Learning the Right Lessons from 2016

Primary voters instinctively react to the last election. That’s healthy, as far as it goes: If a party loses an election, it should consider what it might have done differently. On the other hand, there’s a tendency to overreact, to treat random deviations as the “new normal.” It’s easy to learn the wrong lesson when you’re trying to spin a narrative thread from a single data point. So, with that caution in mind, here’s my take on what happened in 2016:

Hillary Clinton was a weak candidate. We know that because she lost the ’08 primaries to a previously unknown senator named Barack Obama, despite early advantages in funding, name recognition, and endorsements. Partly that was due to Obama’s outstanding political skills, but Hillary was responsible for a long series of bad decisions in that campaign. Then there were the headwinds. Republicans had been laying down anti-Hillary groundwork since the ‘90s. She was further weakened by a long, combative primary against Bernie Sanders, by a never-ending scandal over email security, and by Russian trolls.

None of that in itself should’ve stopped her from winning against a candidate as unpopular as Donald Trump. Her biggest problem was her own campaign. She failed to reach out to large voting blocs. She overextended herself with a 50-state strategy that maximized the popular vote instead of concentrating on swing states. And she focused her ad spend on attacks on her opponent—whose failings were already (to put it mildly) well-known—rather than trying to form a positive narrative around herself.

For some Democrats, the takeaway here is that the party should’ve nominated Bernie Sanders. While it tickles me to imagine what a real-life Trump vs. Bernie debate would look like, the idea of Sanders triumphing in the general election is a stretch. Americans prefer capitalism over socialism by a wide margin, and Sanders was always even less popular with Democrats than Hillary, which doesn't bode well for his chances beyond the party bubble.

Another common refrain among Democrats is that Hillary should’ve run further to the left in order to “rally the base,” attributing low turnout to her lack of radicalism. In truth, reports of low turnout were greatly exaggerated: Democratic turnout in 2016 was pretty strong. And this theory ignores the reality that running as an ideological extremist risks rallying the other base more. Indeed, many a swing voter will tell you that her problem was failing to tack to the center after winning the primaries.

I’m certain that most Americans would, like Bradley Whitford in Get Out, have voted for Obama for a third term. They also probably would’ve gone for a less vexed Obama surrogate, e.g. Biden. The problem the Democrats had in 2016 wasn’t their ideological positioning; it was Hillary.

If Hillary was the problem, then nominating someone from the left flank of the party is the wrong corrective. Indeed, it would likely spell disaster, since Trump’s stances on most issues are much closer to the median voter’s. A candidate who promises to transform America into Sweden is likely to be dismissed out of hand by that critical demographic.

The candidate will also need to campaign well. Here, Pete Buttigieg has shown immense promise. His skills have taken him from an unknown to a top-tier contender in a matter of months. “Alfred E. Neuman cannot become president of the United States!” Trump griped, coining a nickname for Mayor Pete. Based on recent history, I believe he can.

This is Part 3 of an ongoing series making the case for Pete Buttigieg in the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries.

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