by Vikas Thusoo
Just before 7:00 PM last night, virtually every poll in the country had Hillary Clinton cruising to victory. Republicans were sombre and hoping for a miracle while Clinton’s campaign was upbeat and already preparing for a victory speech at the Javits Center. As the night unfolded, the mood in the Clinton campaign quickly changed from celebratory to concern and then to shock and disbelief. As with any unexpected loss, the Democratic Party will likely dig deep and go through a period of reflection and heavy introspection. There will be a lot of what-ifs but the question that perhaps will bother them the most is how they all could be wrong. How, despite hundreds of millions in campaign donations, all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, an unabashedly favourable media, and the benefit of big data could everyone get it so wrong that the Democrats got decimated losing even the house and the senate for the first time since 1928!
Changing socioeconomic factors make every election different, and, frankly, more interesting and unpredictable. Campaigns analyze issues that affect their target voters and adapt their message in line with their core ideologies accordingly. This election has been no different. However, it seems that Democrats have not only failed to measure the pulse of their electorate, but grossly underestimated the importance of the Republican stance on many key issues. The result is an astounding victory for Donald Trump. There is already talk of the effect of third party candidates and absentee voters on the Clinton campaign but a quick analysis reveals other significant reasons that energized the republican voters but failed to push Democrat vote.
The election results have revealed an apparent polarization of American politics and perhaps even social ideologies and few have paid attention to the common grievance, across political leanings, of a widening economic disparity and disappearing opportunities. In the last twenty years, workers have witnessed a massive de-industrialization of America resulting in the loss of millions of jobs in manufacturing alone. Once the industrial hub of the world, the US has now become the world’s biggest consumer, producing very little. The post-war burgeoning middle class has not only shrunk to a minority but is squeezed from both ends by a growing poverty-stricken group (over 45 million) and a small enriched group. For many other Americans with jobs, stagnant wage levels, the malaise of increasing economic inequality and a growing perception of an unfairly rigged economic system have been central issues for this election. The anger and resentment of the establishment is palpable. Even Bernie Sander’s understood this and offered his socialist (albeit economically impractical) solution that was well received by many, millennials in particular.
Hillary surprisingly didn’t get it, more so considering Bill Clinton had made economy one of the key issues of his 1992 campaign. In none of her speeches or debates did Hillary offer a sympathetic word to the working class or a concrete economic plan that the voters would relate to. If she did, her message wasn’t clear. She mostly articulated her economic position through meaningless generalities like “will work for the middle class” and “will take care of families”, perhaps hoping that a non-committal position would allow her the freedom to defend or adapt her position in the future. This turned out to be a gross tactical error. Trump made economy one of the central points of his campaign. He gave the blue collared worker a clearer and more tangible picture of economic expectations. Voters connected to his message and Trump did well to stay on it. His victories in the massive rust belt including Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania prove it.
The Democrats were so overconfident and disconnected from the ground realities of the region that Hillary barely campaigned there and when she did towards the end of her campaign, it was at a Jay-Z concert in Ohio. When common folks are worried about jobs and social security, a rap concert isn’t exactly the right setting to drive home your point. Trump likely sensed the discontent in the belt and campaigned heavily and the results are there to see.
What’s astonishing is that, across America, voters overlooked Trump’s arguably divisive and even misogynist rhetoric. Democrats got lulled into a false sense of security, believing that voters would vehemently reject any candidate with such language or behaviour. Clearly, basic needs of jobs, security and healthcare took precedence over Trump’s often grating hyperbole.
Given the economic realities of the middle and blue collar class, many voters considered Hillary’s promise of getting more Syrian refugees as a sort of political altruism at the expense of the American tax payer. Rather than assuage any fears of terrorism or radical violence (as has happened in Europe), Hillary chose to remain silent, calling Trump a bigot instead. Trump’s stance on the issue was extreme (causing many to call him racist), but he was still able to galvanize his voters by showing that he cared about America’s security and not political correctness. Hillary’s vacillating stance didn’t help her even though she could have easily scored over Trump on this. Typically Democratic candidates run to the left in the primaries and then move towards the center in the main campaign. Hillary reversed that and likely alienated millions of potential voters by doing so.
Hillary, other than some undefined tweaks to Obamacare and a watered-down version of Bernie’s Sanders’ popular college debt proposal, largely maintained a message vacuum. Instead, she chose to focus mainly on selling herself and how well qualified she was to become president, a largely reactive tactic to offer a “saner”, more steady alternative to the grotesquely inexperienced Donald Trump. But such ideas don’t necessarily resonate with working class voters if it is not accompanied by a positive message of what that experience will do for them. In any case, a significant number of voters have felt marginalized by a system, they allege, does not care about them and Hillary was widely considered as part of the problematic “system”. She did nothing, either before or during her campaign, to dissociate herself from that pro-establishment label. Trump, once again, projected himself as an outsider like them, who recognized that the ‘system’ wasn’t working for the average American and promised to fix it. “Drain the Swamp”, he said and the voters lapped it up.
Hillary’s untrustworthiness will also be open for introspection in the post-election defeat dissection. Her murky dealings with foreign governments through the Clinton Foundation, alleged insincerity in her business dealings and a habit of deliberate lying made her one of the most unpopular candidates in the history of the Democratic ballot. The e-mail scandal and it’s timing in particular didn’t help her at all. This created some dissonance in the voters, especially women, one of her main target demographic. Although portrayed as a voice for women, the results show that Hillary failed to improve on the share of women votes that Obama had in 2012 and, in fact, dropped a percentage point overall. It likely indicates that American women did not buy too much into the “first woman president” narrative, perhaps rightly so. Few would argue that anyone should be denied an opportunity based on gender and, by the same token, voting someone into office primarily based on gender is equally regressive.
Trump, on the other hand, touted himself as a successful businessman who has no need for petty dealings. He was “in it for the people”, he said, and what can be more ironical than working class people identifying with a billionaire. Yet, he succeeded.
Democrats severely underestimated the increasing contempt that the average American now has for mainstream media for peddling their profound liberal bias. Hillary has been always perceived as a darling of the mainstream media and that certainly did not help her case. Trump, once again, turned conventional wisdom on its head and attacked the media at every opportunity to his advantage.
It now remains to be seen whether Trump will tone down his vitriolic disdain for everything not Trump. In the coming days the world will see how Trump shapes American future in an inclusive and bipartisan manner while staying true to his promises and ideas. He has the mandate and the opportunity to reach out to all Americans and prove to them that they have made the right choice. In the meantime, Hillary will walk away into the sunset of her political life.