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2016 and the Disruption of American Politics

By Sheri Rivlin and Allan Rivlin -- November 2016

The election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States caught much of America by surprise, but it was the continuation of a trend that has been taking shape for many months, and even many years. People who know us, know we have been predicting a Trump victory for more than a year (and if you know us you also know we have not welcomed this outcome). But the disruption of American politics we have been describing for nearly two years has now unmistakably arrived.


The 2016 cycle started with Republican voters saying “you’re fired” to all of the established leaders of the Grand Old Party. After the General Election votes were counted, the established leaders of the Democratic Party are similarly out of power. Republicans will control the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court (not to mention strong positions of leadership in the majority of state capitols), but there are many open questions of which traditional Republican policies the new leader of the Republican Party will champion, and which he will shed.   

In April, 2015, we wrote: Disruption is inevitable. This is the real truth about disruption: whether you see it as positive or negative, disruption is nonetheless our inevitable future. And if this is true in business and the professions, it is almost certainly as inevitable in our national politics.


American politics is undergoing a disruption of the established order that mirrors the disruptions we have seen in many, if not most, industries since the dawning of the Internet Age. We have seen major upheavals toppling investment banks, retail giants, and major airlines. People no longer believe their insurance company needs to have been in business since the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock. They can go on the Internet and seek out the cheapest deal from a start-up company with a good website. 


But nowhere has the disruption been greater than in the news and information industries. Where we once looked to Time and Newsweek, CBS news and the daily newspaper to tell us what was important, today anyone with a laptop can be the editor of their own news stream, and anyone with a mobile phone can be the producer of a video seen around the world. It is this disruption of the news media that makes the disruption of politics possible. 


Looking across industries we can see disruption is characterized by two things 1) the lack of loyalty, or even disdain for the “legacy” incumbents, and 2) new ways to reach customers (or voters). The disdain for elected leaders is, of course, a trend that has been building for a long, long time. Beginning on the left with opposition to the Vietnam War and Watergate, moving to the right when Ronald Reagan ran against Washington and accelerating in the past two decades with the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and opposition to George W. Bush’s wars and economy. Finally, anti-Washington sentiment crystallized with Tea Party opposition to president Barack Obama (as well as the Republican leadership) setting the stage for Trump to run against the leadership of both political parties in Washington. 

In January, 2016, we wrote: Right now, 2016 is feeling a lot like 1980, with a Democrat in the White House and large numbers of Americans perceiving weakness in the US economy and foreign policy.


Democrats contributed to the anti-Washington mood by taking their eyes off the ball of the most important issue to the vast majority of voters, jobs and the economy. Obama inherited the worst economy since the Great Depression and for the first year of his presidency it was his principle concern. The Democrats passed several large and important pieces of legislation. But when his attention turned to passing Obamacare, voters punished Democrats in the 2010 election. The 2012 election focused the attention of the White House and Obama campaign back on to economic issues, but after that attention drifted again. 


Since the end of the 2012 election, Democrats have trailed Republicans in most polls on the question of which party voters trust on the issue of jobs and the economy. (See the graphic for a time trend of publicly available polls going back to 2000.) An objective reading of the economic data makes it clear this confidence is misplaced. The mismatch between economic reality and public perceptions is evidence of Democratic under-performance in economic messaging. 

Trust in Parties to manage economy and create jobs 2000 to 2016

In July, 2016, we wrote: If Hillary Clinton with all her staff and consultants cannot distill an economic message with simple logic, that is effective in reaching middle class voters and instilling confidence that better jobs and opportunities are on the horizon, then this contest will remain far too close for comfort.

The Clinton Campaign missed its best opportunity to solve a problem, not of their own making when they closed the Democratic National Convention without dedicating even a single night to rolling out a compelling economic message. Clinton trailed Trump on most poll questions of who would best manage the economy, throughout the fall, even in surveys that perhaps wrongly, showed Clinton with a substantial lead. The exit polls show Trump leading Clinton by 2 points on the question of who would best handle the economy -- 48% Trump to 46% Clinton.


New Ways to Reach Voters 


Many people see Donald Trump’s use of twitter as his new form of communication but he also found a new way of using cable television and other more traditional media. Trump realized the gatekeepers of media were far more interested in criticizing politicians than in carrying their message so Trump learned how to make his message the simple fact that he was the object of the media’s criticism. By finding a new way to outrage cable talkers with a frequency of about two times per week Trump stayed at the center of the political conversation. But more importantly, Trump’s supporters loved that he was the candidate the media seemed to hate. The constant criticism of Trump’s outrages and “mistakes” helped deliver the message that he was the candidate most outside the Washington establishment mainstream.


Raised Expectations and Disappointments


Team Clinton relied on many veterans of Obama’s two winning campaigns to once again turn out his base, but fueled by distrust, disillusionment, and disappointment, the rising American electorate (or RAE: African Americans, Hispanics, younger voters and college educated women) failed to turn up at the polls in sufficient numbers to defeat Trump’s support among suburban, exurban and rural whites. 


Analysis of vote data is shifting attention in many states to the lost working class white voters who voted for Obama twice but did not turn out for Clinton.  Clinton might have kept these voters active but the campaign message was not geared toward them.  Realizing there may be an enthusiasm problem among young voters and African Americans – despite Hillary’s speeches repeating the rhetoric of the Black Lives Matter movement -- the Clintons and Obamas closed out the campaign with urban rallies sharing the stage with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.  


We learned on Election Night that three successive presidential campaigns micro-targeted to the RAE means no one on the Democratic side was paying attention to the non-college educated white voters. The Trump campaign targeted this group with precision and a ground game kept largely secret from the press. 


This Democratic strategy now seems deeply flawed and must change. If you are the Democratic Party and you do not represent the white working class, you do not represent the working class. And if you are the Democratic Party and you do not represent the working class, you are not the Democratic Party.

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