Stranger Things Have Happened,’ cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly December 27, 1879



The Democrats, 2016-2020

This ongoing research examines how the Democratic Party is interpreting the 2016 election and preparing for 2020.

This ongoing research examines how the Democratic Party is interpreting the 2016 election and preparing for 2020. It seeks to catch a party, broadly defined, in the act of answering three key questions:

  1. What went wrong in the last election?
  2. How can that be prevented in the next election?
  3. Whom should be nominated for president?

This project is under contract with Cambridge University Press and scheduled for release in September, 2020. Here is an interview in which I describe some of this research.

Some news articles describing this project:

Below are descriptions of some chapters in progress.

Activists Interpret 2016

This chapter introduces evidence from a series of interviews and surveys I conducted among party activists since 2017 in the early-contest states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, as well as Washington, DC. I look at the variety of explanations they offered for why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. This was usually the first question I asked when interviewing people, and it typically made for a fascinating and lengthy conversation. One thing that stands out from this chapter is the diversity of answers – some blamed the candidate, some blamed the campaign, some focused on identity politics, some ascribed events to external factors like Russia or James Comey, some simply said there was a strange and unpredictable mood in the electorate, some blamed racism and sexism, and more. The election was close enough that almost any explanation could be right – switch a few votes here and there and you’ve got a different president.

“Identity Politics” and the Power of Narrative

This chapter looks at the importance of post-election narratives in affecting how we think about upcoming contests. It describes the results of several survey experiments conducted in 2018 that prompted respondents with a narrative about identity politics. (Specifically, roughly half of respondents were shown the brief, and not uncommon, argument that Hillary Clinton lost because she focused too much on the needs of women, people of color, the LGBT community, and others, without reaching out to working class whites, who abandoned Democrats as a result.) One of these experiments reveals that people shown this argument became less supportive of female candidates as a result. Another experiment shows that white female voters shown the argument shifted the kind of candidates they wanted to see win the Democratic presidential nomination; they moved their support toward more conservative white male candidates. They actually made their preferences look more like those of white men. The evidence presented in this chapter suggests that the narrative a party chooses to accept after an election loss is highly consequential – it can greatly affect what sorts of candidates do well in the next nomination contest, and what sorts of policies he or she ends up championing.

Fixing the Party

This chapter is a look at how parties seek to fix themselves after a loss. It draws on some historical examples, going as far back as the Whigs and their efforts to resist the norm-breaking, imperious, and often racist behavior of President Andrew Jackson. But much of the chapter looks at more recent efforts by the formal Democratic Party to discern lessons from 2016 and change the party from within. As some discussions among the Democratic National Committee reveal, those lessons turned partially on the general election, but also on the divisive nomination contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Much of the activity by the Rules and Bylaws Committee, and later the DNC as a whole, in 2017 and 2018, was focused on repairing what it saw as dangerous divisions within the party and restoring the perceived legitimacy of the party’s decisionmaking processes. In doing so, the party reopened some old and deep wounds along racial lines that stood to divide the party further.

The Persistence of Faction

This chapter examines persistent divisions within the Democratic Party. In particular, it looks at how divisions between Clinton and Sanders supporters in the 2016 presidential nomination contest spilled over into other intraparty contests in 2017 and 2018. I focus especially on campaign donation patterns, finding that many gubernatorial primary contests in 2017 and 2018 had an “establishment” candidate and an “insurgent” candidate (to use some very imprecise terms), and that those donors who backed Clinton in 2016 were very likely to back the establishment candidate in the next cycle, while Sanders supporters backed the insurgent. The evidence presented in this chapter strongly suggests that the divisions seen within the Democratic coalition in 2016 were not temporary, nor were they limited to that presidential contest. They run deep and have considerable historical roots.

The Nomination Unfolds

This chapter returns to the early-contest activists, examining how they ultimately lined up behind various presidential candidates. In particular, I look at how those choices between candidates were determined in large part by the post-election narrative the activists embraced. This chapter looks at the presidential campaign events of 2019 and 2020, especially the primary debates and some local candidate appearances in the early primary states, with an eye on how those events affected party activists.

Contact Author

Ricketson Law Building, 480C
2255 E. Evans Ave.
Denver, CO 80208

(303) 900-8621


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