By the time the sun set in California, the certitude of the prognosticators had plunged. Suddenly once unshakable Pennsylvania turned red and the “blue wall” of Michigan and Wisconsin was looking awfully pink. The experts turned pale. Even so, their shock was so deep it took far longer than necessary for them to call the election.
What happened on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November 2016 was epochal.
There have been three presidential elections in which the candidate who won the Electoral College received fewer votes. Rutherford B. Hayes slipped past Samuel Tilden in 1876 by a single electoral vote. Grover Cleveland lost the electoral vote to Benjamin Harrison in 1888 but won the popular vote by fewer than 100,000 votes. None of these elections had such a large gulf between the popular and electoral vote.
The 2016 election is in fact the only presidential election with a significant electoral vote and popular vote margin moving dramatically in different directions. Hillary Clinton crushed Donald Trump by nearly 3 million votes, yet Trump took the Electoral College with over 300 votes.
Forget about the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Our elections have always been flawed and messy.
We all remember the virtual tie between Al Gore and George Bush. Most of us forget that the third presidential election ended in a tie between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr, candidates from the same party, because there was no way to differentiate between votes for president and vice president. This had to be fixed by the passage of the 12th Amendment in 1804, which created the Electoral College as we know it.
The 1876 presidential election was brazenly stolen from the popular vote winner by an after-election manipulation of the Electoral College. In the final years of the 19th century, the entire city government of Wilmington, N.C., was forced out by a coup d’etat. Both of these shameful events which blemished our democracy have been conveniently forgotten.
What happened on that night in November 2016? Democrats are like a baseball team in the World Series that routed the opposition in three games but lost four squeakers. No one cares that they scored more runs overall, the team that won four games gets the championship rings. If you lay a popular vote map over an electoral map you find the center of the country bulging with electoral votes while the West Coast and Northeastern Coast bulge with popular votes. There’s a reason for those bulges.
Since 2000, the United States has lost 5 million manufacturing jobs as foreign trade agreements have shuttered entire industries. The center of the country has been hit especially hard. Going into the election a Pew Research Center survey found that more voters thought the job situation in the country had gotten worse (44 percent) than better (35 percent) over the last eight years.
Looking past public opinion is the economic reality of declining middle-class incomes: In 2014, 49 percent of U.S. aggregate income flowed to upper-income households. Yet only 43 percent of this income flowed to middle-class households. In 1970 that number stood at 62 percent.
Because Democrats largely looked past these economic issues their vaunted electoral masterpiece turned into nothing more than a flimsy exercise in painting by numbers. Democrats became obsessed with Big Data. But we missed The Big Point. Politics is as much an art as a science.
It turned out that the voters in the middle of the country wanted economic hope and were ready to vote for a very different type of hope than they had voted for eight years earlier.
Democrats must learn – the middle of the country counts and jobs are key.
What will be so difficult in coming elections is understanding that these economic issues involve fundamental transformations caused by technology that will only be exacerbated by the rise of robots. To stay relevant, Democrats must consider new ideas: like replacing federal assistance with a flat income guarantee, building a new higher educational and vocational system around technology, providing free college to anyone with a desire to learn and offering mid-career retraining to our existing workforce. In other words, moving to the left may be the best route to the center.
Democrats must also be ready to bring realpolitik to the table. State legislatures have been stacked using outrageous gerrymandering since the last census. It’s time to fight back – state by state – by enacting fair, citizen-drawn legislative lines and by standing up to all attempts to intimidate new voters from registering.
This election night was different from all other election nights because it changed that electoral balance for good, and it rung in a new era of economic anxiety.
Averell “Ace” Smith is a 30-year veteran of state and national politics and has directed winning campaigns from district attorney to president. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.