Since Election Night, Democrats have been scratching their heads and wondering why a highly-qualified Hillary Clinton lost. What was that precise moment that turned the tide? Was it the Comey letter? Was it the email server scandal? Was it the DNC email scandal? Democrats have been trying to find answers, but really cannot pinpoint the exact moment that cost Hillary the election.
Still, there is a starting point, a genesis if you like, that we can look at and say “there, that is when Clinton lost it”. That point didn’t happen in this election. It didn’t even happen in the last election. It didn’t even involve Hillary Clinton.
It happened in 1993.
During the 1992 Presidential Election, Democrats were looking for a “new way” or a “third way”. The New Democrat movement, created by the Democratic Leadership Council and it’s ironically-named think-tank the Progressive Policy Institute, forged a new path for Democrats which remained socially liberal but was fiscally moderate, or even conservative. The impact of the DLC and PPP on the Democratic Party can been seen in its change on language regarding trade between 1988 and 1992. The 1988 DNC platform supported trade, but mostly stressed protecting the American workers. However, the 1992 platform talked more about opening up trade and used weaker language when it came to protecting the American worker.
Then the 1993 Larry King debate happened. This is genesis.
This is the exact moment when the Democratic Party firmly established itself as a free trade party, and sealed the fate for Hillary Clinton. In 1993, the Republicans were free trade supporters, and now the top brass at the Democratic Party supported the idea as well. According the Vice President Al Gore, strong trade barriers were old ideas from the 1920s, supported by people like Senator Smoot of Utah and Representative Hawley of Oregon, who were long gone. Ross Perot’s anti-NAFTA rhetoric was the past, not a path toward the future.
Over the next twenty years, the Democratic Party continued to establish itself as the free trade party. Even though the concept of free trade was contradictory to the beliefs of the Democratic base, particularly labor unions, Democrats continued to have issue ownership on the issue of free trade because Republicans were for it as well. In 1996, Bob Dole supported free trade, same for George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, John McCain in 2008, and Mitt Romney in 2012. Free trade had become a non-issue because there was no daylight between the Democratic and Republican candidates for president. However, using issue ownership theory (the ideas that the party who is seen as most competent on the issue is the party that usually owns that issue), Democrats now own free trade.
Then Donald Trump came along.
Trump broke the mold when it came to Republican candidates opposing free trade. He provided voters with a sharp contrast between himself and Hillary Clinton on the issue. As a result, the anti-free trade vote did a 180 degree turn and voted for Donald Trump.
Luckily, we have empirical evidence. When examining the exit polls out of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, we can see this playing out. In Michigan, 50% of voters said that international trade hurt the United States. Of those voters, 58% voted for Trump, while only 36% voted for Clinton. In Ohio, 48% said that international trade hurt, with 69% of those voters voting for Trump. In Pennsylvania, 50% opposed international trade, with 64% of those voters voting for Trump. In Wisconsin, 46% said that international trade hurt the United States, with 62% of those voters voting for Trump. In Florida, more people were pro-free trade (39% for, 34% against), but the anti-free traders still gave Trump 70% support.
See the trend? Trump overwhelmingly won the anti-trade vote.
Still, it isn’t just about the anti-trade vote, but also about the pro-trade vote. Hillary Clinton won 59% of the pro international-trade vote in Wisconsin, 65% in Michigan, 54% in Ohio, 65% in Pennsylvania, 66% in New York, 58% in Florida, 70% in California, 65% in Virginia, 59% in New Hampshire…and so on.
In every single state where the international trade question was asked, more pro-trade voters supported Clinton over Trump, with an average gap of 26.6%. As far as the anti-trade voters, Trump outperformed Clinton in every state but one (California) by an average of 27.8%. In Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, the average anti-trade gap for Trump was 31.25%.
Yes, Democrats lost the presidential election because of trade, pure and simple.
However, some might say that this was just a Hillary Clinton problem, and Democrats further down the ballot would probably vote more anti-trade. Nope, that wasn’t the case. Marco Rubio won the anti-trade vote by 34%. Russ Feingold, a strong anti-trade progressive who opposed NAFTA, lost the anti-free trade vote by 29%. Ted Strickland in Ohio, lost the anti-trade by 53%!!
These cases show that Democrats further down the ballot lost the free trade vote. In fact, all the Democratic senate candidates except Chuck Schumer lost the anti-trade vote, and by a large amount as well, in spite of the fact that the Republican candidates were supporters of expansive free trade.
Even if we look before the presidential election, Pew Research noticed that Democratic primary voters in 2015 were more likely to support expanded trade than oppose it.
What does this mean? It means that Democrats are now seen by voters as the pro-trade party while Republicans, ironically, are seen as the anti-trade party because of Donald Trump. Democrats have successfully taken ownership of the pro-free trade side of the issue. Unfortunately, Democrats never though that the Republicans would nominate someone that would change the dynamics of the debate. But the Republicans did, and Democrats lost.
Interestingly, it was a Bill and Hillary Clinton confidant, James Carville, who hit the nail on the head…it’s the economy, stupid! Unfortunately, Democrats haven’t learned that, and have doubled-down on social issues. While Democrats are talking about social issues, Trump was going to the working class voters of the Industrial Midwest slamming trade, and courting the voters who lost their jobs.
If anything, it is the trade issue that shows that Bernie Sanders would have easily won the election. Sanders would have been the only candidate that could have taken on Trump when it came to trade. As a result, less of the working class voters in the Rust Belt would have voted for Trump Instead, they would have supported Sanders.
Democrats, you made the pro-trade bed, now you must lie in it.