In last week’s column, I suggested that in the grand scheme of things, Tuesday’s election was not that important. I wrote it Friday before the election, fully expecting it to reach a disappointed Republican audience last week. I fully expected Hillary Clinton to be elected President on Tuesday.
The polls weren’t wrong; they were just ignored in the final week. The Real Clear Politics map showed that 171 electoral votes were in the toss-up category on Sunday and Monday. That meant that Trump could have been in the range of 335 to 164 electoral votes, and still been “correct.” They were.
I spent much of Monday and Tuesday morning talking to friends and political associates who understand these things to get their perspectives. Some Republicans at least gave Trump an outside chance, but few without direct skin in the game gave it much of a probability. Still, there was at least of a caveat of “… after everything else this year, who knows?”
By Tuesday afternoon it had become clear to me. Donald Trump had a reasonable chance of winning. And yet, I had still not found any Democrat who believed this. It was to them inconceivable and unbelievable. Just as it had been to me and many of my Republican friends in the primary.
Reality didn’t creep in so much Tuesday night and the early hours of Wednesday as it slapped many in the face. A Clinton victory had been assumed by most. Wall Street futures showed signs of a crash in the earliest hours of Wednesday morning as the market quickly assessed the investment position of change. (After the results were clear and without challenge, the market actually finished up on Wednesday.)
Many made the same mistake in this election that Republicans made underestimating Bill Clinton in 1992 and again in 1996. George H.W. Bush himself is said to have pushed back against Mary Matalin when she told him Clinton would win in 1992. He had record high approval ratings just 18 months before. He couldn’t process that the country would vote for a draft-dodging womanizer.
Trump’s personal negatives were fixated upon by media and partisan insiders. They appear to have been a lower priority for voters.
On Wednesday, the question I got most often (ironically to me, a non-parent) was “What am I supposed to tell my kids?” Yep, explaining Trump’s locker room talk as a President is a parenting challenge, but that path too was paved by Clinton in 1996. Parents found it equally difficult to explain cigars, interns, and lying directly to the American people about it. The race to the bottom has been a long running, bipartisan affair.
The easiest explanation of the vote is one Matalin’s husband, James Carville, used to focus Bill Clinton in 1992 as their campaign dodged “bimbo eruptions” — It’s the economy, stupid.
While many statistics can easily be trotted out to demonstrate the economy is much better off today than it was in 2008, swing voters can’t take statistics to the grocery store and trade them for food. They need money, and to earn that, they need quality middle-class jobs. All politics is local, and all economics are personal.
Republicans lost much of the Rust Belt by telling people that prosperity would eventually trickle down, and the jobs transferred to Mexico would be replaced by unspecified “better off” jobs.
Democrats lost the same voters by telling them that their coal-related jobs would be replaced by green energy jobs, and although they weren’t, they are now paying significantly more for their health insurance so that a few additional statistical Americans can now have coverage.
They didn’t lose because Republicans showed up in greater numbers, because they didn’t. They lost because many of their own voters abandoned the party.
The result is that Democrats are going to need some time to process how a certain victory became a historic loss. Republicans, meanwhile, best use the time to understand what these same angry voters want and how to get it to them.
Midterms are often not kind to a party that has just assumed power, especially total power. The last time our country put one party in charge of the House, Senate, and White House, the Tea Party emerged and Congress was completely flipped two years later.
That two-year clock is already ticking. It’s time to address job and wealth creation for America’s working class.
Charlie Harper, executive director of PolicyBEST, a public policy think tank, is also the publisher of GeorgiaPol.com, a website dedicated to state & local politics of Georgia.