After Obama

The Briefing, Vol. III, Issue 8 –

  • Hillary announces — life after Obama is here.
  • Democrats’ Triumphalism versus Democrats’ realism
  • How Hillary can win, and how she cannot win

To: Our readers
From: David Freddoso


President 2016

So, in case you haven’t heard, something completely expected happened over the weekend. Fast forward to about a minute thirty to see the relevant part:

Okay, so Hillary Clinton is just like you — she’s been traveling the country, making $300,000 speeches, and she finally feels ready to launch a presidential campaign. This is a smart launch video, too — it tries to take the focus off of her coronation (after all, she doesn’t even say anything until it’s halfway over) and make it about the people she hopes to serve.

This leaves just one big and important question, and it’s not the one most people are asking: What does the post-Obama era hold for Democrats?

With Hillary Clinton’s candidacy now a reality, Obama now semi-officially moves into the shadows as his party’s former leader. He can’t be the boss anymore. But was he a long-term builder of his party? Or was he its momentary source of strength, without which it suddenly goes back to being the loser of the John Kerry/Michael Dukakis/Newt Gingrich era? This question will determine the course of the next 18 months — and probably the composition of the Supreme Court for the next 20 years.

How Hillary cannot win:

There are two schools of thought on what Democrats can expect with Obama gone. The first could be called the Triumphalist Democratic school, which anticipates a Hillary victory for structural reasons based on demographic change in the electorate. This school’s view has been embraced by many liberal pundits although not necessarily by the more knowledgeable ones. The basic statement of this view, to quote Jonathan Chait:

The United States has polarized into stable voting blocs, and the Democratic bloc is a bit larger and growing at a faster rate.

Simplistic? Of course. But also dramatic, exciting, and optimistic, so you can see why it’s so catchy. This is the story of the emerging, permanent Democratic majority that has been predicted for about 20 years now but never quite seems to arrive.

After seeing the result in 2008, the Triumphalists decided that the demographic moment had arrived that would make Democrats the nearly effortless winners of all future presidential races. The electorate is becoming less white, and young people are voting Democratic by wider margins than they used to. Thus, the permanent majority is here at last! This has either made up or formed major underlying assumptions for a ridiculous, enormous amount of post-2012 punditry, especially in the most wishful-thinking quarters of the Left.

But the facts are considerably more limited in what they betray. First of all, they show that “demographic change” played little or no role in Obama’s victories except probably in Nevada and Colorado — without which he would have won both of his elections anyway. (The time to say that “demographic change” — i.e., the increase in Hispanic voting — has begun affecting outcomes is when Texas and Arizona go blue. not before.)

The facts also show that Obama, a strong Democratic candidate, won amid a major crisis in 2008, and then won a closer but still decisive re-election amid diminished turnout in 2012. The facts also show that throughout the Obama era, whenever Obama has not personally been on the ballot, Democrats have suffered badly.

Hence the second school of thought about what happens after Obama.


We can call this the Realist school, because it acknowledges that Democrats have an actual problem underlying their loss of control in Congress. Democrats’ loss of clout in Congress is not merely the result of gerrymandering or some other cheap gimmick, but rather a fundamental problem reflecting a gradual and ongoing loss of Democratic support within the white middle and working classes (but especially the middle class) over the last 30 years (see chart at right). Just as Republicans will lose if they just write off non-white voters, Democrats will lose if they cannot find a way to stop their margin of loss among white voters from growing until it reaches 100 percent. Yes, some trends are working in Democrats’ favor, but others are not. This is worth remembering.

Another thing the Realists understand is that Barack Obama is a one-time, unrepeatable phenomenon for the Democratic Party. There will never be another First Black President, period. And there might not be another presidential candidate as good or as talented as Obama for a generation. Obama generated incredible enthusiasm among young voters, blacks, white urban gentry, and (in 2012) Hispanics. He thus produced both larger margins and greater turnout than anything Democrats had gotten out of their base in recent years.

They aren’t guaranteed any of this once Obama is gone. That’s what the Realists understand.

Obama managed to cope with the Democrats’ widening losses among middle class white voters by running up ever-larger margins among white urban gentry liberals and blacks. This explains the Obama coalition: A less diverse group than the one that propelled Bill Clinton to the White House, but a group whose constituent parts are more enthusiastic, turn out to vote at higher rates, and deliver bigger margins of victory.

This all hints at the idea that Obama’s coalition and the Obama victory strategy is not easily interchangeable with just any old candidate. Can Hillary Rodham Clinton win 95 or 96 percent of the black vote in key states instead of the pre-2008 Democratic standard of 85 to 89 percent? Probably not. And in 2012, that was roughly the difference between winning and losing Virginia.


Can Hillary bring 18 to 29 year-old voters back toward the Democrats and reproduce the enormous margins Obama got? Remember — young voters have been getting less Democratic since the peak year of 2008, as the adjacent chart demonstrates. The Realist view is that Hillary Clinton cannot count on the same kind of support Obama enjoyed. She cannot win the same way Obama won in 2008 or 2012. She cannot expect or count on Obama-esque margins or turnout with black or Hispanic or young voters.


How Hillary can win:

But that doesn’t mean she cannot win — it means she has to win her own way. That almost certainly means she has to make up for slackening black and youth support by pulling more white female voters from the Republicans’ clutches. Speaking of which, click the chart at right for a look at how white women have voted in the last thirty years. They are a largely unexplored and poorly understood species, far more politically conservative than you might guess but perhaps becoming a bit less so in the last decade. They lean Republican on the whole, but large shifts in the electorate (such as 2008 and 2014) seem to catch them by surprise and leave them behind. Can Hillary capture women’s imaginations in a way other Democrats have not — in a way the Mondale-Ferraro and McCain-Palin tickets did not?

The Realist view is a lot more humble in its assumptions and therefore a lot more trustworthy in its conclusions. It holds that Democrats really have no way of knowing their future, because it all depends on their ability to do something no one has done before.

Post-Obama Republicans:

For a party on the verge of demographic elimination, Republicans are suspiciously close to dominating Washington — in fact, it would take just one presidential victory after a candidate who is known for being overrated as a candidate.

But let’s face it — there are a lot of true elements to the Democrats’ Triumphalist vision, even if its adherents haven’t made the case very well. For example, the electoral map is a lot worse for Republicans today than it was previously, mostly because Colorado and Virginia have gone from Red to Purple (or even blue) in recent cycles. Republicans have almost no margin of error in presidential races any more.

Things will remain that way until they make another big blue state — let’s say Pennsylvania as an example — competitive. And the thing is, this could actually happen. It could happen in 2016.

Remember — these are the specific stakes we’re talking about when we discuss Hillary losing Obama’s margins and turnout with black voters. What does Pennsylvania look like if a Republican puts in a concerted effort to win it, Philadelphia doesn’t show up with Obama-level enthusiasm on election day, and the rest of the state continues its gentle trend toward the GOP? If that happens, Pennsylvania turns red. You can imagine doing the same sort of equations for Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Wisconsin, or even Illinois just to see how they come out.

This is what Republicans are going to have to start doing in the post-Obama era — getting super-ambitious and hoping that maybe there’s a chance some of their big dreams can pay off. Perhaps that means winning Pennsylvania, or getting 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, or something completely different, but it’s worth testing the new waters to see whether what was impossible in the Obama era isn’t becoming more possible today.