Date: August 2nd, 2016 10:24 AM
Doubts Start Creeping In for Democrats
By Jeff Greenfield
For four days in Philadelphia, almost every comment I heard from Democratic operatives, pollsters and policy wonks reminded me of an old Jackie Mason line about married couples.
“Ask them if they’re happy, you get a number. ‘Are you happy?…’ ‘Thirty-one years ... ’”
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Ask about Hillary Clinton’s prospects in November, you get a number—actually a lot of numbers. You get “2 percent every cycle,” a reference to the steady decrease in the clout of the white electorate. You get “the 6 percent spread,” from the 2012 exit poll finding that women were 53 percent of the electorate while men were 47 percent. You get “we’re up 200,000 in Florida!” That’s the margin by which Florida Hispanics register Democratic over Republican.
As startling as it was for Democrats to watch Donald Trump emerge from the GOP convention more or less even in national polling with Hillary Clinton, the campaign professionals who had labored for decades returned again and again to one overriding proposition: The numbers show that there are more of us than there are of them. And they're right: That’s what the numbers say.
But ask enough people close to the campaign, privately, and you hear something else: a note of worry. What if, in this one unusual year, past isn’t prologue? What if the patterns dont hold up?
Consider the election in black and white, which is how the lion’s share of analysis was framed by the insiders I spoke to in Philadelphia. In 1992, Bill Clinton effectively split the white vote with President George H.W. Bush; he lost it, but narrowly, by only a 39 percent to 41 percent margin. That was critical to his victory, because whites represented 87 per cent of the electorate. In 2012, President Barack Obama lost the white vote overwhelmingly to Mitt Romney, 39-59. But by then America had changed, and the white share of the vote had dropped to 72 per cent. Obama’s overwhelming margins among blacks (93-6), Hispanics (71-27) and Asians (73-26) handed him the victory.
The obvious concern for Democrats this year is that Hillary Clinton, a paid-in-full member of the white establishment, simply won't bring out the minority vote the way Obama did in both of his campaigns. One 40-year veteran of the Democratic wars I spoke to wasn’t worried about this at all: In his analysis, Trump’s incendiary language about “Mexicans” will upend the traditionally low Hispanic turnout. And black voters, he says, “have picked up the dog-whistles of race the same way white nationalists have. And Obama will be all over black radio urging them to turn out. There just aren’t enough white voters to overcome that. And don’t forget, right now Clinton is actually ahead among college-educated whites.” (See Ron Brownstein’s piece in the Atlantic for an extensive look at this phenomenon.) Matt Berreto, co-founder and managing partner at Latino Decisions, pointed out that “non-college educated whites have historically voted in huge numbers for Republicans, but their numbers are not growing.”
All of these numbers should be a source of great comfort to Democratic strategists, and in public they tend to repeat them. But just beneath the surface lies a persistent sense of uneasiness, driven by one question: What if everything we think we know about politics has been rendered inoperative?
What if everything we think we know about politics has been rendered inoperative?
Some of this uneasiness stems from what has already happened in the past year. Every assertion about Trump during the primary battle proved wrong: he’ll never run; he won’t file financial disclosures; he’ll be forced out by his own words; all those people at this rallies won’t actually turn out to vote; he has a ceiling; the party will coalesce around an alternative; the institutional wing of the party will never accede to his nomination. Perhaps most importantly, it was hard for many insiders to imagine that when voters were truly asked to fill in the bubble beside the name “Donald Trump” on a presidential ballot, they wouldn’t be jolted back to reality and vote for a real candidate.
None of those things happened. The establishment folded; Trump’ ceiling just got higher, and he ended up collecting more primary votes than any Republican candidate in history, wiping out a generation of ambitious, aspiring GOP leaders with serious track records. To say the least, this record does not inspire confidence that the normal patterns will hold in a general election.
Indeed, at a panel of Democratic pollsters last week, Hart Research president Geoff Garin warned that 2016 would be “a close competitive election. The country,” he added, "is largely frustrated with the status quo, and, as one NBC poll found, huge majorities wanted change even if they don’t know what that change is.”
Moreover, as they say in ads for investment banks, past results are no guarantee of future performance. For instance, the prognosticators say that for Trump to win with the expected electorate, he’d need almost two-thirds of the white vote, and that target is all but out of reach. But why? All through the primaries, Ted Cruz’s campaign was arguing that their data-analytics tool would be able to finally find the “missing millions” that conservatives have always dreamt of and get them out in places like central Pennsylvania in November. What if Trump can draw them out with his blisteringly effective strategy of tweets, rallies and free TV?
This does not require a revolution. What it requires is enough white voters to get excited in the right states. Democratic pollster Cornell Belcher, president of Brilliant Corners Research & Strategies, framed the election outlook for Clinton in blunt terms: “If turnout is 70 percent white, I like her chances," he said. “If it’s 74 percent ... I'm very worried.”
There are other ways the widespread discontent with politics as usual could express itself on Election Day in a way that winds up hurting Clinton. Garin, for example, notes that while the candidacy of Libertarian Gary Johnson is “largely a wash, millennials are more likely to back a third party, and that hurts us more.”
More broadly, what if the fantasies of Hollywood screenwriters—that an engaged citizenry will rise up and flood the polls on Election Day—become real with a very different kind of electorate? Back last August, I argued in these pages that every once in a long while a dormant, disengaged, alienated slice of voters discovers it had a power it never realized it had; and that realization alone becomes a significant force.
If that’s what’s going on now—if voters find it empowering to upend the table, break the crockery and send every member of “the Establishment” running for cover—then all the turnout models of all the experts might be thrown into a cocked hat. It means we could continue to watch as the statements and actions that would destroy any other candidacy have little or no effect on Trump. It means that an implicit renunciation of the core mutual defense provisions of NATO carries no consequence; or a profoundly ignorant comment about Crimea—Trump apparently did not know of Russia’s involvement—has no impact.
And it could explain why, after all the confident assertions that the numbers point to a Clinton victory, so many of those I spoke with echoed the words of the 40-year party warrior: “If Trump wins, it means everything I thought I knew about politics is wrong. It’s just that I’m a lot less sure about what I know than I was a year ago.”