In 2012, liberals worried that Barack Obama would fumble the election to Mitt Romney. “With 100 days left in the presidential campaign, perhaps the two most vexing questions in American politics are: How could President Obama possibly lose? And, how could he possibly win?” wrote Democratic consultant Drew Westen in a column for the Washington Post. Rank-and-file Democrats echoed this anxiety.
Time proved these fearful liberals wrong, but their initial worry made sense. For most of 2012, the economy teetered between sluggish recovery and renewed slowdown; Obama’s job approval was underwater, and white voters had turned decisively against his presidency. On the eve of the election, Mitt Romney held 59 percent support among whites, a margin on par with Ronald Reagan’s in the 1984 presidential election. Even if relative conditions favored the incumbent president—and they did—it still felt as if Obama could lose, and lose badly.
Four years later, Obama is a well-liked two-termer presiding over a decent economy. The Democratic Party is about to choose as his successor a woman who ran against him in 2008 and subsequently served in his administration as secretary of state. And in Monday’s Washington Post, a headline read: “The presidency is Hillary Clinton’s to lose. Here are 12 ways she could lose it.”
It’s not unreasonable, as fears go. But they seem to proliferate even among liberals who understand that presidential elections are determined more by demography and economic movement—the fundamentals—than by the particular qualities of the candidates. That’s silly. It’s time people apply what they know to the shape of this election, rather than bend to what they might fear.
Before that, however, it’s worth looking at the reasons liberals are worried about this year’s contest. In the Post, James Hohmann enumerates the problems with and surrounding Clinton. She’s prone to unforced errors, like turning a routine line about the decline of coal in West Virginia into a soundbite promising an end to coal jobs. She’s not a “natural politician”—in her words—and she doesn’t inspire in ways we expect our presidential hopefuls to inspire. She has a penchant for secrecy that doesn’t serve her well, an ex-president husband who has hurt her campaign as much as he’s helped it, and an “insider” pedigree that was as much a requirement—the first woman with a shot at the White House almost had to be an insider—as it is now an albatross, here in the present environment of reactionary populism and “political revolution.” And, if that wasn’t enough, she will be one of the most unpopular politicians ever to win a major party nomination.
It doesn’t ease the anxiety over Clinton’s weakness as a candidate that Republicans, for their nominee, have chosen (or, less charitably, surrendered to) Donald Trump, a reality TV star and real estate mogul who soared to victory on nativist rhetoric and an expansive plan to deport unauthorized immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the United States. Trump emerged out of the dynamics and dysfunctions of the contemporary Republican Party, and eight months of polling presaged his victory. Still, he seems like an unpredictable force—a political Loki who bends and defies the “rules” of American politics.
If the stakes of the 2012 election were high—the future of Democratic policymaking and the legacy of the nation’s first black president—the stakes of this fight are mountainous. Who is this country for? Is it an experiment in multiracial, multiethnic inclusion? Or is it a herrenvolk democracy—a country for whites, and no one else?
That the consequences of President Trump are so dire only amplifies the fear that Clinton could stumble and fall over her scattered baggage. It’s too much to say that liberals and Democrats shouldn’t worry. But to repeat a point that can’t be repeated enough, the fact that Trump could win as a matter of mathematical reality doesn’t mean that it’s a likely outcome. We aren’t in some chaos world of infinite possibilities. Presidential elections are still bound by structural forces, and those—not the dark arts of Donald Trump or the David Brentish awkwardness of Hillary Clinton—will weigh heaviest on this election.
What are those forces?
They are demographics. In 2012, President Obama won 39 percent of white voters to Mitt Romney’s 59 percent, with major deficits in key swing states like Virginia and Florida, where he lost white voters 61 percent to 37 percent. And yet, Obama won the national popular vote with room to spare, and he won in those states. The reason is simple: nonwhite voters. By voting as a bloc (or close to it), black, Latino, and Asian Americans tilted the field decisively toward the Democrats. Thus far, there’s no evidence these Americans have dropped out of the presidential electorate, and plenty to suggest they’ll return in greater numbers. How does Trump fare with this rising share of voters?
According to the latest survey from YouGov and the Economist, 82 percent of blacks and 78 percent of Latinos have a negative view of the Republican presidential nominee. Among people under 30, 80 percent have a negative view. Among women, 66 percent have a negative view. No one in the presidential field, including Clinton, is as unpopular as Trump is. He’s in a whole realm to himself.
There are still other forces. Take partisanship. It governs voting among most Americans, including independents, who vote consistently for one party or the other, even if they don’t call themselves Democrats or Republicans. Partisanship is why Republicans have warmed to Trump in the days since he salted away the nomination. He’s one of them now, and that’s all that counts. On the same score, partisanship—helped along by party leaders like Barack Obama and Elizabeth Warren—is why most Democrats will eventually unite behind Clinton. Indeed, once we take partisanship seriously as a major force driving our electoral outcomes, the idea that Trump could peel off substantial numbers of Democratic-voting nonwhites or women (or even liberal whites) is ludicrous. It takes massive events—wars and recessions—to shatter long-established voting habits, and even then, the effect is modest. John McCain ran for president in the shadow of a failed Republican president and still won more than 45 percent of the popular vote.
None of this is to say that Clinton can’t lose. She certainly can. But the main effect of presidential campaigns is to turn candidates into generic party standard-bearers, which means modern presidential elections turn on macro events, not micro characteristics. Mitt Romney didn’t lose 2012 because he was stiff and aloof; he lost because the economy was growing enough to favor the incumbent. Likewise, with or without Ross Perot in the running, Bill Clinton would have won in 1992—the economy was just that bad. There’s no question that in the fall, this Clinton campaign will make cringeworthy moves to rival the embarrassing ones of the past year, from “Yaaas, Hillary” to “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela.” But gaffes don’t make or break campaigns and bad merchandise doesn’t move votes. In a world of $1 billion campaigns, hypertargeted messaging, and deep partisanship, they don’t even matter.
The obvious response to all of this is that Hillary Clinton is a distinctive character in American politics, sui generis in a way that prevents her from ever becoming a generic Democrat. That may be true. But if it’s true of her, it’s true of Trump, too. And while Clinton is distinctive in ways both good and bad—a former First Lady turned senator turned diplomat, an unpopular and divisive figure, the first woman with a serious shot at the presidency—Trump is distinctive in ways that Balkanize and alienate vast swaths of the electorate. Instead of panicking or worrying about Team Clinton’s ability to avoid trivial mistakes, liberals and anyone invested in beating Trump should look for as many ways to capitalize on that fact.
Which is to say, do not become addicted to the spectacle of Trump! It will take hold of you and lead you astray of the things that matter in this election. Politics is not just a game of personality—a contest of who can generate the most cash for cable networks. It is a struggle of values and interests, groups and communities. Far from worrying about Clinton, liberals and Democrats should understand that they have the advantage.