It is quite possible that Democrats are going to spend nearly $1 billion trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist. By buying into a myth about why they lost in 2016, they are ignoring the underlying math about what really happened—misspending huge amounts of money, while setting themselves up to lose again in the critical contests to come.
Many progressive politicians and pundits have bought into the notion that millions of people who had voted for Barack Obama in 2012 defected from the Democrats and voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The strategic premise flowing from this conclusion—that the Democrats can prevail in the congressional and presidential races to come by winning those voters back—is influencing how tens of millions of dollars are being spent and will continue to shape the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars in the midterm elections next year. But as my colleagues at Democracy in Color and I point out in the new report “Return of the Majority Progress Report: Another Billion Dollar Blunder?,” the premise driving this strategy is ill-founded and incorrect.
The popularity and persistence of the myth was encapsulated in a recent New York Times column by Thomas Edsall, “The Democratic Party Is in Worse Shape Than You Thought.” Edsall devoted considerable attention to “Obama-to-Trump” voters and cited estimates based on exit polls in which voters were asked whom they’d voted for in 2012 and 2016. That polling quantified the ranks of said voters as ranging from 6.7 million to 9.2 million people. The viewpoint has been popularized to the point where it is now accepted as fact and drives major Democratic decisions such as where to hold the Senate Democratic caucus retreat (West Virginia), to whom to feature in the response to the State of the Union (white people in a Kentucky diner), to how to spend $19 million in advertising in the Georgia special election (targeting Republicans rather than rallying Democrats). The primary problem with this approach is that the math underlying the myth is perplexing, at best, and just flat wrong at worst.
The inaccurate arithmetic is most evident when looking at what happened in Wisconsin, one of the three narrowly decided states that led to Clinton’s losing the Electoral College despite prevailing handily in the national popular vote. The conclusion that large numbers of Obama voters switched their allegiance to the Republican is undercut by the fact that Trump got fewer votes in Wisconsin than Mitt Romney did four years earlier. If Trump got a big infusion of previously Democratic votes, why did the Republican vote total go down? But look even more closely, at county-level data. In the 23 counties that flipped from Democratic in 2012 to Republican in 2016, the data show that it is likely that there were just as many Obama-to-third-party voters as there were Obama-to-Trump voters (an increase of 23,117 third-party votes, as compared with 20,662 additional Republican votes in those counties). And the biggest problem in Wisconsin was the fact that 60,000 fewer people voted in heavily black Milwaukee, contributing to Clinton’s losing the state by 23,000 votes.