The greatest unknown of 2016 isn’t what will happen on Election Day. The most compelling “what if” of this election cycle is what happens on November 9th. While most analysts have devoted their attention to the GOP and whether there will be a restoration of conservatism after the failed Trumpian putsch, the Democratic Party’s future is as much of an unknown. Democrats got lucky in 2016. Facing natural headwinds and internal tensions, the ascension of Donald Trump papered over all those adverse conditions. Beginning in January 2017, they will return with a vengeance.
Though the fate of the Republican presidential nominee may be all but sealed, Republican incumbents and office seekers have run generally strong campaigns and are outperforming the top of the ticket in public polling. It remains to be seen whether the Republican Party’s incumbents can defy gravity on November 8. Clearly, though, Democrats including President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who had likely expected Trump to naturally drag down his party’s members, are getting nervous.
Both the president and his chosen successor spent most of the election year framing Donald Trump as an aberration from not merely conservatism but from Republicanism as it has been conventionally defined. That strategy has gone out the window as the Democratic Party’s down-ballot committees grow more and more impatient with polling that has not shown their candidates’ fortunes rising with Clinton’s.
It would defy recent history for the GOP’s majorities to survive a drag on their turnout operations like Trump. If, however, the party’s Senate majority narrowly survives 2016, the Republican House majority surely will as well. This would be nothing short of a disaster for Clinton. She has run a campaign predicated on the idea that she should be president for no other reason than that she should be president. Clinton will be one of the most unpopular first term chief executives in history. She will have a dubious mandate to pursue her preferred legislative reforms, and the Republican Party will have no incentive to compromise with her.
Even if the GOP’s Senate majority falls to the insurmountable forces of Trump’s reverse coattails, Democrats are looking ahead to an ugly map in 2018 and a special election to replace Senator Tim Kaine in Virginia next year. It’s likely that Clinton will not have the luxury of compliant liberal majorities in Congress, and that will only further frustrate an already aggravated Democratic base. “Clinton team should prepare for a post-election day narrative that she’s a fluke president with no mandate apart from ‘she’s not Trump,’” speculated Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel. Brooklyn would be wise to take his advice.
Despite serving as a perfect contrast to Clinton, Donald Trump has not managed to make the former first lady a popular figure. He has, however, managed to convince Democrats to forget their gripes with the party. That is a temporary condition.
The Democratic Party’s “establishment” appeared genuinely surprised in 2015 and early 2016 by the resistance among their grassroots voters to Hillary Clinton’s nomination. Only belatedly did they embrace the notion that the coronation they had planned for her wasn’t going to happen. The release of a variety of private email communications between the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign reveal that the party’s elites had no intention of allowing Clinton to fall to the will of the voters. In the end, though, Senator Bernie Sanders won 23 states and over 13 million votes (43 percent of the total cast). Hers was hardly a nomination by universal acclamation.
Trump may have antagonized a generation of women, young voters, and minorities; members of Barack Obama’s “coalition of the ascendant” that the GOP knew they needed in order to win the White House. But antipathy toward the Republicans does not necessarily translate to love for Democrats. The Black Lives Matter movement is, for example, a shot across the Democratic bow from a segment of its coalition the party has taken for granted. This is a movement expressly frustrated with Democratic governance in urban America, and it spent the majority of the primary season focusing its ire on Democratic politicians.
And what about the new members of Clinton’s coalition? College-educated whites have voted for Republican presidential candidates in substantial numbers in every election save the present one since 1956. Clinton has not won these voters; Trump appears to have lost them. Similarly, after transitioning toward Republicans for several cycles, Trump has managed to thrust American Catholics back into Democratic arms. This condition is almost certainly a temporary one, as exemplified by the hostility with which Clinton’s team members regard those of faith.
Donald Trump granted Democrats a reprieve from the forces of history and the fundamental conditions that make winning a third consecutive term in the White House a nearly insurmountable task. Once he is gone, those conditions will return, and Democrats will have to reconcile them. Clinton’s presidency will be a fraught one, and her party’s 2016 victory may turn out to be pyrrhic.