Democrats ran excellent campaigns for the presidency in both 2008 and 2012. They created a robust infrastructure, with a solid traditional ground game, well-run analytics, and a superb digital presence. That infrastructure allowed them not only to elect Barack Obama to two terms in the White House, but also allowed them to gain seats both years in the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House.
Indeed, the 2008 elections constituted a genuine Democratic wave that gave them full control of the federal government for the first time since 1994. At the time, many commentators presumed that Obama’s arrival would constitute a new, permanent Democratic majority in both the Electoral College and the U.S Congress.
That presumption, of course, was blown out of the water by the 2010 midterms, which saw the GOP retake the House majority and gain seats in the Senate. The real story of the 2010 midterms was not just the Republicans’ gains at the federal level, however, but also at the state level. The GOP that year made enormous gains in state houses across the country, showing that the Democrats’ superior organization and mechanics alone were not enough.
They also needed an inspirational candidate at the top of the ticket to drive turnout.
That was the conclusion we all should have drawn after the 2008 and 2010 elections, at least, and that should have been reinforced when Obama won re-election in 2012 and Democrats made modest gains at both the federal and state levels.
Instead, there seemed to be a new consensus that America was a seesaw: Republicans would continue to do well in midterm elections, with Democrats dominating the Electoral College and doing well down the ticket in presidential years, in perpetuity.
That was the easy assumption to make, but recent history has shown it to be the wrong one.
Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate who ran a flawed campaign, hoping that the infrastructure of the Democratic Party and its demographic advantages would be enough to lift her over a flawed opponent. It wasn’t: Not only did the coalition that Obama helped forge not turn out in large enough numbers to get her elected, many of them switched allegiances and voted for Donald Trump. Clinton, as a candidate, failed to inspire devotion the same way Obama had, and her dire warnings about Trump weren’t enough to bring people to the polls.
Democrats will need to do some serious soul-searching going forward, just as the Republicans did after coming up short in 2008 and 2012. They’ll need to find a candidate who is able to inspire their base without alienating the rest of the country — the balance that Obama was able to achieve. This will be difficult for them, as their natural inclination may well be to simply swing even further to the left. That might work with the right candidate, but they can’t count on it, just as they couldn’t count on Clinton to win. They can’t simply assume that any Democrat will be able to defeat Trump, just as Maine Democrats found out they couldn’t simply nominate anyone to defeat Gov. Paul LePage.
The infrastructure of the party won’t be enough to defeat Trump with an uninspiring liberal candidate, just as it wasn’t enough to lift a candidate viewed by many Democrats as an uninspiring centrist.
However, this ought to be warning for Republicans as well: If Democrats do find a better candidate for 2020, they can’t simply count on Trump to hold his coalition together on his own. Instead, the Republican Party will need to provide him — and other Republicans all over the country — the right tools they need to win, just as they did this year.
This year should put both parties on notice that candidates matter, and that if there’s one thing voters hate, it’s being taken for granted.