Who is Lynn Vavreck? Her research gave us the single most important lesson we can learn from Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the Electoral College (despite a popular vote victory margin now approaching 2.7 million votes). Vavreck is a professor of political science at UCLA, and recently published her findings in the New York Times. She looked at both how the media covered the candidates, and what the candidates paid good money to say about themselves in television ads. I’m going to focus on the latter, but Vavreck’s whole study is worth a read. On the ads that aired between June and Election Day:
More than three-quarters of the appeals in Mrs. Clinton’s advertisements (and nearly half of Mr. Trump’s) were about traits, characteristics or dispositions. Only 9 percent of Mrs. Clinton’s appeals in her ads were about jobs or the economy. By contrast, 34 percent of Mr. Trump’s appeals focused on the economy, jobs, taxes and trade.
It’s not just that Trump talked more about economic issues than Clinton—it’s that her ads barely talked about them at all. Nine percent? She won by 10 points among voters for whom economic issues were their highest priority, but it would have helped her to increase the number of people for whom that was the case.
Four years ago, Barack Obama focused more on economic issues—in a time when the economy was worse—and won. As Ezra Klein put it, “Obama won that election in part by making it about economic identity.” Hillary Clinton focused less on the economy and lost. Her loss resulted from much more than that one thing (Comey and the media for starters), and it’s never easy for a party to hold the White House three terms in a row. Nevertheless, a few thousand votes in three states that Obama won relatively easily four years ago made the difference, so anything we can learn that helps us next time is vital.
Before we go any further, let’s clarify exactly what we’re talking about. First, there’s a huge debate going on in which the term ‘identity politics’ is being used in a highly problematic way. We need to stop using that term as a cudgel to criticize the progressive focus on civil rights, especially given that identity politics is by no means the sole province of Americans of color. Is there a better example of identity politics than the system of white supremacy enshrined in Jim Crow and segregation?
Civil rights broadly defined are much more than an important part of what progressives believe. Going forward, there is no legitimate progressive movement or Democratic Party without a fundamental commitment to ensuring every American’s equal rights before the law, resisting hate, and breaking down structural racism. Period. Full stop.
Second, as the title of this post suggests, I’m talking about what electoral campaigns need to do differently. I’m not talking about what anyone else should do. I’m not talking about bloggers or individuals interacting with fellow citizens. I’m certainly not talking about what activists or issue-centered organizations should do, how they should talk, or what they should prioritize. Each of them have complementary, but different roles to play within the progressive movement.
Anyone who thinks activist organizations have it wrong needs to study the playbook written by Moral Mondays and Rev. William Barber in North Carolina. Their role in helping Democrat Roy Cooper unseat Republican Gov. Pat McCrory—in a state Hillary lost by 4 points—cannot be overstated. As we now prepare to push back against Republican proposals at the federal level, Moral Mondays showed us how to effectively galvanize support over a long period of time.
Now let’s talk about electoral campaigns. To bring race and identity into the conversation, getting whites who are living at or below the economic median to think about their racial identity helped Trump. Getting more of those whites to think about their economic identity would’ve probably elected Hillary Clinton president. When economically vulnerable whites practice white identity politics, it means they are aligning their interests with those of the white Americans higher up on the income ladder, and against those of the Americans of color with whom they share real economic interests. It’s not like they are saying ‘I don’t care that I’m voting against my interests. I just don’t like those people.’ What they’re doing is identifying their racial interests as paramount, and voting on that basis.
Think about how important civil rights or LGBT rights are to those for whom they are life and death. But, for tens of millions of straight, white Americans, those issues are not necessarily life and death, and they don’t perceive that their rights are threatened by a Republican victory. We may not like that, but it’s true. Many of those voters prioritize the things that they perceive as affecting them most directly and vote accordingly. If a presidential campaign doesn't reach them where they live, so to speak, it loses the chance to win many of their votes.
Our strategy cannot be to appeal to white working class voters as whites, but rather in a race-neutral way. Talking about economics gets fewer of those whites to think about their race—and what makes their interests different from those of non-whites—and more of them to think about class, and thus what makes their interests similar to those of every race who share similar circumstances. This is especially true for the issues on which federal laws and policies weigh most heavily.
In addition to helping at the ballot box, such a message could in fact improve ties across racial lines, or at least stop them from being further frayed by a strengthening of white racial identity. Again, this doesn’t mean election campaigns should ignore civil rights issues. It would just mean not ignoring, in relative terms (see Vavreck above), the economic message.
Barack Obama showed us how to deliver this type of nuanced message. It was vitally important that he showed he understood that vulnerable whites generally don’t feel privileged in any kind of overall sense. Obama argued—in the race speech that may have saved his 2008 campaign—that “to wish away the resentments of white Americans, to label them as misguided or even racist, without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns—this too widens the racial divide and blocks the path to understanding.” Showing that sort of empathy got his target audience to say, ‘ok, this guy might actually get me, I’m willing to listen to what he’s got to say.’
On the other hand, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” remark—yes, it was taken out of context and of course she didn’t mean it for public consumption—had the opposite effect. Campaign manager Robby Mook admitted last week that it hurt. There’s evidence to back that claim. Diane Hessan, in her capacity working for the Clinton campaign, did what amounts to a long-term study of 250 voters who were, as of last summer, undecided. She found that the “deplorables” remark moved more of them toward Trump than any other single event, including Comey. I know it’s a small sample size, but it at least strongly suggests something important.
Political science research shows—and conservative politicians have long understood—that the more voters are reminded that they are white, the more likely they are to vote Republican and/or express more conservative opinions. Dylan Matthews discusses research going back to George H.W. Bush and the Willie Horton ad here. Studies show that this is true across the political spectrum. For example, Harvard’s Ryan Enos recruited two Latino men who spoke Spanish as their first language and put them on commuter trains in Boston. He did a survey of the train’s other passengers—both before and after the Latino men rode with them. The control group for this experiment was riders on trains where Enos did not place the Latino men. He discussed the experiment in a Washington Post op-ed piece:
In this sense, the experiment was testing how people react when a very small group of Latinos moves to a new community. The results were clear. After coming into contact, for just minutes each day, with two more Latinos than they would otherwise see or interact with, the riders, who were mostly white and liberal, were sharply more opposed to allowing more immigrants into the country and favored returning the children of illegal immigrants to their parents’ home country. It was a stark shift from their pre-experiment interviews, during which they expressed more neutral attitudes.
This is exactly why Donald Trump began the campaign that will result in him becoming the most powerful person in the world by shouting that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers. I just threw up a little in my mouth writing that. The way to win the votes of at least some of the people for whom that slander didn’t disqualify Trump would’ve been to have a strong economic message, one that told them what Democrats believe, and how our plans on jobs, wages, health care, Social Security, Medicare, and more will help them, while those of Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress will hurt them. On health care alone, Obamacare repeal will do significant damage to the white working class right alongside non-whites.
Am I saying progressives everywhere should’ve ignored the bigotry? Of course not. But the way the Hillary Clinton campaign should’ve handled it is very different from the way activists and, well, everyone not part of the campaign should’ve. The campaign needed to remember two things: 1) People for whom the bigotry was such a turnoff that they wouldn’t vote for Trump didn’t need to be reminded of it repeatedly. They already knew. And 2) for a lot of people, it was a turnoff but not a deal breaker, and reminding them of it didn’t win their votes. Van Jones interviewed people who fell into exactly that category, and offered the following comments in a conversation with Chauncey DeVega at Salon:
I went to Ohio and I went to Pennsylvania and I talked to Trump voters before and after the election, including Trump voters who voted for Obama twice and then voted for Trump. For those people, they didn’t have either set of reactions that I think a lot of liberals expected. For those people, the racially inflammatory, culturally and ethnically inflammatory language was not a turn-on, but it wasn’t enough of a turnoff either, and that’s a different problem. These are not people for whom these comments were delightful, but they also were not disqualifying.
[snip] You literally have counties that went from blue to red in the Rust Belt. That is where the race was won and lost — in a handful of counties in the Rust Belt. When you go to those counties, the people who voted sometimes twice for Obama but then voted for Trump — they will tell you, “We didn’t like some of those inflammatory comments. We wouldn’t want our kids making those kinds of comments. We don’t think those kinds of comments are helpful. But we also did not feel that Hillary Clinton cared about us in any way or was going to do anything for us. She wasn’t talking to us. She was talking to everybody else but us and we thought that at least Donald Trump was trying, so we were willing to give him a chance.”
Now, that’s disappointing. That’s not the same as saying they’re all part of the alt-right.
We can’t get the votes of committed white nationalists and racists (and that’s what the self-proclaimed ‘alt-right’ are)—nor would we want them. But there are people who voted for Trump that we could’ve gotten had our candidate spoken more often about bread and butter economic issues—not exclusively, not only, not even predominantly—just more often, by a reasonable amount. I’m talking about a difference in degree, not in kind. I led with the data produced by Lynn Vavreck because it showed just how little the Clinton campaign tried to do so.
Additionally, arguing that electoral campaigns need to shift how much they focus on economics by a degree or two is not an attempt to deny the crucial importance of civil rights. We need open discussions of strategy—of how to achieve the progressive goals we share. Democratic campaigns need to earn the votes of enough people to win. This is especially tricky for presidential campaigns thanks to an Electoral College unfairly biased toward white voters because it overweights small states. We need to win so that we can protect civil rights and do as much as possible to prevent people from being killed because of their identity.
Electoral campaigns have one overriding purpose, and one only. That purpose is not fighting back against hate—even though that is a fundamentally important thing to do. A campaign’s purpose is to elect its candidate, and a presidential campaign that lacks a strong economic message—that doesn’t talk enough about issues that affect all voters in the wallet—is putting itself in danger of losing an otherwise winnable race.
After the election, Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said of the Clinton campaign:
Why would the Democrats stubbornly not have an economic message? Sixty-seven white papers don’t make an economic message. Thirty-seven bills you’re going to introduce in the first 100 days do not make an economic message. What we as Democrats really have to deal with is the fact that we didn’t have an economic message.
Let’s get practical here—do we think there were a lot of voters, even those who knew comparably little about policy issues, who doubted that Hillary Clinton would be much stronger on issues of civil rights and equality than Donald Trump? Then why spend so much time reminding people what they already know, and so little time on not just economic policies but on a coherent economic message. Would that have swung won enough votes in disproportionately white Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania to turn an electoral college loss into victory? We’ll never know.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of Obama’s America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity (Potomac Books).