Memories of the shock of Election Night 2016 could become a strategic asset for Democrats, who sure won’t get over-confident in 2020.
It’s a sore subject that many left-of-center folks would just as soon not hear about today, but it is the third anniversary of the extremely improbable election of Donald J. Trump as president of the United States. On the first anniversary, in 2017, anti-Trump Americans had an off-year Democratic sweep in New Jersey and Virginia elections to celebrate, and the two-year anniversary fell just a couple of days after the “blue wave” of the 2018 midterms. Yes, this year Trump’s party lost some ground in Virginia and Kentucky, but these preliminaries are being massively overshadowed by the impeachment saga and the upcoming Trump reelection bid, which are indeed bringing back bad memories of the Bad Night when the Bad Man somehow won.
But what made that shocking event possible was a run-up in which it’s fair to say that almost no one — reportedly including Trump and his own campaign staff — really thought it would happen. That’s often blamed on the polls, mostly unfairly (national polls on average were as accurate as ever when it came to the national popular vote; there simply wasn’t enough state polling in the places that wound up mattering most; and media often misinterpreted or overstated polling data).
The expectation that Hillary Clinton had already won the election before November 8 was a composite of impressions ranging from her superior financial position and field operations to exaggerated reports of early voting trends to the perceived impact of the Access Hollywood video that had Republican elected officials heading for the hills. By the numbers, Trump was the most unpopular major-party presidential candidate since measurements of popularity began. And beneath all these data points was the underlying skepticism that a man of his outlandish character and background could be elected president under any circumstances. And that bedrock belief was shared by elites all over the partisan and ideological spectrum.
Now, there’s no way to prove that people who didn’t bother to vote, or cast a protest vote for a minor-party candidate or even for Trump while assuming he could not actually be inaugurated, cost Clinton the election (there’s actually some evidence that minor-party voting hurt Trump more than his opponent). But if you add together the substantial evidence that nonvoters skewed Democratic and consider the tactical mistakes Team Clinton seemed to make due to misperceptions of the state of the race (e.g., focusing resources on Arizona rather than Wisconsin), it’s clear the element of surprise was an important — perhaps critical — asset for the 45th president.
If so, he’s lost it for good heading toward 2020, and that could be a hidden asset for his Democratic opponent, whoever it is. It’s an exaggeration to say there’s not a single Democratic operative or activist, or left-leaning journalist, who firmly believes Trump is toast in 2020. But anyone who does feel that way is unlikely to share the opinion out of fear of being hooted down or beaten up by superstitious and rightfully fearful veterans of 2016. Meanwhile, those who periodically warn Democrats that he can win reelection despite his chronically poor job-approval ratings (e.g., this very week, the New York Times’ Nate Cohn) are given enormous attention. If there is any triumphalism among the chattering classes going into 2020, it’s virtually all in Trump’s own camp, where predictions of total victory in all states are pretty common.
Will that change as Democrats begin to get themselves whipped up for the general election? Probably not. It’s hard to imagine a polling lead any Democrat would have over Trump that would be considered secure, particularly if you factor in the built-in Republican advantage in the Electoral College and the possibility that Trump would contest any narrow defeat as fraudulent. The president’s obsessive investment in base mobilization, which compounds the fascistic excitement he inherently produces with his skillful evocation of racial, gender, cultural, and economic resentments, will likely pay off in extremely visible pro-Trump enthusiasm. Sure, there are imponderables out there: A recession could make Trump’s reelection very difficult, just as a shooting war might make it easier in the short run. But there is a reason Democratic primary voters are focused on the electability of their candidates more than in any recent election. And the fear and hope associated with that concern are likely to go much higher as the fateful days of the general election grow nigh.
So it’s probably good for Democrats to keep the terrible night of November 8, 2016 in mind today and over the next year. Even if it’s bad for their mental health, it’s good for their prospects of avoiding its recurrence in real life instead of just memory.