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.
The myth also lacks mathematical support in a state like Florida, where there was an actual surge for Trump, with him picking up 450,000 more voters than Romney received. That increase, however, didn’t come from disaffected Democrats. Clinton got more votes in 2016 than Obama did in 2012. What happened in Florida is that large numbers of whites who sat out 2012 rallied to Trump’s racial-solidarity appeals and came out in significantly larger numbers.
While the data from Wisconsin and Florida undermine the myth about what happened in specific strategic states, the aggregate data throw the entire premise into question. The most inconvenient fact for the proponents of the Obama-to-Trump migration theory is that Clinton got very nearly the same number of votes as Obama did nationally. It’d be like being told someone has taken 10 percent of the money out of your bank account, but when you check your balance it shows you have the exact same amount of money. If 10 percent of the funds went away, where did the 10 percent come from to backfill the account?
The other problematic point for the 7 million-lost-votes figure is that Trump’s total vote number increased only by 2 million over what Romney secured in 2012. If there are 7 million Obama-to-Trump voters, why didn’t Trump’s vote total increase by 7 million? It’s conceivable that a ton of Romney voters defected from Trump and were replaced by Obama-to-Trump voters, but there has been precious little analysis of that possibility. The focus for most Democrats begins and ends with wooing the Obama-to-Trump voter.
The numbers that aren’t in dispute are the figures for black voters and Stein voters. Recently released Census data shows that African-American voter turnout dropped precipitously, falling below the rate of the 2004 election. In Pennsylvania, according to national exit-poll data, the black turnout dropped by 137,000 people, and Clinton lost by 44,000 votes. In Michigan, the problem was Obama-to-Stein voters, with Stein getting 30,000 more voters than she did in 2012, and the Democrats losing the state by just 11,000 votes.
Certainly some voters did defect from Obama to Trump, and, conversely, some Romney voters moved to either Clinton or Johnson, complicating the calculations all around. Digging into data is important, but, unfortunately, that’s not where Democratic leaders are focusing their analytical attention. Rather than accurately assess the numbers, they have let the myth take on the status of legend, and tens of millions of dollars are being allocated based on faulty data.
Perhaps the most pernicious part of the myth is that it reinforces the absolutely incorrect mind-set that progressives are in the minority in America. Democrats won the popular vote—and not by a little, with Clinton’s 3 million vote margin surpassing the largest figure ever recorded by someone who didn’t win the Electoral College. In the critical states that enabled the Electoral College loss—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Florida—the progressive vote splintered, allowing Trump to slip through with less than a majority of the votes in each of those states.
This minority mindset leads to timid tactics and tepid politics that are no match for the audacity of the right’s racist, xenophobic assault on multiracial America that is occurring every day. Fear of alienating the unicorn of the white swing voter mutes Democratic responses when the only proper response to what is happening in America is unapologetically fighting back by every means available—pushing for impeachment, conducting sit-ins to block the buses deporting people, and issuing full-throated denunciations of a judicial system that sanctions the police murders of unarmed black people. As Obama’s successful elections showed, Democrats win only when their voters are inspired to turn out in large numbers, and a bold, courageous, hopeful platform is essential to generating voter enthusiasm. In order to carry ourselves with the confidence to act with that kind of decisiveness requires the conviction that we are in fact the majority of people in America. If we look at math and not myths, we can straighten our backs, raise our voices, and do what is necessary to bring about the return of the majority in America.