By Seth Abramson
Apr 5, 2016
One needn’t speculate about how the Democrats could end up losing the 2016 presidential election. In fact, a subtly complex, multi-part plan to do just that is exactly what the Democrats have been up to over the last six months.
Here’s a detailed report on the ten steps the Democrats are now taking to ensure they lose the White House to the Republicans in 2016:
1. Assume that Donald Trump will be the Republicans’ 2016 nominee, though it’s now clear he won’t be.
Republican pundits agree: Trump will come up short of the 1,237 delegates he needs to clinch the Republican nomination prior to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Trump will come up short for several reasons: (a) neither Ted Cruz nor John Kasich has any reason to leave the race before Cleveland, and the entirety of their ambition in remaining candidates is to deny delegates to Trump pre-Cleveland; (b) delegates Trump thought he had earned — in Louisiana, in Tennessee, in South Carolina, and soon enough elsewhere — are being and will be taken from him pre-Convention via shenanigans coordinated by Ted Cruz’s ground operation; (c) Trump is about to lose Wisconsin, and will continue to lose certain smaller and more rural states to Cruz and large pockets of delegates to Kasich in Midwestern and Northeastern states; and (d) there are just too few states left for Trump to clinch before Cleveland, now that his “win %” is well over 50% (that is, he has to win well over 50% of the remaining delegates to clinch the nomination pre-convention, and in a three-candidate primary he’s clearly not been able to do that).
In short, there’s a reason that FiveThirtyEight.com now says Trump is 5% below where he needs to be to get the nomination outright. And Trump’s terrible performance this past week — with scandals involving his campaign manager allegedly assaulting a female reporter; his retweets of attacks on his opponent’s wife; his paradoxical inference that he’s simultaneously pro-choice in practice and believes women should be criminally punished for getting abortions; his continued threat to mount an Independent run for President — will do nothing to change that.
Trump has no chance whatsoever to secure the nomination at the Convention itself. Choose your reason: so-called “faithless” delegates; delegates who are free to choose whoever they wish after the first ballot; delegates “for Trump” who in fact were selected and seated by Cruz or Kasich; backroom Establishment machinations that sway delegates hoping to curry Party favor — all will conspire to deny the nomination to the man who Washington Post polling indicates would be, at the start of his campaign, one of the most unpopular political candidates in U.S. history.
2. Nominate the only person who can reunite the Republican Party once Trump failing to get the nomination has fractured it beyond repair.
Hillary Clinton is one of the least popular major-party politicians in America, and her disapproval rating is not just sky-high among Republicans — we already knew that — but is in fact a long-time institutional motivator for the entire Republican Party.
Nothing unites Republicans quite like hatred of the Clintons. If Trump’s supporters are denied seeing their favored candidate win the nomination despite his lead in delegates earned through primaries and caucuses — and make no mistake, they will be so denied — their impulse to bolt the Republican Party completely will (and can) only be stopped by a Clinton candidacy.
Hillary Clinton is, in short, the only savior the Republican Party has left.
So the Democrats are working as hard as they can to nominate her, of course.
3. Fracture the Democratic Party by broadly supporting the Clinton camp’s attempts to smear Bernie Sanders and his supporters.
Three weeks ago, no one was talking about the Democratic race being “negative.”
Then Bernie Sanders starting winning more Election Day votes than Clinton, started cutting into her delegate lead, and started developing the sort of momentum that could lead to catastrophic electoral results for Clinton in the latter half of the election season. After winning 60% of the delegates in February, Clinton won only 51% of them in March, and is now set to lose the first two votes on April (Wisconsin and Wyoming). The frustration in her camp is palpable, and recently was seen on the face of the candidate herself while reprimanding a Sanders supporter during a public rally.
So the Clinton camp — with the help of the media and cable-news interviews (as well as newspaper editorials) by Party elites — changed the narrative.
Clinton campaign staff put out the conspiracy theory that Sanders was planning (I paraphrase) “a massive negative attack campaign” in New York, based solely on internal polls taken by Sanders to determine which issues New York voters are most interested in hearing the candidates discuss. Clinton supporters Barney Frank and Bakari Sellers accused Sanders of being a “McCarthyite” — comparison to the late Senator Joe McCarthy being one of the most damning slanders in American politics — for noting that oil lobbyists were bundling money for the Clinton campaign and for her super-PAC. The Clinton camp accused the Sanders campaign of “playing games” with the scheduling of a primary debate in New York. They said Sanders was deliberately permitting his supporters to boo Clinton at his rallies. They attacked his surrogates for mentioning, in passing, the FBI investigation into Clinton’s private email server. They accused the Sanders campaign of “lying” about Clinton’s record. They accused Sanders of a secret and anti-democratic plan to convince super-delegates to vote the same way as their states of origin did (and if you can explain to me how that’s either a secret plan or anti-democratic, I’d appreciate it). They falsely claimed that Sanders hadn’t sufficiently rebuked Donald Trump for his comments about criminalizing abortion.
And on and on.
Every day for the past two weeks the Clinton campaign has attacked the ethics and integrity of Sanders and his campaign, usually by falsely claiming that Sanders — for instance, by broadly and on principle opposing super-PACs and money from lobbyists, no matter who their money goes to — was maliciously doing the same to them.
In short, the Clinton campaign went relentlessly negative and managed to get the national media to accuse the Sanders campaign of doing so — a premise set up by a Clinton campaign memo leaked to the media alleging that Sanders “was about to go negative” in New York. It was Karl-Rovian political philosophy at its very best, and it worked for the Clinton campaign — but not in the way they intended.
With each new attack on Sanders, the Clinton campaign has permanently alienated a new crop of Sanders voters. 33 percent of Sanders supporters already say that they might not vote for Clinton; so by going negative and so relentlessly, the Clinton campaign is tearing up potential November votes for their candidate by the tens of thousands or more.
4. Fatally underestimate the electoral chances of the two men now most likely to be the Republican presidential nominee in November: Ted Cruz and John Kasich.
According to RealClearPolitics, one of the nation’s top polling aggregators, John Kasich has beaten Hillary Clinton in every single head-to-head poll taken in 2016. Across ten polls, Kasich beats Clinton by an average of more than six points. To put this in perspective, the last time Clinton defeated Kasich in a head-to-head poll was more than seven months ago.
The Cruz-Clinton polling is more mixed — and yet, somehow, every bit as troubling. Between August of 2013 and August of 2015, Hillary Clinton beat Ted Cruz in every single head-to-head poll. And there were a lot of them: 37, to be exact. But then something happened; after a brief hiatus from Cruz-Clinton polls, pollsters again began testing that matchup in November of 2015. This times, the results were dramatically different.
Now, Cruz beats Clinton 31% of the time, ties her 14% of the time, and loses to her 55% of the time. The last seven polls show the two in a statistical tie — Clinton leads narrowly, but well within the polls’ margin of error.
It would be an impressive showing for Clinton if Cruz were an impressive candidate.
In fact, Ted Cruz is one of the least popular politicians in America, indeed one of the least popular major-party candidates of the last few election cycles. His average favorability-unfavorability rating is -17.6, though this figure is aided enormously by a single outlier poll that found a -6 rating. Take that outlier out of the equation, and Cruz is underwater to the tune of -19.2 points in recent polling.
Clinton supporters say that general election polling isn’t accurate in April. Unfortunately, we know from hard data that that’s not correct. In fact, according to studies, we’re right in the middle of a spike in general-election polling accuracy — right now, as in this minute. As Vox notes, “By the time we get to mid-April of an election year, polls explain about half the variance in the eventual vote split. And mid-April polls have correctly ‘called’ the winner in about two-thirds of the cases since 1952.”
5. Fail to nominate their most popular candidate, in particular the one with the best chance of beating Ted Cruz or John Kasich in the fall.
In 2016, Clinton’s favorability-unfavorability rating has been checked by pollsters twenty times. Clinton’s hasn’t been viewed favorably by a majority of respondents even once. More than that, her negative score has been in double-digits 85 percent of the time (and one of the three times it wasn’t, it was -9).
The problem here — or, rather, another problem — is that the RealClearPolitics history shows that Clinton only becomes more unpopular the more hotly contested an election is, and as many pundits have noted, the Clinton-Sanders race has generated sufficient heat that Clinton may struggle to win over a significant percentage of Sanders voters should she win the nomination. If she wins the nomination with super-delegates, rather than clinching it via pledged delegates alone, that discontent within the party will be larger still.
Meanwhile, Sanders consistently beats every Republican candidate — including Cruz and Kasich — by more than Clinton, not just nationally but in battleground-state polling. Democrats have thus far disregarded this polling both because of a specious argument from the Clinton camp (general-election polling means nothing unless it tells a good story for Secretary Clinton) and a dangerous assumption originating from the same source (that Trump will definitely be the GOP nominee, and because anyone could beat Trump in November, it hardly matters who the Democrats nominate).
John Kasich is substantially more popular than Hillary Clinton nationally, but less popular than Bernie Sanders. So how does a Clinton-Kasich general-election battle sound to you, Democrats?
6. Freeze one of the most popular Democrats nationally, Bernie Sanders, out of the picture altogether.
In 2008, when Hillary Clinton lost a hotly contested presidential nominating contest to Barack Obama, she was rewarded with the second-most powerful executive position in the U.S. government: Secretary of State.
In 2016, the Clinton camp, determined to offend Sanders and his supporters, has leaked that if he continues to do well — winning about half the delegates in the primary season post-March 1st — they’ll consider giving him a good speaking slot at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
They may even, if he’s really good and plays really nice with everyone, let him chat with Secretary Clinton a few times about his priorities and maybe (if he’s lucky!) get her to adopt one or two of his positions that, in fact, she already has adopted-cum-stole via her largely plagiarized-from-Bernie stump speeches.
What? No Cabinet-level position, just a nice speaking slot on TV?
When Bernie’s been on TV more over the past six months than he was in the twenty-five years prior?
Yes, it’s true: the Clinton campaign is throwing maximum shade at Bernie regarding his future in the Party, and in the most condescending way possible.
They’ve even gone so far as to leak possible VP candidates for Clinton — Cory Booker; Julian Castro — just to be certain that Sanders supporters know that neither Sanders nor his closest ally in Congress, Elizabeth Warren, will have any place whatsoever in a second (or rather third) Clinton Administration.
By freezing Sanders and his platform out of the Democratic Party altogether, it ensures that not only will Clinton lose many Sanders supporters — which will already happen pursuant to step #5 of the Democrats plan to lose the White House — but also that she will lose most or all of the independent voters that Sanders has thus far been winning over her by 30 to 40 points. Indeed, Clinton has done everything she can do to signal that neither Sanders’ views nor his supporters will have any place in her Administration should she win the White House — which callous disregard of the Democratic base substantially decreases her chances of ever occupying that building.
7. Reject Sanders’ call for a fifty-state general-election campaign.
If John Kasich is the Republican nominee, the entire Midwest — especially Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Indiana — will be up for grabs in the fall. Given Clinton’s weak standing relative to Kasich in national and state head-to-head polling, if Kasich is the GOP nominee the Democrats will need to have a plan to pick up states they would not normally contest.
Polling suggests that Bernie Sanders could expand the Democratic map by bringing either into play for the first time or more firmly into the Democratic camp certain purple or even red states — Kansas, Missouri, Utah, Alaska, New Hampshire, Michigan — that Clinton might well lose in November should she be the Democratic nominee. But nothing in the demeanor or public statements of the Clinton campaign suggests that it has a plan to make its candidate — already one of the most unpopular Democrats in the nation — into a candidate who could win over independents or beat a relatively moderate Republican like John Kasich in battleground states.
Sanders has made clear that the Democrats will need, in 2016, a movement of the sort they had in 2008 when President Obama first ran for national office. He has said explicitly that a fifty-state strategy is needed, one that acknowledges that independent voters and even moderate Republicans are persuadable in a situation in which the GOP has tacked hard to the right in recent years. If Clinton is nominated by the Democrats, the Democrats will approach the national electoral map the same way Al Gore did in 2000, and that simply won’t cut it.
And it shouldn’t cut it — as a general-election campaign that starts out with little hope of or interest in winning over independents, indeed whose only plan to win over independents is to have the other party nominate its worst imaginable candidate, is almost destined to lose on Election Day.
8. Do nothing whatsoever to address outstanding concerns about the character, integrity, and judgment of the Party’s front-runner.
Clinton has refused to release her Wall Street speeches when she could easily do so, making it look like she has something to hide. Clinton has refused to clearly articulate any mistakes she might have made with respect to her private email server, making it look like she exercises bad judgment and then has no ability or willingness to self-analyze or admit error — precisely the quality so many people find unnerving in Donald Trump.
Clinton has refused to reign in her out-of-control husband — and I’m speaking only in political terms here — who helped her lose in 2008 with ill-considered analogies between Barack Obama and Jesse Jackson and is now going around the country saying that Obama’s economy has left many people out (adding too that he won’t recuse himself from casting a super-delegate vote for his own wife). Clinton has refused to distance herself from the Clinton Foundation, despite the bad press it’s gotten for the myriad conflicts of interest necessarily involved in its fundraising efforts. Despite saying that oil money makes up an infinitesimal percentage of her fundraising, Clinton has refused to just let that money go and make the same pledge to forego it that Sanders has.
Clinton has routinely slipped into the same sleazy politico-speak — accusing Sanders of “voting against” the auto bail-out when he didn’t; accusing Sanders of condoning Trump’s anti-women comments when he hasn’t; trying to set up primary debates for dates and times no one could possibly be watching — that’s made her so unpopular nationally.
In short, Hillary Clinton appears to blame everyone but herself for the lack of trust the American people have in her. That’s a bad look for any politician, both because it ignores the concerns of voters and, moreover, suggests a candidate incapable of personal and political growth. There are many things the Clinton camp could be doing now to rehabilitate her image for the general election, and they’re doing absolutely none of them.
9. Over-rely on the national media to set the political narrative for the campaign season, further alienating voters who want to vote for a candidate with vision.
From the jump, the Clinton campaign should have distanced itself from the whole “super-delegate” component of the presidential election season, as voters rightly see super-delegates as anti-democratic and singularly non-responsive to the Democratic base. Instead, the Clintons reveled in the day-in, day-out media reports that wrongly assigned her super-delegates as part of her delegate count. This rightly infuriated Sanders supporters. Clinton could have said, “Don’t include those delegates because they haven’t voted yet; and besides, I plan to win in the pledged delegate battle” — but she never did.
Clinton used media cover to evade substantial criticism for participating in so few debates, and for the debates that were held being held at such inconvenient — sometimes downright strange — dates and times.
Clinton waited to see which Sanders’ policy positions were most popular among the media and among voters before adopting these positions herself.
Clinton sat back and let the media focus primarily on Trump, because she thought that doing so would emphasize that, on the Democratic side, the front-runner’s eventual nomination was a near-certainty. This made the Republican contest the focal point of American political discourse month after month — a lack of media coverage that hurt Democratic turnout in caucuses and, more generally, made the Democratic Party seem less energetic than the Republicans.
Using behind-the-scenes machinations to sweep out of her way any Democratic candidates besides (in addition to Sanders) Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee — three deeply underwhelming individuals — didn’t help, as it made the Democratic bench seem far, far more shallow than it actually is. If you’re wondering why Clinton’s only credible competition is an Independent (Sanders), you really don’t understand how the Clintons do things.
And now Clinton continues to buy the media hype that she’s far more popular than Sanders and beating him handily, even though her campaign has basically been a disaster since March 1st. She and her team have missed the important particulars of the Sanders’ comeback — both its specific contours and what it portends more generally — only and precisely because the national media has missed it, too.
And on and on.
The problem is that Clinton had so routinely used favorable media coverage as a crutch that it has weakened — if not stopped in its tracks — her ability to improve as a candidate or raise the profile of the Democratic “brand” more generally. Nor has it prepared her to understand how and why so many Democrats are angry at the media right now, and with a fervor usually reserved for Republican ire about “left-wing bias.”
When the media turns on Clinton in the fall — should she be the nominee — it will be entirely predictable, as the media benefits when a general-election race is as close as possible. And Clinton simply won’t be prepared for it. Nor will the Democrats, who will have done insufficient work setting the terms of the national political discourse for the media, rather than the other way around.
10. Ignore the youth vote.
More Millennials have a favorable opinion of socialism than capitalism, and they’re voting for Sanders over Clinton by approximately a 50-point margin. Clinton’s only response is empty political rhetoric: “You may not be supporting me, but I’m supporting you!” That’s not just empty talk — it’s patronizing. Millennials don’t want someone from their grandparents’ generation saying, “I’m supporting you!”, nor do they even just wanted to be listened to — in fact, they want their values to be reflected, and sincerely so, in the politicians for whom they vote.
Hillary Clinton doesn’t share the values or vision for America of the generation that will steer the Democratic Party for the next half-century, and shows no interest in doing so. That spells doom for the Party long-term — possibly even its devolution or dissolution in the next few election cycles, as we’re seeing with the Republican Party now. And it’s entirely avoidable. In fact, Bernie Sanders is not so much what the Clintons see him as — a pest — as the writing on the wall telling the Democratic Leadership Council and its ilk that their days are numbered, and that if they don’t pivot into the America we all live in, rather than merely the America they and their friends inhabit, the Democratic Party will ultimately cease to exist.
In sum, the Democrats are flawlessly executing a complex plan to lose the 2016 presidential election, slowly dismantle their own party apparatus, and become irrelevant in the next ten years.
Congratulations to them.
And, given what we’re seeing now on the GOP side, God help the rest of us.
Seth Abramson is the Series Editor for Best American Experimental Writing (Wesleyan University) and the author, most recently, of DATA (BlazeVOX, 2016).
Follow Seth Abramson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/sethabramson