Kasich, Cruz, Bush) were genuine contenders from the get-go, and still others (Carson, Rubio, Paul) couldn’t be discounted, even if their odds were long. A Republican voter of any faction had plenty of choices. The corporatists could comfortably line up with John Kasich, Chris Christie or Jeb Bush, while the theocrats had Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, and Ted Cruz to choose among. The neoconservatives were less well-represented, with only Lindsey Graham really flying their banner, but several of the corporate types (Jeb Bush, in particular) could speak the neoconservative language. The libertarians probably had the weakest field, with only Rand Paul directly appealing to them. The larger point here, beyond sorting the 17 into categories, is that there were a lot of candidates, all trying to solidify their element of the party while simultaneously working out an appeal to the other segments.

While the field was unusually large, primaries almost always involve fending off challengers of varying seriousness. And Trump was in a bad place at the beginning of the process: he was behind in the polls and had raised comparatively little money. A study by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government notes that how well a candidate is doing in the polls and how much money that candidate has raised generally predict how much coverage journalists will give that candidate. The same study finds that coverage of Trump early in the primary was similar to “the coverage expected of a frontrunner.” Because news and polls drive one another, this unusually positive and pervasive coverage served to push Trump further forward than his fundraising and polls would indicate, and as it pushed him forward he became more and more of a story for journalists.

But while media coverage can make people aware of a candidate and, to some extent, shape opinion about him or her, it can’t go into a voting booth and pull a lever for that candidate. Ultimately, Republican primary voters had to do that. What was it that made them choose to pull the lever for Trump?

Heidi Cruz bites her lip and closes her eyes as she listens to her husband drop out of the race for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination during his Indiana primary night rally in Indianapolis, Indiana. REUTERS/Chris Bergin

Frustration with establishment Republicans is an easy factor to identify; after all, Tea Party Republicans managed to blunt Speaker John Boehner’s agenda and put the fear of primary challenges in most Republican members of Congress. They even defeated Eric Cantor, then the House Majority Leader and senior member of the party. The Tea Party attack on mainline Republicans was shaped by the idea that the establishment wasn’t doing what the people really wanted them to, and Trump appealed to this frustration by consistently mocking and attacking the Republican leadership.

A second commonly-cited reason for Trump’s success is economic anxiety: Trump promised to bring back factories and good middle-class jobs, and therefore people who would benefit from that flocked to his banner. However, Nate Silver’s analysis of exit polls, conducted as the primaries were ongoing, reveals that Trump voters were on the whole better off than their peers, earning more than average for their states. Silver notes, too, that while overall Republican turnout was up in the primaries compared to 2012, turnout among lower-income Republicans was not: there was not a sudden influx of working-class people into the party.

Additionally, Silver’s data shows that while Trump’s supporters earned more than average for their states, among their primary-voting peers they tended to earn least. Among Cruz, Kasich, and Trump supporters in the 23 states polled, Trump voters were the wealthiest only once; in 13 states, they were the least-wealthy of the three candidates’ followers. Finally, Trump supporters reported being “very worried” about the overall direction of the economy. Taken as a whole, the available data seems to paint Trump primary voters as a group of people who are doing reasonably well for themselves, though not the best of their Republican primary-voting cohort, and who are afraid that the economy is heading toward some disaster.

But neither anger at the establishment nor economic anxiety seem to tell the whole story. Ted Cruz abused the Republican establishment as energetically as Donald Trump did, and made similar promises about returning jobs. Cruz wound up coming closest to beating Trump, so those appeals clearly worked. But what was the difference that pushed Trump over the top?

Donald Trump, with former rival Chris Christie at his side, speaks during a news conference in Palm Beach, Florida. REUTERS/Scott Audette


The deciding factor was that Trump tapped into racism in a direct way that the other Republicans did not. During the primary, Reuters
found that supporters of Trump were more likely to describe African Americans negatively than supporters of other candidates, using terms like “violent,” “criminal,” and “lazy.” The same poll found Trump supporters would generally desire not to live in communities where people came from diverse cultures. We should be cautious in how we interpret that poll: it shows correlation, not causation. The data can tell us that around half of the people who voted Trump in the primaries held racist views, but it can’t tell us that they pulled that lever because they held racist views. But there is a long, long tradition of racist appeals, overt and covert, in American electoral politics, and Trump’s rhetoric is not far off from that of, say, former Presidential candidate and ardent racist George Wallace: “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” is not such a different rallying cry than “build the wall!”

When we look at Trump’s statements about building a wall on the Mexican border, banning travel from predominantly Muslim nations, and describing inner-city black communities as apocalyptic war zones, we see rhetoric that appeals much more blatantly to the hard-racist voter. You don’t have to do any interpretation to get there. Similarly, when we see people like David Duke endorsing Trump, or an actual gathering of neo-Nazis shouting “heil Trump!” while raising a fascist salute, we don’t need to do much mental legwork to conclude that while not every Trump voter was racist, the racist voter voted Trump.

That’s not to say this was a takeover of the Republican primaries by some external, racist force. A Politico analysis conducted during the primary argues that while there were many first-time primary voters, those people were also reliable Republican voters in previous general elections; in other words, it was a faction internal to the party that responded to Trump’s appeal, a faction which cut across and overwhelmed the four factions outlined by Doug Muder. Even if Politico’s analysis is wrong or overstated, the turnout in the primary was high, but by no means unbelievably so; a Pew study showed that it fell just short of the 2008 record.

2/24/1983 President Reagan Photo Op with Lee Atwater and Political Affairs office in oval office


This faction has long existed, in American politics generally and in the Republican party specifically. It became powerful in the Republican party under Richard Nixon, whose Southern Strategy won him reelection by appealing to the racist South in the wake of the Civil Rights movement. For many years, Republican campaigns tried subtle appeals to this group. Lee Atwater, a Reagan advisor and campaign manager for the first President Bush, summed up the strategy as discussing “totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.” In the full
interview (which contains racial epithets), Atwater attempts to make the case that by focusing on economic issues, one can win over racist voters to win elections, gradually push racial problems out of people’s minds, and move forward to a conservative, small-government, race-blind utopia. Nevermind that the Republicans were never able to accomplish their stated goals, despite holding significant power in government from Nixon to Trump: the welfare state still exists, we still have foreign alliances and commitments, and taxes on high-earners have not been slashed to nothing. Too, the white supremacist nation implicitly promised by the Southern Strategy did not fully materialize; the country is more diverse than ever, although minority groups still face significant difficulties. Accomplishing neither their stated nor their implicit goals, the GOP ultimately discovered with Trump that they couldn’t string their voters along forever.

If we take a step back and look at the full picture, we see a primary election in which a confluence of events made it possible for an electoral faction, created, courted, but not satisfied by the party’s strategy, to emerge and seize control. For nearly half a century, the Republican Party establishment had relied on a strategy of subtly wooing racist voters, but not explicitly addressing their concerns. As the 2016 primaries began, a wide and fractured field meant that it would be very difficult for a frontrunner to emerge early and begin generating a positive feedback loop between electoral success, fundraising, and media coverage. Because of his personal ability to generate headlines, Donald Trump was able to circumvent this problem and push forward further and earlier than his fundraising and polling would normally allow. Along the way, he appealed more directly to racists among Republican voters than his rivals, causing those voters to participate more heavily in the primaries than in previous years.

There was nothing inevitable about Donald Trump. If he had been less of a media darling, or the field less fractured, or the economic situation different, he might not have been able to garner attention, polling results, and primary victories. But, ultimately, the risk of a Trump-like candidate was always present: there was always a faction of voters in the Republican party attracted by the below-the-surface racism of the Southern Strategy, waiting for somebody to say in public what they’d been thinking in private.