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Facing reality about the election

by Eric Ferguson on December 14, 2016

trump3Hillary Clinton’s popular vote lead continues to increase as states continue to process absentee ballots and provisional ballots, and we certainly can take some comfort in Hillary winning by the standard used in healthy democracies, but we also have to face a structural problem. This is twice in this young century this has happened to the Democratic candidate. This strains the idea this is a statistical oddity. For all that it lets us push back when Trumpers claim he won some sort of landslide or mandate, we have the same problem with the electoral college we have with the Senate, the House, and most state legislatures: the way those bodies are structured favors Republicans. Both the way districts are drawn and just how the current US population is spread among the various states results in Republican voters being efficiently distributed. That’s most clear when looking at how congressional and legislative seats are gerrymandered in so much of the country, but the structure of the Senate does the same thing. Since each state is equally represented, and small states tend to be populated by the demographic groups that lean Republican, the Senate overrepresents conservative areas. The electoral college isn’t as bad since population counts too, but there would be no President Trump, as there would have been no President Bush Jr., without an efficient distribution of people inclined to vote Republican.

Democrats have an obvious partisan interest in reforming American elections so one person’s vote is equal to anyone else’s, but we can point out that no modern democracy values some votes more than others. This anachronism from the 18th century unfortunately serves Republicans well. In fact, they would not only not hold the presidency without it, but they would not hold the Senate either. That means we’re unlikely to modernize our elections and government structures unless Republicans find themselves disadvantaged. We’re going to have to find ways to win anyway.
And I wish that were all the tough lessons from this election.
Voter suppression laws are working. The author of that linked article, Ari Berman, mentioned in a radio interview (sorry, that means nothing to link to) that most of the people in Wisconsin who didn’t vote because of photo Id restrictions actually did have ID that would have let them vote. They didn’t vote because they wrongly thought they couldn’t or they were unsure and didn’t want to deal with being turned away from the polls. So even just the legal battles, court orders and failure of the Republican government to comply with court orders regarding rules and publicity, did the job of keeping people away from the polls. I haven’t seen the numbers to know how much that holds true for other states, or if the numbers were sufficient to flip the election result, but at least Democrats lost votes because of suppression. So for Republicans, suppression worked. I wish I could say Democrats didn’t pay attention and didn’t do all they could to combat it, but I have a terrible feeling Democrats DID pay attention and do all they could, and it just wasn’t enough.

Turnout was down in deep blue districts. Milwaukee was down 15% and I question if that was due entirely to the aforementioned photo ID laws. Hillary lost Michigan by about 8,000, and aren’t there another 8,000 votes in Detroit? There is this long-standing problem for Democrats in that we have to win outside the urban and inner suburban base to win districts, but we need turnout in the base to win statewide. Having worked on the campaign in Minnesota, I can say we put a lot of effort into non-metro areas and I’m guessing Democrats worked more outside metro areas than is generally assumed, and maybe we paid for neglecting the central cities with a little lower turnout. Obviously more number crunching is necessary, but the anecdotal evidence is enough to make me ask if we neglected the low hanging fruit. Pumping up deep blue turnout isn’t enough, but we can’t get by without it in order to win statewide, which we badly need to do in 2018, which leads to the next problem.

The 2018 midterms won’t save us. Yes, midterm elections historically favor the non-presidential party. Probably 2018 is going to be a blue year, maybe even a wave year since most elections are waves now. Just don’t expect that to be enough for us to take Congress. Almost all Senate seats being elected in 2018 are held by Democrats so even a boffo night will just result in the Democratic minority holding even, not in flipping the Senate. The way House districts are drawn guarantees a Republican majority even if they lose by a substantial amount. State legislatures and generally drawn to guarantee Republican majorities too. We can gain, maybe even flip a chamber somewhere, but we’re going to have the status quo no matter what.

The place where we can make gains is in governors. Most governors are elected in midterms, most governors are Republicans, and states can’t be gerrymandered. We still have the problem where liberals and conservatives have geographically sorted themselves, but we also have a chance in most states, so the big issue I ask readers to keep in mind is redistricting. The governors elected in 2018, and already in 2017 in some states with odd-numbered state elections, will be the governors who sign or veto redistricting plans. Not all states let their governors have that power but most do, and Minnesota, we’re one of those. Given the low likelihood of taking a house of the legislature in 2020 (sorry to be a pessimist about it, but I’m a pessimist about it) we must win governor in 2018. That’s the only barrier between us and being gerrymandered. Holding governor is all that saves us from becoming Wisconsin or Kansas. Anywhere in the country where the governor gets to veto a redistricting plan, our only hope of winning the US House is to hold the governors offices when the next districts are drawn. So forget Congress and legislatures (where they’re drawn to guarantee Republican majorities) and focus on governor.

Russia is our enemy again. I’ve spent the 25 years since the end of the Cold War saying the the Cold War is over, Russia is just another country with it’s own interests, you can’t let go of the past to keep thinking Russia is still the enemy, there’s no Soviet Union anymore, and Russia isn’t a communist country anymore. The latter two are still true, but Russia is an authoritarian if not a proto-fascist state, run by an ultra-nationalist dictator seeking to empower the extreme right in western democracies. Valdimir Putin is enjoying fantastic success, having put a stooge in the American presidency. Who knew “Make America great again” meant “hand America over to a hostile foreign power”? Seriously, this should be bigger than Watergate, but the beneficiaries run the government now so I’m not expecting a real investigation outside of journalists. Though some journalists are indeed trying to do this.

The FBI is partisan for Trump. This isn’t much of a surprise when James Comey decided he couldn’t just recommend against indicting Hillary given the obvious lack of any crime, but he had to make a big announcement excoriating her for whatever he could. Would any other case be handled that way? Of course not, and they shouldn’t be. Any lingering doubts about his intention were dismissed with the infamous “Comey letter” issued days before the election, again a new made up procedure when he could have waited just a few days to see if the email the FBI found was anything relevant, which unsurprisingly it wasn’t. Maybe that would just be Comey (and for crying out loud Democratic presidents, will you stop putting Republicans in high office? Republicans don’t appoint Democrats!) except it was revealed a few days before the election that the FBI was actively seeking ways to bring down Hillary. They didn’t find anything criminal despite following every nonsensical allegation, but just news they were investigating was enough. Any reason to think Comey and the FBI won’t continue to back Trump and seek to bring down Democrats?


Women don’t vote for female candidates. That statement doesn’t seem to line up with Hillary’s win among female voters, but she won by about what male Democrats win by. The most likely reason seems to be that people’s identities are multi-faceted, and women first voted by race, or religion, or something other than gender. I suspect gender hurt Hillary a bit among men, and I don’t see the countervailing effect of gender helping her among women. This isn’t to say a female candidate might not be the best candidate (pretty clearly in this case the woman was the vastly superior candidate) or that we shouldn’t nominate. Just don’t nominate female candidates thinking female voters will rally to them. Readers would be correct to infer that I’m saying this was an identity election. In a recent post I suggested this was an anti-change election, and these things go together. The country is getting less white, more foreign-born, less religious, more accepting of LGBT rights, and more metro. A large number of Americans find those things challenging to their identities, and some voted accordingly.


The economy won’t collapse and remove Trump for us. Obviously I don’t know for sure the economy will go through 2008 all over again, and who knows what stupid policies the Trump administration will put into effect, but the economy is good now. We saw the mortgage bubble before it burst, and the tech bubble before it burst, but if there’s something out there ready to cause a recession beyond the old fashioned business cycle, I don’t see it. It’s hard to beat an incumbent president anyway, but it’s really hard without a bad economy or a big scandal. The Russian hacking looks like a huge scandal, but Trump isn’t even inaugurated yet. I’m guessing voters will have forgotten or dismissed it as old news in the 2020 campaign (though I intend to do my bit to remind them Trump is the RPOTUS — Russian President of the United States). I’m not saying Trump can’t be beaten. I’m just saying our odds are less than even, and we can’t expect the economy to save us by being lousy. Nor, of course, can we count on a scandal the public cares about.

So where do we go from here? Before we get to the big boss fight in 2020, we need to work on those areas where Republicans really have been racking up wins, without any Russian help — just help from Democrats in the form of not voting because the president isn’t on the ballot. So start with special elections. Special elections happen with most eligible voters not even knowing there’s an election, and turnout is tiny — for both parties. If Democrats work on those, there are chances to grab seats we shouldn’t have much chance at normally.
Then most of us have some local elections next year. Work on those. Getting wins wherever we can helps. Getting votes from infrequent voters can turn them into frequent voters, just because voting becomes more of a habit, and then maybe we won’t have such a dropoff in the 2018 midterm. As mentioned before, some states have state elections next year, and if you live in one of those states, go all out. You have the chance to block Republican gerrymandering by winning the governors race, and winning secretary of state means blocking Republicans from playing partisan games with your state’s elections. That of course holds true for most of us in 2018. Secretary of state may be the top priority after governor, even above senator. Besides blocking gerrymandering, we need to block voter suppression.

The important thing is get out there and start winning what can be won right now.

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