Learning from loss

DU professor’s new book examines how 2016 shaped the Democratic Party


Seth Masket, like some 48% of voters who supported Hillary Clinton (happily or begrudgingly), has spent a lot of time wondering what happened in the 2016 presidential election. 

The professor of political science at the University of Denver spent the past three years interviewing Democratic Party activists, asking them what went wrong in the last election, how it could be prevented in the next election, and how all that set the stage for the nomination of Joe Biden in 2020. 

Masket is set to talk about his new book, Learning From Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020, during a virtual conversation with fellow political scientist Ashley Jardina through Boulder Book Store on Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 5 p.m.

Boulder Weekly caught up with Masket beforehand to talk about some of his insights. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Boulder Weekly: There are myriad theories as to why Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election, but your research seems to indicate that many Democrats felt a focus on identity politics was the reason.

Seth Masket: It was mentioned by a lot of people, like maybe about a third of the people I spoke to mentioned some version of identity politics. What I argue in the book is that’s, in many ways, the most pernicious explanation for her loss, because if the problem is you picked the wrong nominee, or if the problem is you campaigned in the wrong places or ran the wrong ads, those are fixable problems. You can change those for the next election without having to really rethink what the Party is or what it stands for. 

If you believe the Party lost because you spent too much time focusing on diversity and inclusiveness, that you were working too hard to advance women, to advance people of color, to advance the LGBTQ community … that’s a fairly brutal lesson to internalize. It’s also very consistent with what the Democratic Party has done for half a century every time it loses: When it had a string of presidential losses in the ’80s, there were a lot of people within the party who were saying, “The problem is that we’re listening to Jesse Jackson too much, we’re too much in the thrall of feminists, and we need to nominate moderate white guys like Bill Clinton if we’re going to win.” There’s a long history of this and in some ways, I don’t know that I’d say that argument won out, but it certainly has some traction among people, including some African Americans and some prominent feminists within the Democratic Party who were like, look, we need to win — that’s the most important thing right now, and we’re willing to put some of our key issues aside for that, for the chance of unseating Trump.

BW: The Democratic Party likes to see itself as the “Big Tent” party — can it be a “Big Tent” and not focus on these issues related to racial diversity and equality?

SM: In some ways it’s a matter of emphasis. The Democratic Party can’t ignore these issues, obviously, considering who makes up the Party: how prominent African Americans are within the Party, how women voters overwhelmingly lean toward the Democrats. At the Democratic Convention, there was a lot of highlighting diversity. So that’s never going to be ignored. 

At the same time, the decision on who to nominate for president was a big one. I think there were quite a few people within the party who were concerned that nominating someone like Elizabeth Warren — nominating a bright, outspoken feminist — seemed too much like 2016. Even though there were some very high-quality candidates of color running, that was seen as a risk now. But keeping with the direct evidence for that — that nominating a woman or nominating a person of color makes someone not electable or less electable — it’s pretty spotty honestly. 

BW: You’ve called Biden’s nomination a “strategic” move by the Democratic Party. But Biden had uneven performances and gaffes, and Sanders and Buttigieg came out of the gate strong during primaries.

SM: If you look at all the activity that was going on in 2019 and early 2020 before the primaries and caucuses started, there was a lot of movement within the party toward Biden. That is people who were making endorsements, DNC members, members of Congress, lots of activists who I spoke to. It was hardly an overwhelming pick, but most of them were saying, “We think he can win, so we’re going toward him.” But that didn’t necessarily filter down to caucus-goers in Iowa and voters in New Hampshire who had some different preferences. 

And what was so interesting to me this year is the degree to which those first four contests were in many ways like straw polls basically — they were a beauty contest. With such a big field with such a diverse array of candidates, who wins in these early contests won’t necessarily be determinative. 

One of the things I was considering when working on this book was just how much control does a party have over its own presidential nominations. If you think of 2016, where all these prominent Democrats came out early and said, “We want Hillary Clinton as the nominee,” and it was a divisive battle, but they got the nominee they wanted. And on the Republican side that year, the Party was all over the place. People within the Party didn’t really make a pick. A lot of leaders said, “We’re really not comfortable with Donald Trump,” and then he wins and they fall in line behind him. It was very much like they just sort of sat back and let their voters make a choice for them. So I was really curious to see what was going to happen on the Democratic side this year. 

Biden was leading in the endorsements. He had the bulk of Party voters behind him, and Party money behind him — even though I’d say there were a lot of other better campaigners out there, a lot of people who were simply doing the debates better and raising money. But the Party basically got the nominee it wanted. I think that’s an interesting piece of data that says the Democratic Party still, in some ways, functions like a normal political party.

BW: It feels like what this comes down to is that word electability. What does the word really mean? What does it encompass? 

Wayne Armstrong Courtesy University of Denver

SM: Ezra Klein has a really good definition of it. It’s basically your impression of what other people’s impression of the candidates are. It’s like a second-stage belief. It’s like, regardless of who I think I would prefer, I’m convinced that other people would vote for this person. So there’s a lot of myth-making built into it. 

Political scientists have done some research on this and there actually is some support for the idea that more moderate candidates will tend to do better in elections than more liberal or conservative candidates. People think about that when they think about electability, and there’s something to back it up. It’s a little dicier when you start talking about character traits, like gender or racial identity. Who’s a more electable candidate, like what sort of background they have, whether they’re a military person or have a business background, the political consulting world has a lot of biases built in about that. They just sort of know what electability looks like. 

The really annoying side of it is that we can never test electability directly. A lot of what was supporting Biden was this perception that he could beat Donald Trump. And so far, the results are bearing out what the early polling showed, that people who said they would back him are backing him. We don’t know if Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders were the nominee right now, would they be beating Trump by the same amount? We can never test that. But just the fact that it’s sort of bearing this out, people are like, “Well, see, we told you he was electable.”

BW: Nate Silver got it wrong in 2016 — can we trust poll numbers?

SM: Nate Silver was actually pretty close. I think he gave Trump something like a 30% chance of winning, whereas all these other forecasters were saying Hillary Clinton had a 95% chance or something like that. Nate Silver was saying that Trump had a better chance than most people were thinking because there was a lot of uncertainty — not that he thought Trump was going to win, but he gave him a chance. 

Nationally, the polls were pretty close, with the exception of a few key states that turned out to be really important, like Wisconsin and Michigan and Pennsylvania. Polls predicted Hilary Clinton would win the election with a four point lead and she ended up winning by like two or three points, just missing the Electoral College.

So the polls weren’t bad. The question is, in the places where they did miss, like the upper Midwest, has the Democratic Party corrected for that, have they figured out what they did wrong and fixed that for this time around? And we think so, but we won’t know until the election is over. 

BW: When we’re questioning what went wrong for the Democratic Party in 2016, it seems fair to wonder if the Electoral College is the problem. Did many of your sources question this as well?

SM: I was surprised how few people mentioned that. And I think people just sort of accept that that’s just part of our political world. But the fact that one party could win the popular vote by two or three points — and it’s probably even bigger today —  and still lose the contest, that seems like a fairly big deal and that’s not necessarily something that a political party or the campaign wing of a party can fix.

BW: The United States is only getting more diverse as the years go by. Does leadership in the Democratic Party seem to be taking that into consideration?

SM: It’s always a balance, always something of a negotiation within the party, but I think honestly it is. Some of that will depend on the interpretations of 2020. If Republicans lose this fall, if they lose the White House, maybe lose control of the Senate, after Trump has run a pretty explicitly racialized campaign, I think one of the takeaways — for both parties —  will be like, “Maybe we can go all in on race, maybe we have to try and be more open and more inclusive.” That was one of the things that Republicans had taken away from the 2012 election, believing that they were alienating people and that they needed to be more welcoming of immigrants and they needed to reach out to African Americans and women. And then they ended up going totally the opposite direction in 2016. 

When elections are about things like, say, economics, or when political debates were about like how much taxes are raised or lowered, people can negotiate a compromise between those. They’re not necessarily a polarizing set of issues. It’s hard to compromise on identity. And yet identity is increasingly the central issue in American politics —  whose voice counts?

BW: Democratic Socialists like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have large and ardent followings. Is that the future of the Democratic Party?

SM: I have one chapter in the book where I looked at how people who donated to either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the primaries in 2016 donated in governors races in 2018. And they were still really factionalized. The people who backed Hillary Clinton ended up donating money to whoever the establishment candidate was in the gubernatorial race, and people who backed Bernie Sanders, they went with the progressive. So there’s this factionalism that is not just at the presidential level, but actually it really runs through the Party.

It’s a prominent faction within the Party, but it’s not the majority. That said, they obviously have some power and that may be growing. I think Joe Biden’s behavior is actually a really good barometer for these things. He’s someone who has been relentlessly at the center of the Democratic Party. Biden, at this point, is running on I think the most progressive platform that Party’s ever had. 

I think Biden would want to put a number of that faction of the Party in important cabinet positions in the White House. That’s kind of a healthy coalition style of politics. If you look at things like health care, Biden certainly won’t say the words Medicare For All, but he is talking about a lot of expansion of health coverage because of advocacy from Bernie Sanders and some of his supporters, and he’s embraced a lot of environmental regulations because of that advocacy. 

It is moving him to the left.  

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