For all the talk about why Donald Trump was elected president while losing the popular vote and how he could win again, one of the least discussed results of the 2016 election offers valuable lessons for Democrats.
An astounding 7.8 million voters cast their presidential ballots for someone other than Trump or Hillary Clinton. The two biggest third-party vote-getters were Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson (almost 4.5 million votes) and the Green Party’s Jill Stein (1.5 million voters). But others received almost another 1.9 million votes as well.
Libertarians and Greens may try to convince you that this reflects growing support for their parties. It doesn’t.
Their strong showing was due to the unpopularity of the two major-party nominees.
Remember, Johnson and Stein were also on the ballot four years earlier, and the former drew under 1.3 million votes and the latter not quite 470,000 votes.
In 2004, the two major-party nominees, George W. Bush and John Kerry, combined for 99 percent of the popular vote.
Four years later, Barack Obama and John McCain drew 98.6 percent of the popular vote. And in 2012, Obama and Mitt Romney took 98.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the Federal Election Commission.
But in 2016, Clinton and Trump together received only 94.27 percent of the popular vote.
Both were so widely unpopular that millions of voters opted to waste their votes by supporting third-party candidates who had no hope of winning.
Breaking down the votes
Two key swing states, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, make clear what occurred.
The Democratic presidential nominee carried Pennsylvania in 2004, 2008 and 2012. Kerry and Obama’s popular-vote margins in those three contests ranged from a low of 144,000 votes in 2004 to 620,000 in 2008. In all three elections, the Democrat received a majority of the vote.
The weakest showing was in 2004, when Kerry won with 50.9 percent of the vote and defeated Bush in the state by 2.5 points.
But in 2016, Trump carried the state by 44,000 votes — just over seven-tenths of a point, even though he won 48.2 percent statewide.
Obama and Romney combined for 98.6 percent of Pennsylvania’s popular vote in 2012, but Trump and Clinton combined for only 95.6 percent four years later.
While third-party hopefuls drew just under 83,000 votes in the Keystone State in 2012, they drew more than three times that number, 268,000 votes, four years later. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania voters couldn’t stomach either of the major parties’ nominees, so they cast protest votes for third-party and independent candidates.
The same thing happened in Wisconsin, but in an even more stunning way.
Wisconsin was a near dead heat in 2004. (Kerry won it by a mere 11,000 votes.) But Obama carried it by comfortable margins in 2008 (415,000 votes) and 2012 (213,000 votes).
Then in 2016, Trump carried the Badger State by fewer than 23,000 votes. But his vote total was less than what Romney received in 2012 — yet Trump carried the state while Romney lost it by over 200,000 votes.
Third-party and independent hopefuls in Wisconsin drew 39,000 votes in 2012 but more than four times that number, 188,000 votes, four years later.
At the same time, the major-party vote there dropped from just over 3 million in 2012 to 2.8 million in 2016.
Elsewhere, the same thing happened.
In Florida, the third-party presidential vote quadrupled from 73,000 votes in 2012 to 297,000 votes in 2016.
In Michigan, it increased almost five-fold, from 51,000 to almost 251,000, while the total number of votes in the state for major-party nominees fell.
Some third-party votes came from Libertarians, Greens and others who regularly vote third party.
But the surge in third-party and independent voters undoubtedly reflected the baggage of the major-party nominees in 2016.
Increased support for third-party candidates occurred in every state, though with differences in magnitude.
In very pro-Trump states like Mississippi, Louisiana and West Virginia, the increase was muted, since there were fewer defections from Trump and Clinton in those states.
Many conservative and pragmatic Republicans found Trump vulgar, narcissistic, intellectually lazy and unqualified to be president, but they couldn’t force themselves to vote for Clinton.
On the other hand, some Democrats saw Clinton as insufficiently progressive and untrustworthy, and there was no way they could vote for her.
What it means for 2020
In theory, Trump could have reached out during his presidency to Republican defectors. Instead, he chose to double-down on personal attacks, nationalist rhetoric and divisive appeals to non-college-educated whites, who helped elect him.
That makes it unlikely for Trump to attract many of those who wasted their votes in 2016.
On the other hand, Democrats have the rare opportunity next year to woo progressives, Republicans and swing voters who threw their votes away by supporting third-party nominees.
Progressives now see the damage Trump has done, and Republicans who rejected Trump in 2016 have had their worst fears about him confirmed.
But if Democrats select a nominee who is again unpalatable to many voters, as Clinton was, that could send anti-Trump Republicans and swing voters back to third parties again in 2020.
While it is completely true that the Democrats “waste” large numbers of popular votes in California and New York, that’s not why Clinton lost in 2016.
She failed to mobilize anti-Trump voters, too many of whom decided that they couldn’t support either major-party nominee. Winning those voters who defected from the two major parties would be an important step for either side.
And right now, only the Democrats are in a position to take advantage of that, which is not good news for Trump, not only in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but also nationally.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially on the Roll Call website on July 29, 2019.
If there was any doubt congressional Republicans want to make the 2020 election about something other than President Donald Trump, look no further than the House GOP’s campaign chairman.
“Republicans will make 2020 race a choice between socialism and freedom, NRCC Chair Emmer says, w starring role for AOC & Squad as ‘Speaker in fact,’ & rest of Democrats as the ‘new Red Army,’” New York Times reporter Julie Hirschfeld Davis tweeted last week about National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer.
That’s not a complete surprise, of course, since Republican candidates, officeholders and strategists have appeared intent for months to transform the 2020 elections from a referendum on Trump into a referendum on socialism.
Even before Emmer’s chat with reporters last week at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, in which he said “This is not a squad. This is an army of socialists,” the Minnesota Republican had signaled his intentions in an op-ed for Roll Call.
“After 100 days of accomplishing nothing but tax increases and bad headlines, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives boldly proclaimed her socialist Democratic caucus have the 2020 elections in the bag. Her faux confidence is misplaced; the past three months for her band of socialists were disastrous,” he wrote on April 15.
But one side doesn’t dictate what an election is going to be about, and you can be pretty certain that most Democratic strategists want the 2020 elections to be a referendum on the president’s character, judgment, integrity and priorities.
And since Trump occupies the highest and most powerful elected office in the land, it’s easier to make next year’s elections about him than about a handful of freshman members of Congress.
If Democrats are going to run on any “ism,” it’s probably going to be the alleged “racism” of the president and his party, a message that should have considerable appeal among minorities, progressives and college-educated swing voters.
Last cycle, Republicans spent time and resources trying to make the 2018 midterms about Speaker Nancy Pelosi. They failed — as I suggested they would in a Feb. 21, 2018, column — because the leader of the minority party in the House simply isn’t seen as running the country.
With Trump in the news daily and the GOP controlling both houses of Congress and the presidency, Republicans never had a chance to make 2018 “about” Pelosi.
As I wrote last year, Republican campaign operatives didn’t have many options in their effort to hold the House, so I could understand the strategy. But that didn’t mean that it was likely to be successful.
This cycle, Pelosi and the Democrats control the House, so at least the NRCC can plausibly label her responsible for the nation’s ills and Trump’s failures.
Plus, some Democrats on the party’s left have become more vocal about moving their party in a more progressive direction, which plays into GOP hands next year.
But most voters don’t see the speaker of the House — or the Senate majority leader, for that matter — as dictating the direction of the country. They think of the president as in control.
That’s particularly likely to be the case when the incumbent president has a large personality, dominates the news and is inherently controversial, either because of his policies or his character and personality. And that description fits Trump perfectly.
Presidential contests are part referendum on the occupant of the Oval Office and part choice between the two parties’ nominees. But Trump’s personality and profile enhance the chance that 2020 is more about him than about anyone else.
All about the nominee
Of course, Emmer’s (and the White House’s) strategy is more likely to be effective if Democrats nominate someone for the presidency who can more easily be portrayed as a radical, and particularly as a socialist.
The most obvious example is Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has embraced the “democratic socialist” label over the years. But even Sanders currently leads Trump in national ballot tests.
But can’t Republicans use the high profiles of Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna S. Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan — a.k.a. “the squad” — to define the entire Democratic Party, as well as the party’s national ticket?
Probably not, though it may be worth a shot given the paucity of other options available to GOP strategists.
The small band of controversial, progressive Democratic women might be able to keep themselves in the limelight if they make an effort so do so next year, which would play right into Republican hands.
But they almost certainly are too junior to become the face of their party, even though they receive an inordinate share of national media coverage now.
By next fall, almost all of the media’s attention will be on the presidential contest — and particularly on the two presidential nominees.
That’s why the Democratic presidential nomination is so crucial to Trump and Emmer’s strategy.
Trump will likely continue to use the squad as punching bags if he needs to (and he will), but most voters will see 2020 as a clear choice between him and his Democratic opponent, especially if Democrats nominate someone who wants to occupy the political center during the general election campaign.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 23, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
President Donald Trump’s attacks on the four Democratic congresswomen, known collectively as “the squad,” appear to be a strange way to try to win reelection.
There is no doubt that Trump needs to motivate his base to win a second term, and his tweets and comments about immigrants and “socialism” are, at least in part, intended to energize his loyal supporters and demonize the entire Democratic Party. On one level, that certainly makes sense.
A less appealing opposition party is likely to attract fewer swing voters and have problems turning out its own weak partisans.
Since the president has not broadened his appeal and attracted new voters, he will in all likelihood need to rely next year on the same narrow Electoral College strategy that sent him to the White House in 2016.
That would entail losing the popular vote again but winning enough white voters without a college degree in key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin to squeeze out another Electoral College victory.
Many of Trump’s core supporters undoubtedly agree with his characterization of “the squad” of four progressive freshmen, and making them the face of the Democratic Party has potential benefits for the president and Republicans.
But too much of Trump’s rhetoric does something else that actually undermines his prospects — it inflames Democrats of all stripes, reminding them why they feel they must defeat the president next year.
In other words, Trump is a turnout machine for the Democrats, as well.
The timing of Trump’s attacks on New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her compatriots is more than a little odd.
The president once again injected himself into a hot-button debate about tolerance, diversity, race and exactly who or what is an American just as the Democratic divide during the presidential nominating process was starting to raise questions about whether party progressives and pragmatists would both support the eventual nominee.
Instead of withdrawing from the limelight so that former Vice President Joe Biden, and Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris could fight it out over “Medicare for All,” decriminalizing illegal immigration, free college, reparations and the Green New Deal, the president put himself in the middle of everything, essentially changing the subject in a way that benefits Democrats.
Obviously, Trump craves the limelight and the attention, and he believes he must continue to feed red meat to his supporters. But doing so inevitably angers, energizes and mobilizes those voters who find him offensive, or worse.
As we saw during the 2018 midterms, Trump is in serious trouble when Democratic turnout among key constituencies — people of color, younger voters and progressives — is strong, and when swing voters — suburbanites and whites with a college degree — slide away from the GOP and to the Democrats.
So, Trump faces a conundrum.
The more he interjects himself into controversial topics, the more cheers he hears from his base. He feeds on that enthusiasm, believing that his reelection prospects are enhanced when he takes on “the squad,” the national media, Hillary Clinton and socialism.
But Trump’s attacks invariably are sloppy. The more he ventures into hot-button topics, the more likely he is to offend voters, energizing core Democratic constituencies and alienating swing voters who sent him a message of disapproval in last year’s midterms.
Trump knows how to turn out his voters. Unfortunately for him, he invariably ends up turning out anti-Trump voters as well.
Given his low approval ratings, his showing in 2016 and the 2018 midterm results, that’s not a recipe for a Trump reelection in 2020.
Note: An earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 17, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
I understand Democrats’ frustration with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, as well as their desire to send him into retirement in the 2020 elections. But once again Democrats have gotten ahead of themselves in their optimism that they can defeat the Kentucky Republican.
Six years ago, Democrats and many in the national media gushed about the prospects of Alison Lundergan Grimes against McConnell. Grimes was young, articulate and personable, and she was the state’s sitting secretary of state.
Plus, her family had a boatload of money and more national political connections than you could count.
We heard repeatedly how old and unliked McConnell was. He had been in Congress for decades and represented gridlock and the past. Voters wanted change and fresh ideas, just what Grimes said she was offering.
“McConnell continues to have an abysmal job approval rating with 54% disapproving and just 36% approving of his performance,” wrote Tom Jensen of Public Policy Polling, a Democratic firm, in an April 9, 2013, memo entitled “Democrats within striking distance of Mitch McConnell for 2014.”
But I never bought the hype, and McConnell ended up clobbering Grimes 56 percent to 41 percent, a reflection of the state’s partisan bent and his campaign defining Grimes as a liberal. Grimes carried only 10 of the state’s 120 counties.
Another year, same story
Amy McGrath is this year’s Alison Lundergan Grimes. A graduate of the Naval Academy and a veteran of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, McGrath was the first woman to fly a combat mission for the Marines.
Clearly, she has an interesting story, and she also has one congressional race under her belt and success as a political fundraiser. (Her haul of $2.5 million for her initial day of fundraising was remarkable.)
McGrath has plenty of assets, but she has the same liabilities as Grimes — maybe even more.
Her biggest problem is Kentucky’s demographics and political fundamentals, both of which make it difficult for a Democrat to win a statewide federal election.
McGrath won a competitive Democratic primary last year in the Lexington-based 6th District for the right to take on three-term Republican incumbent Andy Barr.
She raised about $8.6 million, and many observers expected her to win if Democrats had anything approaching a good year nationally.
But Barr carried 17 of the district’s 19 counties, defeating McGrath 51 percent to 48 percent at the same time that Democrats were netting 40 seats nationwide.
How did Barr survive? He and his GOP allies used McGrath’s own words to paint her as a liberal, including her comment at a Massachusetts fundraiser that she is “further left … than anyone in the state of Kentucky.”
McGrath’s decision to turn around and run against McConnell seems odd (considering the real possibility of consecutive defeats), though it is easy to understand why state and national Democrats would want her to run.
The state is even more Republican than the 6th District, so McGrath starts off with a more challenging electorate.
Democrats hold just one of the state’s six districts, while the other five voted for Donald Trump in 2016, Mitt Romney in 2012 and John McCain in 2008.
Barr’s district was the most competitive of the bunch, since Trump received “only” 55 percent of the vote here.
In the other four GOP districts, he drew 80 percent, 72 percent, 67 percent and 65 percent.
McGrath should win the Democrat-held 3rd District, centered in Louisville, and she should be competitive in the 6th. But her prospects elsewhere in the state, initially at least, appear bleak.
How could the fundamentals be worse for McGrath than they were for Grimes, especially since Democrats have a chance of winning the state’s gubernatorial election in less than four months?
For one, Grimes’s loss occurred in 2014, a full two years before Trump won the presidency. Since then, national politics has become even more polarized and partisan.
That increased partisanship makes it more difficult for Democratic candidates to win statewide federal elections in Kentucky, Trump’s fifth strongest state, behind West Virginia, Wyoming, Oklahoma and North Dakota.
McGrath will need a large number of Trump voters in a state he won by almost 30 points. That is a heavy burden even if McConnell is not personally popular and Democrats have a politically appealing challenger.
McConnell will have plenty of opportunities to make the Senate race about both Trump and McGrath, and indeed, the overwhelming national Democratic response to McGrath’s candidacy gives Kentucky Republicans another weapon to brand the challenger as a liberal, a Trump critic and a favorite of the coastal elites in California and New York. Her comments on Wednesday about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, saying in an interview with the Louisville Courier-Journal she “probably” would have voted to confirm him, then reversing herself a little later, only add fuel to the GOP line of attack.
As for the 2019 gubernatorial race, it will tell us little about a federal contest, where party and ideology are more important.
McGrath has received a Beto O’Rourke-like reception from Democrats across the country who rightfully see McConnell as a poster child for hypocrisy and partisan abuses in government.
But Kentucky’s fundamentals are actually worse than Texas’ for Democrats. (And remember: O’Rourke lost his statewide race there to the unpopular Sen. Ted Cruz.)
Non-Hispanic whites made up 85 percent of the Kentucky population in 2017, according to Governing, and by most measures the state ranks near the bottom on education.
It is not the kind of electorate that seems poised to embrace an anti-Trump Democrat.
Democrats would almost certainly be better off to focus on their top four Senate prospects — Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Maine, as well as longer shots in Iowa, Texas and Georgia — than sink resources into Kentucky.
As I wrote about Grimes in July 2013, the burden is on McGrath to prove she can overcome the state’s fundamentals. At this point, I’m skeptical her prospects are much better than Grimes’ were.
Note: A earlier version of this column appeared initially in the July 11, 2019 issue of Roll Call.
Beware of reading too much into presidential polls. Take, for example, the 2004 race.
An August 2003 CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey found Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the 2000 Democratic nominee for vice president, leading the party’s presidential field with 23 percent. He was trailed by former House Majority (and Minority) Leader Richard A. Gephardt (13 percent), former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (12 percent) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry(10 percent).
A month later, another CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found the newest entry into the race, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, topping the pack with 22 percent, while Dean (13 percent), Kerry (11 percent), Gephardt (11 percent) and Lieberman (10 percent) were bunched together.
There were others in the race, of course — North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, Florida Sen. Bob Graham, Ohio Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich and activist Al Sharpton — but they barely registered in the polls.
By December, Dean had pulled ahead in the CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, opening up a considerable lead over Lieberman, 31 percent to 13 percent. Clark and Kerry drew 10 percent, and Gephardt received 8 percent.
(Multiple other polls, including those for CBS News, Newsweek, ABC News/Washington Post and NBC News/Wall Street Journal showed the same movement to Dean.)
A little more than a month later, on Jan. 19, Kerry won the Iowa caucuses with 38 percent, while Edwards surged into second place with 32 percent. Dean and Gephardt finished much further behind.
Clark and Lieberman did not really compete in the caucuses, preferring to devote their time to New Hampshire.
The first CNN/USA Today/Gallup national survey after the caucuses, conducted Jan. 29 to Feb. 1, 2004, showed Kerry leading nationally with 49 percent to Dean’s 14 percent, Edwards’ 13 percent and Clark’s 9 percent. The race for the Democratic nomination was effectively over.
In a matter of weeks, Kerry went from a political basket case to the de facto Democratic nominee.
Edwards become his major opponent and eventually his running mate.
The early polls weren’t “wrong.” They just weren’t predictive of how things would develop.
16 years later
But 2020 is very different from 2004, isn’t it? In 2004, neither party had ever nominated a person of color or a woman to be president. The Democratic field then was large but nothing like the almost two dozen hopefuls this year.
The Democratic Party of 2004 was very different from the one we see today. And the political environment was very different then, given its proximity to 9/11.
One thing that is similar is the timing of the first debate. In 2003, Democrats held a debate on May 3, about six weeks earlier than this year’s June debates.
Nine Democrats — including one woman, Moseley-Braun, and two candidates of color, Moseley-Braun and Sharpton — participated in the debate, which was held at the University of South Carolina and broadcast on C-SPAN and 59 ABC affiliates. George Stephanopoulos of ABC News was the moderator.
The more things change …
So, what might 2004 teach us about 2020?
First, as Gallup’s Frank Newport noted shortly before the 2004 Iowa caucuses, an early lead in national polling doesn’t guarantee anything.
Sure, some hopefuls (including George W. Bush and Al Gore in 1999-2000, and Donald Trump in 2015-16) have gone wire-to-wire, but most contests show surges and lead changes.
Throughout 2003, voters were doing just what they are doing this year: learning about the candidates, sampling them and sorting them into those they might support and those they won’t.
Polls from before the 2004 Iowa caucuses showed Kerry virtually eliminated from the race — until he wasn’t.
As Democratic pollster Diane Feldman told me more than a decade ago, it’s only weeks before the Iowa caucuses that caucus attendees start asking themselves which of the hopefuls could handle the office of president. That’s a different test from “Who do I like?’ or “Who do I agree with the most?”
Second, every day is “crucial” for cable TV hosts and political spinners, but not for campaigns and candidates.
Fundraising numbers are worth noting, as are news reports about controversies and polling. But all the hoopla — countdown clocks, Super Bowl-like pre-debate introductions, massive panels of experts dissecting every new public opinion survey — is mostly about drawing eyeballs, not educating viewers.
Third, Iowa can change everything.
The winner of the Iowa caucuses doesn’t automatically win the nomination, but the results invariably change perceptions about the front-runner and the entire field, creating new expectations and weeding out the also-rans.
“The [nomination] process is not a simultaneous process but a sequential one,” noted Feldman, whose clients have included the late Minnesota Sen. Paul Wellstone, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Fourth, the Hawkeye State will be more uncertain than ever with the addition of a “virtual caucus” that allows Iowa Democrats to caucus up to six days before the Feb. 3 traditional in-person caucuses.
People undoubtedly are paying more attention to the current race than they did at this point in 2003-04, in part because Democrats are so focused on defeating Trump next year.
And Trump’s nomination and election may well have altered the way people look at the political process and campaigns.
But the coverage of the Democratic contest — including contradictory polling results and multiple media narratives — tells us less than you may think about the party’s eventual nominee.
Voters have plenty of time to evaluate the crowded field before Iowa and Nevada caucus-goers and New Hampshire and South Carolina primary voters make their choices and remake the field.
Note: This column appeared initially in the July 9, 2019 issue of Roll Call.