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The Democrats, 2016-2020

A real-time examination of how the Democratic Party interpreted its 2016 defeat and why a focus on electability led to Joe Biden’s nomination in 2020.

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The Democrats’ decision to nominate Joe Biden for 2020 was hardly a fluke but rather a strategic choice by a party that had elevated electability above all other concerns. Learning from Loss offers unique insight into the Democratic Party at a moment of uncertainty.

Between 2017 and 2020, I spoke with Democratic Party activists and followed the behavior of party leaders and donors to learn how the party was interpreting the 2016 election and thinking about a nominee for 2020. I trace the persistence of party factions and show how interpretations of 2016 shaped strategic choices for 2020.

Although diverse narratives emerged to explain defeat in 2016—ranging from a focus on “identity politics” to concerns about Clinton as a flawed candidate— these narratives collectively cleared the path for Biden.


Media about the book

Read an excerpt here.

A 5-minute Q&A video about the book.

Watch the book launch, featuring Susan Schulten, Julia Azari, Molly Ball, Jonathan Bernstein, and Hans Noel.

Podcast discussions on Democratically 2020 and Politics and Philosophy

An interview on KUNC’s Colorado Edition.

An interview on “Ask a Political Scientist” describing some of this research.

Here is a review from Kirkus, describing the book as “catnip for election watchers and politics junkies.”

Here is a review from Publishers Weekly, saying “Masket… delivers a meticulous and lucidly written analysis of how Democratic insiders came to believe Joe Biden should be the party’s candidate in the 2020 presidential election.”

Some articles describing this project:

Chapter descriptions

Activists Interpret 2016

This chapter introduces evidence from a series of interviews and surveys I conducted among party activists between 2017 and 2020 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. 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. But the bulk of answers pointed toward the party picking a moderate white man as its next presidential nominee.

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, have long historical roots, and have shaped the 2020 nomination contest.

“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 recent survey experiments 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.) Results suggest that the argument made people less supportive of women and candidates of color. People who saw this argument were more likely to want the Democratic Party to move rightward, and tended to want a candidate less interested in progressive goals like fighting discrimination. 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.

The Invisible Primary Becomes Visible

This chapter looks at how the work by party insiders between 2017 and 2019 shaped the early primaries and caucuses of 2020. The party didn’t suddenly decide on Joe Biden across a few days after the South Carolina primary. Rather, evidence from endorsements, campaign finance, interviews, polling, staffing, and elsewhere all showed the party converging on Biden in 2019. The chapter includes examinations of three of the finalists — Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — to assess why the party didn’t choose them. 

Contact Author

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