The state of the race: The Democrats

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I looked at the state of the race for the Republicans and Donald Trump. Today, let's look at the Democrats.

By all accounts, the Democratic National Convention was a success. Despite a rocky start with the forced resignation of Committee Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz and fears that the Bernie or Bust brigade would disrupt the proceedings, the convention succeeded in portraying a mostly unified party, with a nominee who is vastly popular with her own party, and, unlike the GOP convention, the themes of the convention represented a direct effort to appeal to undecided voters, moderate Republicans and Independent voters. According to the post-convention polls, that appeal worked. Not only did support for Hillary Clinton jump from 78 percent to 91 percent among those who backed Bernie Sanders, the CNN poll released Monday has her leading Trump among Independents by five points. By way of comparison, President Obama lost Independents to Mitt Romney by five points, yet he still won the election.

They needed the bounce. Only once in the post-World War II era for either party to control the White House for more than eight years, when George H. W. Bush beat Michael Dukakis in 1988 after Ronald Reagan's two terms. Even before World War II, it was rare: The Republicans controlled the White House for the first 12 years of the 20th century, and again from 1920 until 1932, but the deaths of William McKinley and Warren Harding created half terms for their vice presidents. The consumer mentality, more pronounced than ever, makes voters want what Barack Obama once called "that new car smell" every eight years. 

The Democrats, aware of this historical weight and that their nominee is the second most unpopular nominee in the history of polling, grow more confident when they look at the demographics of this election. As America becomes more diverse, Democrats like their chances. For example, we know that George W. Bush captured 44 percent of the Latino vote on his way to re-election in 2004. That number dropped to 33 percent for John McCain in his 2008 loss and dropped further, to 27 percent, when Mitt Romney lost in 2012. Romney's people thought they were going to win on election day because they were trouncing Obama among white voters by 20 points. The problem? White voters were a significantly smaller percentage of the electorate than Romney's pollsters forecast. This year, most polls have Trump in the low teens among Latino voters, which narrows his path to 270 electoral votes enormously.  States with large Latino populations like Colorado, New Mexico and increasingly Virginia, will fall more easily into the Democratic column. Nevada, curiously, which has a larger Latino population than the other three, remains tied in the polls. Florida is somewhat sui generis. For example, its Latino population includes large numbers of conservative Cuban Republicans but the fastest growing segment of the population is the Puerto Rican community along the I-4 corridor, and they tend to be Democrats.

That said, I linked yesterday to an article at Politico by Jeff Greenfield in which he wrote, "All of these numbers should be a source of great comfort to Democratic strategists, and in public they tend to repeat them. But just beneath the surface lies a persistent sense of uneasiness, driven by one question: What if everything we think we know about politics has been rendered inoperative?"

As noted yesterday, Trump's numbers in some traditionally Democratic parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio are alarming. The Latino vote may boost Clinton in Colorado, but there is not a large Latino vote in the Rust Belt states Trump is targeting: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Democrats have been promising to help the victims of globalization and automation in these states for years, but somehow they always manage to find a rationale to sign another trade deal that protects the corporate profits of Big Pharma but does nothing for low-skilled workers. Throughout the Democratic debates, Clinton and Sanders sparred over their plans to make college affordable, but only at the convention did we hear Clinton start talking about helping those who don't go to college. I suspect it is too little too late. Team Clinton will conclude that it has a better shot winning over suburban Republican women on issues like abortion and Trump's misogyny than winning working class voters in hardscrabble cities like Wilkes-Barre or Youngstown.

Clinton remains a deeply flawed candidate. She has had a month to prepare for an interview question about FBI Director James Comey's findings regarding her handling of emails while secretary of state. Why did she say something that was obviously and emphatically untrue? That only keeps the story going. Her lawyerly parsing of words is what drives people nuts, yet she seems incapable of fashioning, rehearsing and repeating a straight forward answer like, "As I said, I thought all the emails I was viewing did not, repeat, did not, contain highly classified information. As Director Comey said, I was mistaken about that and am truly sorry. I was grateful to realize that so few of the emails were classified and that most of those were classified later, not at the time I was reading them. But, this just goes to show why I will never, ever do that again." See, no lie. A boring answer. Next question. She has bright communications staffers all around her. The problem is her, not them, and it is a problem we have seen with Clinton throughout her public career. In her quest for privacy, she refuses to give anyone permission to challenge her on personal matters.

This quest for privacy has yielded another distasteful characteristic in Hillary Clinton, the sense that her situation is so different from that of everyone else that the rules do not really apply to her. This is quickly combined with a dash of self-pity. You saw this in the "60 Minutes" interview Clinton did the night before the Democratic convention, foolishly positing a "Hillary standard" by which she was judged more harshly than anyone else. It is true that Republicans and Fox News will take everything she says and does and try and make hay with it. That's called politics. But, after being dogged throughout the primaries for delivering speeches for a quarter of a million dollars a pop, Clinton should be wary of suggesting she is confronted by a different standard from that applied to others: Usually that difference works in her favor.

Related, and more subtly, Clinton's occasional tone deafness in speaking about herself is an extreme example of a certain understanding of herself and of politics that seems unnerving to many people; it involves a disconnect, something impersonal. It was said throughout the Democratic convention that Hillary Clinton had fought for children and families all of her life. It would be more accurate to say that she has fought for causes associated with children and families all of her life. She did not, like Tim Kaine, go do a year of missionary work in Honduras. Her work came with staff support and it was about the ideas as much as the people. She wants you to know that you can mention almost any cause on the planet, and she has been fighting for it all of her life. In this past Sunday's Washington Post, Carlos Lozada ran a splendid send up of Clinton's sense of self being intertwined with causes. Yes, as I have noted before, Clinton's religious sensibilities are real and her Methodism is a source of her activism. But, there is something ideological about that activism that would strike the Wesley brothers cold, to say nothing of the large egotism unique to do-gooders, a thing that is almost always uniquely obnoxious to the rest of us.

Legend has it that when candidates for promotion in the French Army were brought to the Emperor Napoleon, he would examine their resumes but would always come round to the same question: Is he lucky? The Clintons have been exceedingly lucky in the opponents they have attracted and that luck is still with them. In any other year, Clinton would be losing by a landslide. In a normal year, having the FBI director call you "reckless" with national security secrets would be enough to tank your campaign, to say nothing of polls that indicate 70 percent of the American people do not think you are trustworthy. Seventy percent! That cannot be attributed entirely to Fox News aficionados. I suspect Clinton will win, and she might even win big, but the country better hope that her luck stays with her in the White House.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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