The Intersection: Nov 2016

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What Happened to the Obama Coalition?

For two consecutive presidential elections, the Democratic Party was carried to victory by a diverse cohort known as the “Obama Coalition” made up of African-Americans, Hispanics, women, independents, millennials and those with a college education. It was anticipated that those voters, while somewhat absent from mid-term elections, could forge a lasting majority that would continue delivering the White House to Democrats for years to come. That dream hit the hard wall of reality on Tuesday evening.

Indeed while more people voted for Mrs. Clinton than Mr. Trump, she did not have enough voters in the states that she needed to win and the Electoral College afforded him a victory. So what happened?

In a simplified explanation: they stayed home. In fact, a lot of people stayed home – voter turnout was the lowest it’s been since 2000 for a presidential election. According to the Washington Post, Trump did not just get fewer votes than Clinton, he also “got fewer votes than Mitt Romney in 2012, fewer votes than john McCain in 2008 and fewer votes than George W. Bush in 2004.”

None the less, he got votes where he needed them, and did so in critical places where the Obama Coalition could have made a difference. Clinton lost the state of Michigan by roughly 61,000 votes, yet in Detroit – which is largely Democratic and African-American – she received 129,000 fewer votes than Obama did in 2012, more than enough to reverse that outcome. She lost state-wide in Wisconsin by 73,000 votes, but had 95,000 fewer votes in Milwaukee than Obama received last election. And on and on it goes.

And while Mrs. Clinton won the vote of those with annual incomes below $50,000 overall, she lost the white working class, once the linchpin of the Democratic Party, by a greater margin than any other major Democratic  nominee since tracking began in 1952.

The weakness in the Obama Coalition can be attributed to many factors. The fact that Obama was not on the ticket may have undermined efforts to inspire his namesake coalition and the fact that he was replaced with a historically unpopular candidate may have as well. Hispanic voters did not, as was predicted, surge to the polls driven by fear. And for the Hispanics who did come out to vote, 29% supported Donald Trump; a greater share than supported Mitt Romney in 2012.

In recent years, Democrats have assured themselves that the changing demographics of the country would prove to be a bountiful tree bearing the fruits of victory in ever larger numbers. The 2016 presidential election proved those assurances to have been a bit premature. And while these populations still vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, the overall electorate is still overwhelmingly white – a demographic that continues to skew Republican.

While Democratic party leaders will be analyzing the results and reassessing their strategy in the coming months,  they may not need a radical shift in strategy. It is worth repeating that the party did in fact get more votes than the Republicans, attaining the unprecedented achievement of winning the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections. But in 2016, the Obama Coalition failed to turn out in the numbers necessary to bring the Democratic Party to victory, even with what was described as the most sophisticated voter turnout model to date. How they will regain success without Obama on the ticket remains to be seen, but they’ve now got four years to figure that out.

Kevin Maley

Senior Vice President

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