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Some Free Advice for the Democratic Party

A Commentary by Michael Barone

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Herewith some unsolicited free advice for the Democratic Party. Whether it's worth more than the price I leave up to Democrats to decide.

The first thing to remember is that the Democratic Party is the oldest political party in the world. It's had its ups and downs over many years. Under any fair reading of history, it has done many good things for this country and the world. It is not going away any time soon.

But it is in a bad way. Its chances of recapturing the presidency in 2020 depend largely on decisions by Republicans and on events outside anyone's control.

Democrats currently hold fewer House seats, governorships and state legislatures than at any time since the 1920s. And the signature policies of the outgoing Democratic president -- Obamacare and the Iranian nuclear deal -- are not political assets.

The first thing Democrats need to do is to end the alibi game. Yes, it's a shattering experience to lose a presidential election that, until the 9 o'clock hour on election night, you seemed sure to win.

But alibis don't help you win next time. Don't blame "fake news" when your candidate had lots more money to spend delivering her message. Don't blame the FBI director when your candidate violated criminal laws and the attorney general had to disqualify herself after revelation of her secret meeting with the candidate's husband.

Don't blame the "racism" of an electorate that twice elected the first black president. Don't blame the Electoral College when everyone knew beforehand that you need 270 electoral votes, not a popular vote plurality, to win.

Blame instead the Clinton campaign's "ascendant America" strategy -- to reassemble the 2012 Obama coalition of nonwhites and millennials, on the assumption that the attitudes of other voters, notably white non-college graduates who cast critical Obama votes in the Midwest, would remain static.

Exit polls showed that Donald Trump, supposedly toxic to nonwhites, ran slightly better among them than Mitt Romney did in 2012. Their apparent regression to the mean, to voting more like the national average, undercuts the theory that nonwhites, tormented by oppression and seething with grievance, will remain overwhelmingly Democratic forever.

To recover, Democrats need to take a look at the map. The relevant map in this election divides the nation between coastal America (the West Coast plus Hawaii, as well as the Northeast from Maine to Washington, D.C.) and heartland America (the South, the Midwest and the Mountain West, as well as energy states Alaska and Pennsylvania). Coastal America casts 31 percent of popular votes and 170 electoral votes. Heartland America casts 69 percent of popular votes and 368 electoral votes.

Clinton earned all but one electoral vote (Maine's 2nd Congressional District) in coastal America. But in heartland America -- where Barack Obama lost the electoral vote narrowly, 206-162, in 2012 -- Clinton got only 63 electoral votes, compared with Trump's 305. Yes, Trump won the 46 electoral votes of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined popular vote margin of only (at latest count) 77,193. But the fact is he didn't need a single popular vote in coastal America to win.

Democrats are even weaker in heartland down-ballot elections. In races for the House of Representatives, Republicans won more than 200 seats there, compared with only 90 for Democrats. Democrats could win half of the Republicans' 35 U.S. House seats in coastal America and still fall short of a House majority. In state legislatures, heartland Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly a 2-1 ratio.

My advice to Democrats is the advice Justice Louis Brandeis gave to young New Dealers in the 1930s. "Get out of Washington," he said. "Go home, back to the states." Leave the latte-soaked coastal cocoons. Return to your hometown or set down new roots, and run for office in the heartland -- and not in university towns but in real America.

That's what many young liberals did in the 1970s, shoring up Democratic congressional and legislative majorities for two decades, learning from constituents rather than instructing them, participating in local civic culture rather than lamenting it. The Democratic Party and the nation would be well-served if smart, ambitious young Democrats started packing their bags and competing where their party has been falling fatally short.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.

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