The Democratic Party autopsy: A look at how and why Trump won


The dramatic finale to the 2016 US presidential election, ending with Donald Trump victorious, has left the mainstream media and pollsters, along with many Democrats and people around the world completely dumbfounded. Yet signs that a Trump win was a distinct possibility had been visible for some time.

Some of the election polling, such as the widely-cited RealClearPolitics average of polls, obviously turned out to be dead wrong. Two days after Trump’s win, the RCP site still showed Hillary Clinton more than 3 percentage points ahead in its “RCP Poll Average” and “4-way RCP Average” (which included third party candidates), and more than 8 points ahead in its “Favorability Ratings.” Yet two of the final three polls included on the RCP site for election day actually showed Trump ahead, and further ahead than Clinton.

One of these, the USC-L.A. Times tracking poll, consistently showed Trump significantly ahead following the third debate. These Southern California pollsters may be worth paying closer attention to in the future. Reuters, meanwhile, reported that Clinton had “about a 90 percent chance of defeating Republican Donald Trump in the race for the White House,” right up until election day.

One indication that Clinton’s chances were overblown was the increasingly shrill tone of her media backers as the election neared. Despite nothing more than wishful thinking on which to base the claim that polls showed an easy path to victory for Clinton, this didn’t stop the elite media from indulging in fantasy.

On Oct. 24, the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin asked the tantalizing question: “What mandate will Clinton have if she wins?” Rubin’s answer was convoluted and probably mostly embarrassing in retrospect, but she got at least one thing right. “In an election like 2016 when so many voters will choose Hillary Clinton because she is not Donald Trump, the best one might claim is a negative mandate,” Rubin wrote.

The next day, someone named Damon Linker, writing for The Week, a UK-based publication that bills itself as “All you need to know about everything that matters,” threw together an exceptionally worthless opinion piece with the title “Can Hillary Clinton win a historic mandate?” Linker sure thought so.

“Then there are those who dismiss the very idea of an electoral mandate,” he wrote. “These naysayers have a point. Yet one wonders if they took the same position the last time one of their preferred candidates claimed to win a mandate.” One wonders if Linker now thinks Trump has a mandate.

But Linker’s opinion is beside the point. The point is that it was picked up by Frank Bruni of the New York Times, who fashioned his own out-of-touch variation on the theme the following day, going with the title: “Hillary Clinton’s Resounding Mandate.” The Post, for its part, followed up on its original Clinton mandate opinion piece with another by a different author four days later. This one featured the slightly more cautious title: “Even with a landslide, Hillary Clinton shouldn’t count on a mandate.” Obviously, Clinton didn’t win in a landslide, can’t count on a mandate, and her political career is over.

This is a good thing, and the sooner Trump’s opponents realize this the better. Had Clinton won (which, based largely on polls such as RCP’s, I’ll admit I expected to happen) I was planning on writing about how Trump — the Republican boogeyman who could justify any amount of Democratic excess — must be quickly forgotten and Clinton held accountable for her highly questionable activities.

That situation is now partly reversed. However improbable it may seem, Donald Trump is now the US president-elect, and it is he who more importantly must be held accountable to the American public. Yet unlike Trump, who certainly has odious personality traits that threatened but failed to derail his campaign, the reasons for Clinton’s failure should not be quickly forgotten.

In the wake of GOP failures in the 2012 election, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus commissioned an “autopsy report” to assess what went wrong and what the party had to do to start winning elections again. The report identified problems including, as paraphrased in the Times, “its ideological rigidity, its preference for the rich over workers, its alienation of minorities, its reactionary social policies and its institutionalized repression of dissent and innovation.”

Several months ago, Politico ran an article with the headline “Trump kills GOP autopsy,” arguing that Trump was ignoring the problems pointed out in Priebus’ report. It actually seems, however, that Trump’s campaign addressed some of the identified problems while mostly ignoring others. The GOP voters that drove Trump to victory were not the rich, but they were, as in past elections, largely white. In perhaps a surprising twist, however, Trump apparently did better with both African-Americans and Latinos than Mitt Romney did, despite his controversial campaign rhetoric on issues such as immigration.

This may be because critics who attempted to attack Trump on this front badly underestimated his skills as a media manipulator, and played right into his hands. His notorious comment on Mexican immigrant “rapists,” for instance, was routinely paraphrased in the media in a way that gave the impression that Trump had made a blanket statement that all immigrants from Mexico are rapists — which would be clearly false and a remarkable, unbelievable thing to say.

So remarkable and unbelievable, in fact, that a person might not be satisfied with a TV news report’s paraphrasing, and might look up exactly what Trump said, in which case they would find that he said, in announcing his candidacy, that Mexican immigrants were “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The fact that Trump qualified his statement in this way, and that the media routinely failed to report it as such, would reinforce the idea in the mind of many who bothered to look it up that Donald Trump is not as unreasonable as everyone says, and that the media are dishonest and untrustworthy. Incredibly, few in the media seemed to understand this dynamic, which became more pronounced as the campaign went on.

Hundreds of newspaper endorsements for Clinton versus just a handful for Trump did not help with the perception that an elite media that thinks it knows best was telling America what to do. Nor did a deluge of confused writing from some of the dumbest people alive — who either inexplicably or quite understandably have jobs at places like the New York Times — such as Jim Rutenberg’s classic exploration of “The Challenge Trump Poses to Objectivity.”

Elements within America’s news media, however, did worse things during the 2016 election cycle than simply publishing poorly-written and delusional propaganda. A curious October article in Politico Magazine described the often unusually close relationships between the Clinton campaign and the “oily Washington press” — including relationships with Politico reporters — that had been exposed by leaked documents, before essentially dismissing concerns about the leaks as naive. But other revelations were harder to ignore.

News that Democratic National Committee interim chair Donna Brazile received questions in advance to be asked of Clinton at a “town hall” event co-hosted by CNN, as exposed by Wikileaks, was somewhat alarming, but only if taken out of context. Brazile quit her job as a CNN commentator to take the interim DNC chair position this past summer, after former chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz was forced to resign following Wikileaks revelations that DNC officials had worked to ensure that Clinton would beat challenger Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. In this broader context, specific transgressions by Brazile — who remains interim DNC chair despite her own Wikileaks scandal — are not much compared with the hopeless corruption of the national Democratic Party as an institution.

This brings us back to Hillary Clinton herself, and why she lost. The two candidates nominated in the 2016 election were the least popular in decades, at least. While there were certainly bigoted and “deplorable” segments of Trump’s “alt-right” anonymous online campaign support network, most of the voters who chose Trump didn’t do so because they think he is perfect, or because they wholeheartedly agree with the most outrageous things he’s said. They voted, for better or worse, for what they viewed as the lesser of two evils, which was the same argument that many put forward for voting for Clinton.

But others went further. The New Yorker called Clinton “a distinctly capable candidate: experienced, serious, schooled, resilient,” with “impressive resolve to battle prejudice wherever it may be found.” The Atlantic described her as “among the most prepared candidates ever to seek the presidency.” Her potential to become the first female president was a major draw — perhaps the only real draw, of her candidacy.

Clinton’s failure should not be viewed, however, as a failure for feminism. Despite what some might argue, Hillary Clinton did not fail because she was a woman. She failed because she was a career politician, someone for whom political power trumped (no pun intended) any ethical concern, and a generally terrible person. In other words, the main thing distinguishing her from Trump in many voters’ eyes was that she was a career politician. Had she won, she would have been elevated to an undeserved position of reverence as a role model for young women and girls across America and around the world, her many glaring flaws awkwardly whitewashed out of history.

Hillary Clinton was never a good role model for anyone, as is now painfully clear. As the dust settles following the election and it becomes once again possible to see her as a person, rather than a presidential candidate, it is now apparent that Hillary Clinton’s sad story is a cautionary tale. America will inevitably have a female president. Maybe she will even be elected as soon as 2020. But whoever she is, she is going to have to be better qualified than Hillary Clinton was. Despite what Democrats told themselves, that actually isn’t such a tall order.

But as we “close the history books on the Clintons,” as the president-elect put it, the story of President Donald J. Trump is just beginning. Where it will end is far from clear. Though many have called Trump a “loose cannon” and fears of his having control over nuclear weapons seem to be some of the most common among his opponents, his extensive use of plausible deniability during his campaign — a tactic borrowed from the espionage world — betrays a deeper level of scheming and calculation.

For those who opposed Trump’s rise to the presidency, as well as for those who viewed him as the lesser evil, it is imperative to devote just as much energy as they did during election season, if not more, to keeping an eye on him once he’s in office. Trump rode to power on a wave of populist anger over corruption and cronyism in Washington. Given the blatant self-interest motivating everything he does, his unpredictability, and what may be a more calculated ability to play dumb than many have realized, keeping Trump in check and preventing him from potentially making the problems he campaigned against worse will be a monumental task. Or as Trump might say, it’s gonna be huge.



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