That wasn’t at all what I expected to happen…

11 minute read

November 14, 2016, 10:30 AM

So like much of America, I watched the television on the night of November 8, 2016 in stunned silence as the news media called the race for Donald Trump.  I started watching around 7 PM, when the first polls closed, and kept the television on until 2 AM, when I finally had to go to bed.  Considering the way I wrote about the election around a month ago, I expected that this would be an early night.  I figured that I would watch the returns come in until 11:00, and then once the polls closed in California, they would project California for Hillary Clinton, and then call the race for Hillary Clinton.  Then I would turn the television off and do something else until bedtime.  But that was not the case, as many states were too close to call.  Then I watched as Hillary Clinton’s path to victory narrowed, and it started to become apparent that we were not going to elect the first woman president on this election night.  Once they called Ohio for Trump, I knew that it didn’t look good for Hillary.  After all, Ohio picks the president, because almost no one wins the White House without Ohio.  Then as the night wore on, I ran a few scenarios through an electoral college calculator, and realized that in order for Hillary Clinton to win, she would have had to take every single remaining state that was still in play.  That seemed highly unlikely.  I went to bed kind of stunned, because this was most definitely not how I expected election night to go.  When I woke up the next morning, I checked Reddit, and found out that yes, Donald Trump had, in fact, actually won the election.  Whoa.  I definitely did not expect to have to eat my words about this election.

In hindsight, however, I can’t say that I’m very surprised about this result.

Before even getting into factors specific to this election, in the last 60 years or so since the 22nd Amendment, which formally limits the president to two terms, took effect, the White House has tended to switch parties every eight years.  Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, served two terms, and he was succeeded by John F. Kennedy, a Democrat.  Then after eight years of a Democratic administration, we got Republican Richard Nixon.  The only exceptions to this have been Democrat Jimmy Carter, who was defeated by Republican Ronald Reagan in 1980 after only a single term, and Republican George Bush, who was elected president in 1988 after eight years of Reagan.  After Bush’s electoral defeat in 1992, the eight-on-eight-off cycle resumed.  Thus after eight years of the Democratic Obama administration, history indicated that it was time for the party to flip again.

Additionally, history in the same 60-year period has indicated that the electorate tends to frown on candidates who run because it’s their “turn” to run.  In 1960, Richard Nixon was the sitting vice president under Eisenhower, and ran for president.  He lost to Kennedy.  In 1968, Hubert Humphrey, then the sitting vice president – ostensibly his “turn” –  ran against Nixon and was defeated.  George Bush was an exception in 1988, where, as a sitting vice president, he actually won – first to do so since Martin Van Buren in 1836.  Since then, Bob Dole, Al Gore, John McCain, and Mitt Romney were all “my turn” candidates, having run for president once before, and it was now their turn to become the nominee.  All were defeated in their respective elections.  Clearly, the voters don’t take kindly to heirs apparent or political dynasties.

Additionally, I’ve noticed that there are two ways to vote for a candidate: because you support them and want to see them succeed, or because you oppose someone else and want to unseat them or otherwise keep them out of office.  One of these strategies tends to work, and the other doesn’t do as well.  I remember in 2004, the Democrats put up John Kerry, who was, by most measures, a pretty awful candidate.  About the only redeeming quality that Kerry had was that he was a warm body that wasn’t George W. Bush.  We checked Kerry’s name on our ballots as a vote against George W. Bush, and not for any reasons related to Kerry himself.  And Kerry got defeated pretty well, which in hindsight, wasn’t surprising.  It’s hard to turn out the vote for someone when it’s not because you’re in love with the candidate, but rather, because you’re trying to defeat their opponent.  Plus it’s also relatively hard to unseat an incumbent, which is what Bush was.  I think that this sign from the DAWN demonstration on the occasion of Bush’s second inaugural sums it up quite well:

"I voted Kerry. Now I'm holding this fuckin' sign."
“I voted Kerry.  Now I’m holding this fuckin’ sign.”  Seems about right.

In regards to this most recent election, I’m at least glad that it is settled, even if I was taken back and disappointed by the results.  There will be no protracted legal battle over the results like happened in 2000.  It’s over.  I do think that the Democrats bombed pretty badly this election cycle, losing the White House and failing to retake the Senate, and they really only have themselves to blame for it.  There are many lessons to take from this, and let’s hope that the Democrats learn them and take them to heart if they expect to retake the White House in 2020.  Otherwise, history will repeat itself.

First of all, it is worth noting that Hillary Clinton now joins the ranks of Andrew Jackson, Samuel J. Tilden, Grover Cleveland, and Al Gore, all of whom also won the popular vote while losing in the electoral college.  The electoral college, where individual votes in a state determine slates of electors based on congressional representation that actually choose the president (I explained how it works in 2013), because of how it’s designed with its first-past-the-post and winner-take-all allocation of votes, requires that candidates get broad support across the country in order to be elected, requiring a plurality of votes in an individual state to take all of the electoral votes in that state (except Maine and Nebraska, which allocate their electoral votes differently).  Thus in a hypothetical state with twelve electoral votes, if Hillary Clinton got 48.1% of the vote, Donald Trump got 48.2% of the vote, and Gary Johnson got 3.7% of the vote, Trump would get all twelve votes.  Likewise, it doesn’t matter if a candidate in this hypothetical state just barely pulls out a win or wins by a landslide.  It’s still the same twelve votes.  So why did Hillary Clinton lose the electoral college despite winning the popular vote?  Because her support was too concentrated in “blue” states, i.e. states where the Democratic candidate is expected from the outset to win the state’s electoral votes.  When it came to “swing states”, i.e. states where it could go either way, Hillary Clinton did poorly.  Among all of the different swing states, she only won in Virginia, which is where her running mate, Tim Kaine, is from – and even that was a much narrower win than expected.  She even lost Pennsylvania, which had gone to the Democrats in every election since 1992.

Considering that it is possible for the electoral college to elect someone who didn’t receive the most votes, and that it happened again this time around, I think that it is definitely time to reform the electoral process to allow for direct popular election of the president and vice president, either by abolishing the electoral college directly, or to bypass it, rendering it strictly ceremonial.  The former method would be accomplished by constitutional amendment, repealing the 12th Amendment and laying out a new system of some sort, because something tells me that they will never go back to the method provided in the original Constitution, where electors voted for two people for president, and first place (provided that they have a majority of electors) becomes president, and second place becomes vice president.  What the details of such a replacement system would be, however, are not known, and would be worked out in Congress during the amendment process.  I would imagine that such an amendment would look similar to the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct popular election of senators.  The latter method, which would bypass the electoral college, is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement that would award the participating states’ electoral votes to whichever candidate wins the national popular vote.  As of this writing, the compact covers ten states plus DC, which together control 165 electoral votes.  It will go into effect when enough states have joined so that it would cover a majority of the electoral votes, i.e. 270.  However, I feel that the interstate compact method would probably be best only as a stopgap measure, until a constitutional amendment can be worked out.

And for all of the people who helped circulate a petition around on social media in an attempt to sway the electoral college to give Hillary Clinton the presidency in some sort of last-ditch hail-Mary move, that entire concept just seems like a tremendously bad idea.  Technically, the electors could probably do it, but I don’t think that they could necessarily get away with it by the public.  We all still have to live here, after all, and half the country would – probably rightly – claim that the election was stolen from their candidate if it were to happen, and the other half would almost certainly be uneasy about it.  Imagine the level of civil unrest that would come to this country if such a thing were to come to fruition.  It would be something the likes of which we have never seen before in this country.  It would make the post-election anti-Trump demonstrations that we saw look like child’s play.  Plus such a scheme would require that Hillary Clinton cooperate, and there’s no evidence that such a thing would happen.  Hillary Clinton has already conceded.  She’s out.  Imagine the constitutional crisis should Clinton be installed via this method that overrides the voting (even though she did win the popular vote), and then decline to serve, citing the impropriety of the method.  I don’t think that we as a country want to go there.  Better to move on and change the process for next time.

Meanwhile, noting Hillary Clinton’s poor showing in swing states, it points to another strike against the Democrats in this race: Hillary Clinton was a “my turn” candidate.  People thought it was her turn in 2008, when she ran for president and competed against then-Senator Barack Obama.  She was defeated in the primary, and Obama went on to become president, running against John McCain, another “my turn” candidate, as well as a candidate who would have also kept the White House in Republican hands for a third term (two strikes against McCain).

In 2016, Hillary Clinton was again running for president, this time against Bernie Sanders in the primary.  The feeling that I got during the primaries was that come hell or high water, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) was going to make absolutely sure that this was a coronation for Hillary Clinton.  It later turned out that we were spot on with this feeling.  That said, it is probably time for the DNC to take a long and hard look at how it operates, since the effects of its processes have far-reaching consequences (we are, after all, electing the leader of the free world here).  The first thing that the DNC needs to do is reform the way its delegates are allocated, i.e. get rid of the superdelegates.  The superdelegates, the ranks of which include elected officials, as well as party activists and officials, and are automatically seated at the convention and can vote for whoever they want, lend an air of impropriety over the entire process, and a feeling of mistrust of the electorate.  Recognize that the message that having superdelegates sends is something along the lines of, “We don’t believe that you, the Democratic primary voters, are capable of picking the correct candidate.  Therefore, if you don’t vote the right way, the grownups will pick the correct person for you.”  I recognize that the superdelegates have never used their influence in this way in the past, but it is still a “trust us” matter, because the power exists to make it happen.  Additionally, the media’s reporting of Democratic delegate counts typically lumped in the superdelegates’ endorsements with the pledged delegate counts, making an establishment candidate who is close to the leaders of the party appear like they are running away with the nomination, when the race may actually be much closer.  Such is what happened with Clinton and Sanders, where Clinton’s superdelegate lead made it look like it was a fait accompli.  Did that keep Sanders voters home?  Quite possibly.  And it sounds like without Bernie Sanders as the Democratic nominee, a lot of those supporters stayed home for the general election, and opted to elect Donald Trump by their inaction (and that’s their prerogative, I suppose).  Of course, even the pledged delegates are technically on the honor system when it comes to voting for their pledged candidate, so how much your Democratic primary vote is actually worth is definitely debatable.

Otherwise, Hillary Clinton wasn’t a particularly inspiring candidate.  We knew exactly what we were getting with her through her 30-some years in public life, and her message was not that of hope and change like Obama or Sanders brought to the table for their respective candidacies, and could not be easily distilled down to something that could be easily understood and talked about by average Americans who aren’t “into” politics.  She had no slogan like “Change You Can Believe In” (which she once derided as “Change You Can Xerox“), or Trump’s “Make America Great Again”.  The “I’m With Her” slogan that they ended up using made the campaign seem like it was all about Hillary Clinton, and not about America.  Not “us”, but “me”.  In other words, it was Hillary’s turn, and this was to be her coronation.  She represented the establishment in what was turning out to be a “change” election from both sides, with a heavy presence of Bernie Sanders supporters on the Democratic side, and Donald Trump’s running away with the nomination on the Republican side.

Hillary Clinton’s choice of Virginia senator Tim Kaine was also rather uninspired.  I remember when Kaine was governor, and I voted for him in 2005, back when I still lived in Virginia.  What sticks out most to me about his otherwise fairly uneventful tenure as governor was in 2009 when, in an effort to balance the state budget, he closed a large number of highway rest areas.  Seeing so many closed rest areas along the highway, including consecutive rest areas, sent a very bad message about the state.  In fact, it was such a blunder that both candidates for governor that year made reopening all of the rest areas a part of their campaign platforms.  The only difference in Bob McDonnell and Creigh Deeds‘ platforms in that area was how quickly they would reopen them (90 days for McDonnell vs. 60 days for Deeds).

In any case, there were so many different directions that the Clinton campaign could have gone for vice president.  Kaine was a real snooze, likely picked because of where he was from, i.e. a swing state, and because he wouldn’t outshine Clinton.  He was a traditional, if uninspiring, pick.  He wasn’t able to reunite the party after Sanders’ defeat in the primaries, which I’m sure left many voters feeling disenchanted, and led them to stay home.  Choosing Bernie Sanders as a running mate would have done much to reunite the party, and would have ensured that the progressive issues that Sanders voters championed were represented.  Such a move, where the runner-up from the primaries gets the VP nod, would not be without precedent.  George Bush was Ronald Reagan’s rival in the Republican primaries in 1980, and clearly, the trick worked, as Reagan and Bush ran away with the election that year.

And if not Sanders, perhaps the Clinton camp could have gone with Elizabeth Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts, who, like Sanders, is also a strong progressive.  The Clinton ticket didn’t need geographical balance as much as it needed ideological balance, by including a strong progressive to capture that “change” momentum from the Sanders campaign and keep those people in the fold.  With Kaine, they willingly gave up the progressives.

Ultimately, though, Hillary Clinton lost control of the conversation, as it became more and more about Donald Trump and his outlandish statements.  Hillary Clinton became a warm body who wasn’t Donald Trump, and in the end, the election felt like it was a referendum on Donald Trump.  I admit – I wanted to see Hillary Clinton win, but mainly because I didn’t want Donald Trump to win.  I wasn’t exactly impressed with Hillary Clinton based on her own merits, but I viewed her as better than the alternative.  Therefore, I feel like many on the left, myself included, were voting for her as a default choice, i.e. voting against Donald Trump, rather than voting for Hillary Clinton on her own merits.  And rarely do such votes produce a winning result.  After all, it’s hard to vote for a candidate that you’re not in love with.  I did for the reason that I stated a month ago: because I still had to live with myself should Donald Trump somehow pull out a victory – and he did.  My conscience is clean.

In the end, the expression, “May you live in interesting times,” seems like a fitting description of what we may have these next four years in a Trump administration.  And in any case, I hope that the Democrats take heed of the lessons to be learned in the aftermath of this election, and not make those same mistakes again.

Categories: National politics