ATLANTA — Unable to get closure on the party’s stunning losses in November, nearly 20 Democratic interest groups, operatives, and state committees have commissioned their own private 2016 election autopsy reports.
The projects, which aim to diagnose the party’s ills and pave a path forward, are designed in part to fill the void left by Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which has yet to offer any formal explanation for its defeat. Instead, leaders of her campaign effort have let the candidate’s complaints to donors about Russia and FBI Director Jim Comey’s intervention stand alone, leaving a public silence about the details of her defeat that has spawned tangible frustration among party operatives.
While Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook and members of his team have been privately presenting their own findings to Clinton and other influential party figures, the absence of a full, public accounting of the factors and forces underlying her shocking loss has generated a cottage industry of projects dedicated to explaining and understanding how things went so wrong for the party in November.
Some of the investigations would have happened anyway: There are two parallel probes of what happened in the U.S. House alone — one from New Mexico Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman, and another led by New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney.
By far the largest effort to take stock of the last election cycle is a project that’s unlikely to produce any public-facing set of conclusions. AFL-CIO Political Director Mike Podhorzer in January quietly convened leading political, data, and polling professionals from Clinton’s campaign, outside groups, and progressive organizations for four sessions in Washington where the group shared their own findings.
The Democratic data firm Catalist has also stepped in to provide analyses for a wide range of groups with which it works, pulling together sophisticated, exhaustive looks at turnout and party support based on precinct data, voter files and the group’s own models and figures within the states — one presentation describing the situation in a non-battleground state, obtained by POLITICO, stretched to over 50 pages.
“I certainly did mine for the DNC Executive Committee, but hell, every conference call there’s someone with an opinion of what went wrong and why,” said Cornell Belcher, a leading party pollster who presented his initial findings to that group in Denver at the end of last year.
The projects are taking place under the aegis of both national and local-level groups — from super PACs to state parties to organized labor officials — and they often disagree in both their focus and their conclusions.
A number of state parties are conducting deeper-than-usual audits of the election, from the Florida Democratic Party’s analysis of its performance at the state legislative and presidential level to efforts led by party committees in states including Iowa, Minnesota, and Georgia.
The Women’s Voices Women’s Votes Action Fund has analyzed the group’s own November 7-9 polling, exit polls, and its mail-based registration campaign — the largest in the country — to look for response rates in their target demographic groups: unmarried women, millennials, and people of color, explained Page Gardner, president of that group and the Voter Participation Center.
All of it represents tens of millions of dollars worth of investment in research, and hundreds of hours of under-the-radar meetings and panels, according to interviews with a wide range of their drafters and a review of six comprehensive or partial reports obtained by POLITICO.
Spanning from informal pollster presentations to secret hundred-page documents — some of which are finished, and others of which are still being assembled — the constellation of reports is circulating at a time when the Democratic Party nationwide is at one of its lowest depths in a century, and when a persistent chorus of party donors and candidates are demanding answers on the failures of 2016 as they wait for the Democratic National Committee to elect a new chairman.
There is a widespread assumption that the party’s new chairman will also eventually put together a formal party-wide assessment.
The lingering question for party leaders and consultants is how much of the intel and assessment will eventually be made public to ameliorate the fears and concerns of a furious base demanding a clear path forward.
“It’s a good thing for everybody to be involved in rebuilding the Democratic Party, so as many people want to throw their opinions into the mix, eventually the truth will come out of that. My post-mortem is not the complete picture, and I don’t think anyone’s is. The more the merrier, and it’s really important that Democrats look in the mirror and don’t just lean on Russia or fake news,” said veteran party strategist Donnie Fowler, who drafted his own assessment at the request of interim party chairwoman Donna Brazile, referring to two explanations for Clinton’s loss that are frequently proffered by Democrats.
“The donors are really looking of clarity and direction, absolutely,” he said. “But if you want to be Maoist about it, this is a time for a thousand flowers to bloom.”
Crafting an election autopsy before the official party committee builds its own is no easy feat. It’s a politically delicate endeavor in any year, and at the moment operatives still don’t have access to a completely updated voter file with comprehensive nationwide data from 2016. That means that most of the conclusions offered thus far are tentative.
“Most of these analyses are based on exit polls, and the one thing we know about exit polls is that they were wrong,” explained Tom Bonier, CEO of Democratic data firm TargetSmart.
Yet Democrats who are actively engaged in fundraising say the lack of an official party-wide autopsy is a constant topic of conversation for donors considering contributions — especially the big whales who sat on Clinton’s national finance council only to receive a thank you note, but no accounting of the loss from the candidate’s team after November.
Not all of the circulating analyses are meant to be comprehensive. Instead, some are designed to zero in on a demographic or issue most important to the organization in question. But that has led to results that often appear to coexist uncomfortably at a time when party leaders are wrestling with how to fit moderates and increasingly empowered progressives under the same big tent.
When Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver presented his own findings to the Senate Democratic caucus this month, for example, he told senators they need to face up to the reality that more and more primary voters consider themselves liberal, according to a Democrat familiar with the report. The liberal Center for American Progress think tank’s 12-page “The Path Forward” report similarly makes the case that a majority of Americans, including Trump backers, support progressive policies, from safeguarding Social Security and Medicare to combating money in politics.
“America did not sign off on a radical-right agenda with Donald Trump’s election, and progressive leaders should remember that,” reads the report, which was published in December.
But the centrist think tank Third Way’s $20 million “New Blue” initiative is looking at the circumstances under which recently Democratic Rust Belt states voted for Trump — and one of its initial findings, published Wednesday, was that, “Despite the large change in the demographic composition of the electorate, most voters still do not self-identify as liberals. In fact, liberals remain bronze medalists in the ideological breakdown of the electorate — ever since the question was first asked decades ago.”
Other projects have led to disagreements over which slices of the electorate are worth focusing on in particular — an elaboration of the broader fight over whether it makes sense to invest more in winning back working class white men or the young, minority voters of the so-called Obama coalition.
Priorities USA Action, which grew to become the largest Democratic super PAC ever in its support of Clinton last cycle, is using polling and focus groups in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Florida to study both Obama voters who sat 2016 out and Obama voters who backed Trump. Guy Cecil, the group’s chairman, presented some of the findings to the DNC’s executive committee on Friday morning. Brazile said she asked Mook to present too, but he was unavailable.
The group’s initial report noted that the party has a clear opportunity to win back the Obama-Trump voters. It’s a popular group to study: more than 200 counties swung from Obama in 2012 to Trump in 2016, and 10 sitting Democratic senators are up for re-election in 2018 in states that Trump won.
In a reflection of the party’s inability to come to a consensus on the causes of Clinton’s defeat, Belcher contends that focusing on such a group is missing the forest for the trees.
“Are there people who voted for Obama and voted for Trump? Yeah, there are some. Are there millions and millions of people who did that? No, it’s fucking absurd,” he said. “It’s not like Trump blew through the Mitt Romney number in any of these states. You know what Trump got in Florida? 49 percent. You know what Romney got in Florida? 49 percent.”
The story is different in Ohio, however, where Obama won by three points in 2012 and Trump won by eight in 2016.
There, state party chairman David Pepper is spearheading one of the most comprehensive state-level projects, which includes a series of “kitchen table conversations” beginning last month, wherein party officials listen to groups of 20-30 locals — both Democrats and Republicans — to ensure they aren’t “in a bubble” when it comes to issues that matter to those communities, in Pepper’s words.
Part of a presentation of the “2016 Strategic Ohio Post-Mortem” obtained by POLITICO includes county-level maps comparing Democrats’ disappointing 2016 results to 2012, and charts comparing turnout between the two cycles. It also presents the finding that smaller urban counties saw Democratic performance plummet, while counties that voted for Obama saw a drop-off of roughly 182,000 votes for Clinton in 2016. Among the state’s 50 smallest counties, it also notes, Democrats lost by 20 percent in 2012, and 46 percent in 2016.
“You can’t lose those red counties that badly, you can’t make up that difference. So understanding what happened in those scattered counties is important, because if you don’t do better there, there just aren’t enough Democrats in urban areas to make up for it,” said Pepper.
Treading on more sensitive territory, the presentation also includes a slide titled, “No Persuasion Canvass,” which includes images of three Clinton ads and criticizes the campaign for mandating that organizers not try to persuade voters through conversations — a decision that has been roundly criticized since November.
It’s one of the more explicit critiques of Clinton’s Brooklyn-based operation among the existing autopsies, which tend to shy away from direct criticism but often note the imperative of finding an affirmative message rather than the anti-Trump one pushed by Clinton in the campaign’s closing stretch.
In fact, that’s an argument made in “A Way Forward,” an early January analysis from former Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and party consultant David Eichenbaum.
“The candidate and party with a simple, compelling and consistent economic message that empowers people is the side that usually wins. No matter what polling may say about the efficacy of a positive message at any given time, we need to give voters a reason to be FOR us. A positive vision is not something we can start talking about in the last two weeks of an election, or not at all,” the report concludes.
After all, as Beshear told DNC members at a recent candidate forum in Houston, “The Democratic Party has lost its way. Let’s face it: We’ve been getting our butts kicked in elections. We’ve been losing elections around the country that we should win.”