Issue Briefs

The Crisis of the Democratic Party and the New Political Map of America

The Crisis of the Democratic Party and the New Political Map of America

Martin Sieff

February 6, 2017

In the 2016 presidential election, Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton only won 232 Electoral College votes to 306 amassed by her successful opponent, Republican Donald Trump: Yet Clinton received 2.8 million votes more than Trump nationwide.

This anomaly –the one who got more votes nationally lost the elections– has been widely discussed and taken by liberal-Democrat partisans as an argument to abolish the Electoral College system, which has now functioned for 228 years.

The outcome of the election certainly appears to be a travesty, or at least thwarting of truly representative democracy for any unified nation.

The U.S. works with different rules

However, the United States, as its very name indicates, has never been a unified political system, nor is it intended to be.

The Electoral College honors both the workings of democracy and the mechanisms of a federal republic. It requires that, in order to win all the Electoral College votes of any state, the victorious candidate must win not necessarily an absolute majority but a plurality of the voters in that state: that is the largest single number of votes for any candidate.

This requirement guarantees that no single or tiny coalition of states can ignore majority or even plurality opinion across the rest of the country.

No state, or combination of only two to half a dozen states, can run roughshod over the clearly voted and reflected choices of voters in states stretching across a vast continental nation with four time zones – not counting the most recent states of Hawaii and Alaska.

The system usually also serves to magnify the clear winner of a national majority of votes.

No strong objections regarding previous elections outcomes

There were no Democrats objecting to the functions of the Electoral College when President Bill Clinton was elected on with a plurality – and overall minority of votes – both in 1992 and 1996. Those two results were arguably far less reflective of the popular choices across the entire nation than Trump’s victory in 2016.

Clinton certainly won more votes overall than Trump, but almost all the commentary on her defeat ignored a crucial factor that ominously may spell the eclipse and even extinction of the Democratic Party as a credible body of national power over the next decade.

The fact is that Clinton ran up an enormous majority of 3 million votes over Trump in the state of California, the most populous in the entire country. Exclude California and the Clinton popular vote advantage withers away.

California counts but it is not America

This outcome reflected an inexorable long-term trend: The Democrats look entrenched in power across California with a permanent majority in its state senate, the majority of its state legislature seats and in control of its governorship for the foreseeable future.

However, when the lopsided results of California are deducted from the national total, Trump, arguably the weakest and most controversial Republican candidate since Herbert Hoover in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression, still managed to defeat Clinton almost everywhere else.

Strong support for Democrats highly concentrated in very few states

Support for the Democrats was even more distorted and vulnerable than that: One third of all Clinton’s votes as the Democratic nominee came from only three states with a combined 20 percent – a mere one fifth – of the national US population between them: California, New York and little Massachusetts.

In other words, the Democrats are rapidly becoming a regional party of the two high-population and high tech, prosperous coasts of the United States but they increasingly appear doomed to eternal minorities across the great continental landmass in between.

Mounting losses

During the eight years of Obama’s presidency, the Democrats lost 1,034 elected seats in both the national Congress and in state legislatures across the United States.

In the 2014 midterm elections, the number of Democrats in the Senate and House of Representatives fell to their lowest levels since the Republican landslide of Herbert Hoover over Al Smith in 1928, before the start of the Great Depression.

It was as if every Democratic political and electoral gain since the beginning of the New Deal had been wiped out.

Edward-Isaac Dovere, writing in the January-February issue of Politico magazine pointed out some even more devastating figures: Democrats, he wrote “are stuck in the minority in Congress with no end in sight, have only 16 governors left and face 32 state legislatures fully under GOP control.”

GOP has strong grip on power in many states

Republicans now control the governorship and both chambers of state legislatures – the so-called trifecta – in 25, or a full 50 percent of all US states. Democrats enjoy similar full control in only five states – one fifth as many.

In 2010 alone, a mere two years into the supposed Obama Millennium, the first black president’s party lost more than 60 seats in the House of Representatives and six seats, or a full 12 percent of the US Senate. They also lost almost 700 seats to the Republicans in state legislatures across the nation.

Different picture in 2009

In 2009, Democrats were the majority governing party running state administrations across the US. Some 29 of the 50 governors, or 58 percent were Democrats. In 2017, they only hold eight governorships, a paltry 16 percent of the national total.

When it comes to grassroots control of state legislatures – a power essential for controlling the process of drawing the boundaries of congressional districts within states, the Dems still held a comfortable majority in 2009 – 27, or 54 percent of the total.

After two terms of Obama and a third campaign in which he campaigned passionately for Hillary Clinton that figure has collapsed to a derisory 12 – less than a quarter of the national total.

Inept campaign

In 2016, Clinton just compounded this systemic weakness of her own party: Indeed she appeared totally oblivious to it. In fact, she ran one of the most inept campaigns in modern US political history.

In 2008, Obama won with a landslide majority of 8 million in the popular vote. In 2012, he still won comfortably despite the weakest economic recovery in more than 70 years with 5 million votes. Younger voters of all races including whites went overwhelmingly for Obama.

Clinton squandered most of that cushion. Even though she won 2.8 million votes more than her Republican opponent, she still managed to be decisively defeated in a clear majority of states across the nation.

The way Clinton pulled off this extraordinary case study in political ineptitude points to the deeper, longer term rot at the heart of the Democratic Party.

Clinton campaigned vigorously in North Carolina and Arizona – states that she was almost certain to lose – as she did.

North Carolina did not even have enough Electoral College votes to give her a decisive boost and she approved the diversion of major financial resources for no other purpose than to run up the numbers in safe Democratic havens such as the city of New Orleans.

Running a strong campaign in the wrong states

The enormous Democratic majorities in New York and California also reflected Clinton’s obsession with establishing her credibility by winning the overall popular vote.

Yet Clinton never campaigned in Wisconsin at all: She largely ignored large and vital Michigan, appearing there far too seldom and held a catastrophic rock concert type rally in the depressed city of Cleveland in vital Ohio, a state she went on to lose by a wide and decisive margin.

Right up to the closing of the polls on the evening of November 8, Clinton by all reports remained confident that she would win and that the so-called “Blue Firewall”, the traditionally Democratic –leaning major industrial states of the East Coast and Midwest, would guarantee her victory.

Instead, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin all swung decisively for Trump.

Please remember that Obama had no trouble in winning all four states by clear margins only four years before.

Democrats are in decline, irrespective of Trump’s fortunes

However, Donald Trump’s presidency goes, the rejection the Democrats suffered in all those major populations, old industry states looks very unlikely to be reversed by any Democratic national candidate four years from now, or possibly ever.

Trump won nationally, and especially in those states by huge margins with poor, white working class males and females.

As Dovere noted in Politico, Trump’s margins of victory were greatest in counties across the entire US that had recorded the greatest rise in white mortality, especially among working class males in recent years.

Trump had a powerful economic message to those counties and their inhabitants: The Democrats had no economic message of hope or credibility at all.

Not doing so well even in New York State

Even in Hillary Clinton’s home base, the Democratic political fortress of New York State, the pattern of rejection outside the great metropolitan center and its wealthy constellation of commuter suburbs was clear: An electoral map of New York State by county showed Trump sweeping the entire upstate area.

This was certainly not enough to offset Clinton’s predictable clear majority in New York City and its wealthy suburbs. But it showed the alienation of working class white voters in rural areas across the United States, as well as among those living in depressed inner city areas.

It did not start with Clinton

Clinton’s defeat therefore was the natural progression and outcome of a process that has lasted at least six years since the Democrats lost control of both chambers of Congress in 2010.

What is even more ominous for the Democrats is that for the foreseeable future they are locked into the same tiny band of leaders who have led them from one debacle to another over the past six years.

And that unrepresentative leadership – especially strong in the US Senate and House – appears determined to maintain the same unsuccessful national strategies of racial identity and gender politics that failed so spectacularly across the US Heartland in the elections of 2010, 2014 and 2016.

As I predicted in my 2015 book Cycles of Change, a study of US history from Thomas Jefferson to Barack Obama, a new political map of America has emerged.

A new political map

This new political map has shifted the center of gravity and main battlegrounds where elections are decided.

The cockpit of US politics that incubates the dominant national political leadership has abandoned Texas, California and the Southwest, the dominant regions of the past half century.

It has already moved to the old, failing heavy industrial states that have been devastated by the policies of free trade, unlimited immigration and internationalism.

The state by state outcomes of the 2016 presidential election made this historic shift clear.

Once solid Democratic states shifted allegiance

The Democrats clearly lost their historic lock on the old Rustbelt states extending from Pennsylvania across Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, as I predicted in Cycles of Change. They will not regain them in this generation.

The Republicans, even amid enormous debate and discordance, are recognizing and wrestling with these changes and seeking to take long-term advantage of them.

However, if the Democrats remain deep in denial, the Republicans, despite internal discord, may be able to retain the political advantage.

Martin Sieff is a Global Policy Institute Fellow. He is author most recently of Gathering Storm: The Seventh Era of American History and the Coming Crises That Will Lead to It.


The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policy of GPI.