The days immediately before Election Day were hectic. I was working on the campaign for Hillary Clinton in Broward, a blue county just north of Miami-Dade. We were all pushing our hardest to get as many doors knocked and as many calls made. On Election Day, though exhausted and high-strung, we continued our push. Everyone on the team was up-beat , and already looking forward to the party at the Miami office headquarters that everybody was talking about.
After the polls closed we drove over to watch the results at our regional office in Hollywood. We drank beers and talked about how to get to Miami later that evening. The mood was joyful; some red states were being called but our confidence did not waver. We just knew Hillary was going to win.
At 11:00 pm our regional organizer called the team outside in the parking lot for a staff meeting: we had lost Florida. North Carolina was called shortly afterward. By midnight we knew we had lost the election. Although my first reaction was one of utter despair, I got up the next morning thinking that there was a lot more work to be done. It was time to look at the numbers and understand what had gone wrong. How did we not see this coming? What could we learn from our mistakes in order to bounce back at the next election?
Florida is a thoroughly multicultural state, probably the most diverse in the South. The white population is only 56.6%, considerably less than the U.S. average of 62.8%. The African-American population is higher relative to the rest of the country: 16,1% instead of 12.6 %. The Hispanic is considerably higher, 23.3% to 16.9%. Hillary Clinton’s message and rhetoric were tailored to these demographics. It was largely for this reason that we were confident we were going to win Florida.
It is worth looking at how Clinton performed in each of these crucial demographics to understand why she did not carry the state. In the case of African-American vote, Clinton failed to maintain the high consensus that Obama had in 2012. The Af-Am vote in Florida, which had won Hillary the primary, fell from 95% in 2012 to 84% in 2016, a considerable loss.
Even before the elections, some observers had seen signs of a lower participation and support in the African-American communities. As professors Eddie Glaude and Frederick Harris warned in Time magazine, the black vote’s allegiance to the Democratic Party was more fragile than in the past. The economic inequality between African-Americans and whites has risen considerably since 1979 and “black unemployment is twice that of whites”.
Hillary Clinton also inherited her husband’s controversial legacy of the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which has expedited the mass incarceration of African-Americans. The repeal during the Clinton presidency of the AFDC, seen by many as the corner stone of the American welfare system, also worked against her. Most importantly, according to Glaude and Harris, “the Democratic Party has been largely absent in addressing the most pressing issue facing black communities today: criminal justice.
This brings to my mind the literature we would leave at people’s doors when we were canvassing in minority neighbourhoods in Southern Florida. On one side of the leaflet were bullet points on how to make a plan to go out and vote; on the other side was a photograph of Obama and Hillary together under a headline that read: “Protect our Progress.” Maybe many African-Americans felt that there was little progress to protect.
Perhaps even more more surprising were the numbers coming out from the Latino community. After all, many thought Trump lost the Hispanic vote from the start of his campaign as his agenda was for the most part built around one major idea: building a wall to stop the Mexican criminals and rapists from coming into the country. As Roberto Suro wrote in a post-election analysis in the New York Times, “Mr. Trump was supposed to be the bucket of cold water that aroused the sleeping giant, producing […] a spike in turnout.” As it turned out, there was no spike at all. Hispanics nation-wide represented a mere 11 % of the vote, the same as in 2012.
However, according to Latino Decisions, Hillary Clinton did in fact win the Hispanic vote by a landslide, 79% to 18%, far better than Obama’s 71% in 2012. But the actual impact of those new votes turned out to be much less than expected. While the Latino vote helped her secure victories in Nevada and Colorado, in two major states which she was supposed to win but lost, Michigan and Wisconsin, the Latino population is only, 3.3 and 3.6 percent respectively – not enough to really make a difference.
In Florida, a key swing state with a large Latino community, Hillary fared less well than expected. HereTrump got 31% of the Latino vote, far more than the average in the rest of the country (18%). These numbers probably sealed her loss in the state of Florida. Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba, which Hillary had pledged to uphold, explains why so many Cuban undecideds turned to Trump, who was able to turn the situation to his advantage by promising to reinstate the embargo.
Yet the Cuban vote alone isn’t enough to explain why one in three Latinos voted for Trump in Florida. The truth is that an increasing number of Latinos see immigrants of their own ethnicity as a threat to their welfare. As illegal immigrants from Mexico and South America cross the border into the United States, they are more likely to take jobs from their compatriots, many of whom have worked extremely hard to live within the law in the U.S.. Helen Marrow, a professor at Tufts University who has studied Latino immigration in the rural south, has indeed found that “people of similar ethnicity are the ones most likely to feel the negative impact of undocumented immigration.” For this reason Jorge Ramos, anchor on the influential Hispanic cable news channel Univision, sees a new divide among Latinos: “The wall that Trump was talking about is clearly apparent now in the Hispanic community.”
Still, the issue of immigration, a centerpiece of the Democratic campaign rhetoric directed to Latinos, might not even a priority for that electoral segment. “Over the years,” award-winning journalist Marcela Valdes has written in The New York Times magazine, “registered Latinos have told pollsters again and again that immigration is not their top concern. What they care about most are jobs, education, health care and terrorism.” These of course are issues that all Americans care about and solutions to these problems aren’t specific to the Hispanic community.
Another demographic group everyone thought was going to favor Clinton by a large margin were women. Trump had experienced a number gender-related scandals during the campaign; many women voters were appalled by his choice of words in comments made against Fox News anchor Megan Kelly and later in the infamous Hollywood Access tapes. Those tapes, many thought, spelled the end of the race. How could Trump win after such a scandal? What woman would vote for him?
However, many women did vote for him. Nation-wide Clinton won among women by 54% to 41%. But in Florida, the margin of victory in that segment was much slimmer (50% to 46%). And significantly, Clinton lost heavily among white women (36% to 60%). Perhaps the hardest blow of all came from white college educated women (37% to 60%). Some saw this outcome as the result of a political stab in the back. “What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman?” asked L.V. Anderson, associate editor of Slate Magazine. “Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.”
However, while racism may well have driven some white women to vote against Clinton as part of a back-lash against eight years under a black president, many ended up voting for Trump simply because gender was not a priority in their choice. In a recent article in Vanity Fair, Emily Jane Fox explained how many women “feel there are other factors that affect their families more, on a day-to-day basis, and ultimately, that is what they cast their vote for.” There was “even less importance placed on gender,” she added, in the case of “non-college educated women, who stay at home or make minimum wage or find themselves more dependent on men.”
In conclusion, one plausible explanation for Clinton’s surprise loss in Florida is that her rhetorical approach, while aiming to be inclusive, ended up being excessively focused on specific demographics and not on the electorate as a whole. In a controversial post-election piece in the New York Times, The End of Identity Liberalism, Mark Lilla describes how identity politics has morphed in recent years into a dividing force, producing “a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.”
One can therefore argue that over the past eight years, the Democratic Party has splintered and narrowed its electoral rhetoric to address specific demographics instead of reaching out to the electorate as a whole. While targeted rhetoric has indeed helped create policies that have benefited minority groups and hence American society as a whole, this should not overshadow the larger issues that all Americans care about, namely jobs, security and education.
Looking ahead to the next elections, the Democratic Party could do worse than go back to Obama’s simple truth laid out in his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention: “There is no liberal America and conservative America; there’s the United States of America. There’s not a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America; there’s the United States of America.”