On Division and Unity
My candidate lost. It's not the first time. It won't be the last. I've worked in politics and government for my entire adult life. Losing elections is an occupational hazard. Every four years, almost half my fellow citizens feel the same way I do.
This year, actually, more than half my fellow citizens feel the way I do, because for the fifth time in our history, the winner of the popular vote lost in the Electoral College. If you're a presidential history geek like me, you're already reciting the four previous years:
- In 1824, Andrew Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality in the Electoral College, but lost to John Quincy Adams in what was called the "Corrupt Bargain," when Speaker Henry Clay, himself a candidate for President, but ineligible under the 12th Amendment by virtue of his fourth-place finish, convinced his colleagues to vote for Adams in the House election. Clay ended up as Adams's Secretary of State.
- In 1876, Samuel Tilden won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Rutherford Hayes when the House of Representatives again decided the outcome.
- In 1888, President Grover Cleveland won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College to Benjamin Harrison; Cleveland beat Harrison four years later to become the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms.
- In 2000, Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote but lost to Texas Governor George W. Bush when Bush won Florida by 537 votes.
Rural interests, particularly Southern rural interests, wanted to protect their voices in the national debate. Virginia planters composed much of that early ruling class, and the odious three-fifths Compromise grew out of their desire to ensure that plantation owners who drove the southern economy were "properly represented" at the decision table.
So why this historical primer? If the Electoral College favors Democrats, why am I writing this?
Because the Electoral College does not favor Democrats. It very clearly favors Republicans.
Every time a Presidential candidate has won the popular vote and lost the Electoral College, that popular vote winner/Electoral College loser was a Democrat, including 2016.
Allow that to sink in, then let's pause there, and let me rephrase: The Electoral College favors rural areas, not urban areas. Rural areas tend to vote heavily Republican while urban areas break just as heavily Democratic.
As political operatives, we concentrate our campaign operations on swing states. We concede reliably Republican and reliably Democratic states (in this election, to Democratic peril, when virtually nobody predicted that Republican nominee Donald Trump would win Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin). We tailor our campaigns to the Electoral College. We campaign in urban and suburban areas, because more voters live there than in rural areas.
But the Electoral College gives rural areas disproportionate power. Here's why. Every state is guaranteed electoral votes proportionate to its representation in Congress (one vote for each Senator and one vote for each Representative). Which means that each state is guaranteed at least three votes. Those states with the smallest populations are also disproportionately rural, except for the District of Columbia, which had no representation in the Electoral College until the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961. D.C., as with the smallest states, gets three electoral votes, and according to the amendment, regardless of D.C.'s population, it can never have more electoral votes than the smallest state, which right now is Wyoming.
Wyoming, with just under 600,000 people, gets 3 electoral votes. The smallest of the states with 4 electoral votes, Montana, has just over one million people. The smallest state with 5 votes, West Virginia, has more than 1.8 million people. So West Virginia, with three times as many people, has only two more electoral votes. The disparities rise with the electoral vote count so that very rural Wyoming has 194,219 citizens per electoral vote. California, our most populous state, has 696,954 people per electoral vote.
Again: Why this primer? Because President-elect Trump's votes came from historically rural states, and more importantly, from rural areas in reliably Democratic states. Rural voters share values, whether they live in red states or in blue states.
There are vast swaths of even the bluest states that vote bright red in Presidential elections. These are often-forgotten rural areas, with generally conservative political ideologies, where voters favor gun rights (because they hunt, not as much for personal protection: these are places where people don't lock their doors), with disproportionately large veteran populations in white-majority counties with fewer college degrees than the national average.
People here have long believed that Washington has forgotten them, if Washington even knew they existed. ("Flyover Country" is not a happy term. It was never meant as a compliment, and the contempt behind the label is part of the problem.) Their experiences reinforce their beliefs about Washington. Family farms are dying (dead, in many places). Factories are closing or closed. The national economy is steadily improving, but we feel most of the benefits in urban and suburban areas. Many people in rural areas live paycheck to paycheck, and when they see their neighbors losing their jobs, that economic uncertainty goes viral.
I live outside Boston in deeply blue Massachusetts. I'm from deeply blue New York. But I grew up in deeply red central New York, along the Southern Tier. My hometown is a tiny blue dot in a vast red sea. My family's house is in the middle of that crimson wave.
So when we're talking about these overwhelmingly rural voters who elected Donald Trump, we're talking about my people: my friends, my classmates, and, I'm pretty certain, some members of my extended family.
We're also talking about people who labor in the building trades, who earn their living with their hands, people who, as one of my favorite role models says, take their showers when they get home from work, not before they leave for work.
We're talking about white, non-college-educated men, and their families. These folks used to be our middle class, but our middle class is vanishing because these folks' livelihoods are constantly in jeopardy. All their lives, they've played by the rules, but they fear for their jobs, their families, their friends, their neighbors, and they've experienced this fear for decades.
Donald Trump won this demographic by 39 points (some outlets have pegged the spread at 44 points), the largest such gap in history, and that's where he won the Presidency.
Even in Massachusetts, which Secretary Clinton won 61-34, among this same demographic, Mr. Trump saw swings of 15 points higher than Mitt Romney's and John McCain's vote totals.
Exactly two Presidential candidates this cycle targeted those voters: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They reached those constituents with aggressive populist appeals from different ends of the political spectrum, but they're the only candidates who did it.
(As an aside, but without the data, I'll venture that both Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders performed well among Vietnam Veterans because of the scorn and alienation many of those soldiers endured.)
Senator Sanders grew up in Brooklyn and lived among those middle- and working-class voters. Vermont, one of the most rural states in the nation, has elected him statewide since 1990. That's no accident. Rural working-class voters in Vermont have a great deal in common with urban working-class voters in Brooklyn. Sanders appealed to their progressive economic interests, appealing for fairness in the tax code and calling for an overhaul on Wall Street, the ultimate establishment avenue in America. This progressive economic populism propelled him-- almost-- to the Democratic nomination. By playing to voters' hopes, he gave them hope.
Mr. Trump appealed to those same voters' law and order instincts. Make no mistake: He ran a blatantly racist, blatantly sexist, blatantly anti-Muslim, blatantly anti-immigrant campaign, and he closed with a deeply anti-Semitic campaign ad (and then hired as his Chief Strategist an openly anti-Semitic bomb thrower). I despise him for the way he ran his race. I loathe him for his politics of exclusion rather than inclusion. But his fascist, authoritarian populism, his Nixonian "silent majority" rhetoric, resonated. By playing to voters' fears, he validated those fears.
The establishment candidates of both parties either ignored these voters or misread their concerns, which were largely economic. Both Senator Sanders and Mr. Trump ran populist campaigns that thumbed their noses at the Washington elites and the candidates who arose from those elites.
Secretary Clinton, the most qualified Presidential candidate of my lifetime, largely ran on those qualifications. I chose her in both 2008 and 2016 specifically because of her experience in and around government. That expertise should have been enough, particularly when measured against a candidate such as Mr. Trump, who became the only President ever elected without so much as a day of service in any government. His supporters loved it.
In hindsight, it's easy to see that Secretary Clinton's support was crumbling. We lost Rust Belt states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states that reporters and both campaigns had pegged as reliably blue. We lost Ohio and Indiana, and nearly lost Minnesota. In addition to being rural, Midwestern and largely moderate, they share another characteristic: Senator Sanders won the Democratic primaries in every one except Pennsylvania.
So what can we take away from this?
- Despite Mr. Trump's overtly racist, sexist, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant campaign, and despite his anti-Semitic close, the vast majority of Mr. Trump's voters do not share those views. They're terrified that their way of life is disappearing. Mr. Trump's fascist, authoritarian, anti-establishment populism appealed to them. Along the way, he validated racism, sexism, Islamophobia, fear of immigrants, and anti-Semitism. He directly appealed to white voters who opposed President Obama simply because he is African-American. He perpetuated the racist myth that our President was born in Africa. Then he made chauvinistic, sexist appeals designed to remind them that if they didn't vote the right way, our first woman President would succeed our first black President. While most of Mr. Trump's voters responded to his populist appeal, the racists and sexists were always there. They're emboldened by his victory. It's no accident that the only newspaper endorsement Mr. Trump received came from the house organ of the Ku Klux Klan. To Mr. Trump's credit, he renounced that endorsement.
- Senator Sanders's progressive populism appealed to most of the same voters, with none of the underlying hateful rhetoric. These voters were reachable and persuadable with a progressive economic message, and in the primaries, they were largely persuaded: to vote for Senator Sanders.
- Voters believe that Washington is broken. They believe that they're being ignored by those in power. They voted for two anti-establishment figures who promised to fix Washington. But they also voted for a consummate insider because many believed that only a qualified insider, who knew the levers of power, who understood where to apply pressure, and who had demonstrated an ability to compromise, could fix Washington from the inside. That third choice, Secretary Clinton, actually received the most votes in both the primary and general elections.
- As a corollary, voters know, better than the Washington insiders do, exactly how and exactly why Washington is broken. Congressional approval is at an all-time low because Congress did nothing for an entire legislative session. Congress said no to every proposal President Obama sent its way. Senators blocked his Supreme Court nominee for nine months (and counting), refusing even to hold hearings on the nomination. And then they lambasted the President as somebody who couldn't accomplish anything.
- "Too much time in Washington" is not the problem. "Too much time in Washington" is a valuable solution. We used to govern from the center. Our Presidents were moderates, establishment figures who were neither too liberal nor too conservative. The Senate had a few figures on the fringes but most worked right down the middle. They represented entire states, with diverse viewpoints. The House had more members on the far left and the far right, but was still mostly composed of moderates. Moderates compromise. They get things done. They make deals. As elected officials spent time in Washington, they gained experience, but they also spent time with elected officials from opposing parties. They learned to know them as people. They understood each other's humanity, and they learned to work together based on the trust that arose from those interactions.
- Because elected officials now win by appealing to their bases, and because those bases are now encamped at the political fringes, compromise is less possible. We're electing people because they refuse to compromise, rather than because they understand how to work together. When the Senate Republican leader says that “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president,” compromise is impossible. Opponents become enemies. We don't compromise with our enemies; we try to humiliate them.
- Sanders voters and Trump voters have a great deal in common. They've long felt ignored by the power elites in Washington and on Wall Street, and only by listening to their concerns, validating their opinions, and speaking to them in their language, will we earn their votes.
- We need to engage with those who didn't vote our way, rather than demonize them. We voted our way for a reason. They did, too. If we keep telling them that their reasons are wrong and ours are right, we'll deepen our divisions. We'll win some elections; we'll lose some elections. But the country will continue to suffer.
- The post-election protests will continue for the near future. President George W. Bush, in addressing unrest surrounding the invasion of Iraq, said, "Democracy is a beautiful thing, and that people are allowed to express their opinion. I welcome people’s right to say what they believe."
- We're now seeing anger and fear from Clinton voters who've been reading polls and newspapers (plus 24-hour cable and talk radio) that for over a year have predicted a resounding Clinton victory. Clinton voters' shock and terror is real, it's palpable, and it won't go away soon, despite magnanimity and unifying gestures from President Obama, President-elect Trump and Secretary Clinton. The Clinton voters represent the establishment. For too long, as I've mentioned, the establishment either ignored the voters in the Trump and Sanders demographics, or it took them for granted. What we're seeing now is a backlash against the establishment. Mr. Trump's Brexit comparisons were prescient. But just as the Trump and Sanders voters had their fears, so too do Secretary Clinton's.
I've always voted for candidates. I've never voted against one. Until this year, I've always found something to respect and admire in the opponent. Simply standing in the political arena and submitting to the will of the voters made the efforts noble on both sides.
I found no such redeeming qualities in Mr. Trump this time, and I freely admit that while I saw his supporters as opponents, I saw him as an enemy. I spoke of him with contempt. Although I feared his election and loathed his pronouncements, I bought the establishment line that he couldn't possibly win, that Secretary Clinton, because of her lifetime of public service, would prevail based on her qualifications alone. Virtually every pundit, poll and prognosticator confirmed my opinion.
I am surrounded by strong women. My wife, my mother, and my grandmother are role models. I am a father. I have two sons and a daughter. For them, for our America, and for myself, I voted for Secretary Clinton. It was the proudest vote I've ever cast.
We voted. We lost. Our loss hurts more because it was sudden and unexpected.
Because of our loss, because of what might have been, because of what now looms ahead, I fear for our future. I will continue to stand up. I will continue to believe that love trumps hate, that progress begins with inclusion, that empowering people is always better than alienating them.
But I will not claim that Donald Trump is not a legitimate President. I didn't say it about George W. Bush after I voted for Al Gore, and I won't say it now.
The peaceful transfer of power is the key to our democracy, the cornerstone that keeps us from becoming the barbarians at the gate. In our system, the winner of the Electoral College becomes President.
For the first time in my life, we elected as President a man I loathe. He will soon take office. He is our President now. I want him to succeed.
Yet even as I write this, I grieve for the America we lost last week. We lost that beacon of hope for the rest of the world, that shining city on a hill.
America is more than a place. It's an idea, a light and a dream. The place remains and the ideas change, but on Tuesday, the light went out and the dream died.
As a nation, we have work to do before we can reignite the torch and resurrect the dream.