Obama pollster Cornell Belcher on the failures that led to President Trump: "What happens to a centrist Democrat who can't hold the Obama coalition?"

Trump didn't "remake the electorate," argues leading Democratic pollster. Instead, Hillary and her party blew it

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published February 20, 2017 10:00AM (EST)

Cornell Belcher   (YouTube/Harvard Institute of Politics)
Cornell Belcher (YouTube/Harvard Institute of Politics)

The Democratic Party is continuing its postmortem after Hillary Clinton's unexpected defeat. Many challenges and puzzles will need to be resolved. Demographic trends suggested that Clinton should have easily defeated Donald Trump. She won the popular vote by a margin of close to 3 million. But the geographic dispersal of those votes, in combination with the Electoral College, have put Trump in the White House.

Some have suggested that Democrats should abandon "identity politics" and focus exclusively on winning back white working-class voters. While Barack Obama won two terms -- and left office as one of the country's most popular presidents in recent memory -- he also faced a backlash by white voters and increasing levels of racism that Trump used to win the 2016 election.

In many ways, the Democratic Party is fighting a war for its soul and future, even while struggling to oppose Trump and the Republican Party's efforts to reverse 80 years of American progress since Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal.

Salon recently spoke with Cornell Belcher, one of the leading pollsters for Barack Obama's presidential campaign in 2008 and 2012, to answer these questions. Belcher also served as pollster for the Democratic National Committee under former chair Howard Dean. He is the author of a new book, "A Black Man in the White House: Barack Obama and the Triggering of America's Racial-Aversion Crisis," and a frequent commentator on MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post and other media outlets.

My conversation with Belcher has been edited for length and clarity. A longer version of this conversation can also be heard on my podcast, which is available on Salon's "featured audio" page.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who's a science fiction writer. He told me he could not have written a story with a plot similar to what happened with the election of Donald Trump and gotten it published.

No. It would be absurd. None of this would be possible without the backlash to the election of Barack Obama. Ten years ago, 15 years ago, Donald Trump could not have won a Republican primary; he could not have won the nomination. Donald Trump is just a reincarnation of George Wallace. But all of a sudden the demographic changes that are happening in this world brings the wolf to the door.

We have the data and polling information. How did people get this all wrong?

Well, I think the narrative was wrong. The public polling actually was in fact more accurate this year than it was in 2012. They were a lot closer to what the race was this year than they were in 2012 when I was on the Obama campaign looking at the public polling. Very few of the public pollsters actually had Obama at 51 percent there at the end.

The narrative was, we want to believe this was a two-person race. Hillary always had a big advantage there. But she also generally had an advantage in the four-person race [including Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein]. But understand, in the four-person race Hillary Clinton was never nationally over 47 percent. She was always in fact around 48 or 47, and in the end that's where she landed. When you look at this race as a four-person race and then see college-educated white voters in fact breaking back to the party that they tend to vote for, the national polling actually completely nailed where this race was.

Was Trump's victory just a "black swan effect," where he won because of the Electoral College and the distribution of Republican voters? Moreover, looking at the data this "white working-class anxiety" thesis is largely incorrect. Trump won among all groups of white voters, but the news media is obsessed with that narrative and couldn't let it go.

Well, they're still not letting it go. Democrats haven't won white voters since [Lyndon] Johnson signed civil rights legislation and realigned the parties.

Where did Hillary Clinton go wrong? This electorate was actually a browner electorate in 2016 than the electorate that we had in 2012. That should have boded well for her. I got into it a couple of times in the convention with some of my colleagues who would argue that she doesn't have to hold the Obama coalition as tight because she is certainly going to do better among white women. In the end, she didn't do better among white women.

Race trumps gender, even with a serial misogynist who is a confessed abuser of women.

Race trumps gender in this country.

There's a really interesting data point that I kept going back to -- and I'm sure you have been meditating on it as well. In 2008 there is this "post-racial" narrative about Barack Obama's election. But if you look at the data, you see that racial animus actually cost Obama between 5 and 8 percent of the vote.

No, I disagree. Even going back before the election in 2008, racial attitudes were having a profound effect on voting. The difference was that while there was a negative racial effect, there was also a positive racial effect. The positive racial effect was pushing just as hard as the negative racial effect. But you had, at this point, more people on the positive racial effect side because of how diverse the electorate was. If Barack Obama does not "over-index" among black and brown people, he is John Kerry.

Demographics are destiny. What happens to a centrist Democrat quite frankly who can't hold that Obama coalition? Donald Trump is a president who did not win a plurality of the public. In fact, one of my reports was leaked to the New York Times, saying that millennials were rejecting the binary choice of the lesser of two evils.

When you look at the exit data, you have 8 or 9 percent of younger African-Americans voting third-party. You have 6 or 7 percent of younger Latinos voting third-party. Hillary is almost off Barack Obama's winning margins by the same percentage of our young people voting third party. So that's how [Trump] squeaked in.

Again, Trump didn't expand the Republican tent. He didn't bring in all these millions upon millions of new Republican voters. This was about Democrats losing, more so than Trump remaking the electorate and winning in some sort of profound and new way. It should not have been a winning percentage, right?

How big a variable was voter suppression in terms of Donald Trump's victory? Underestimated? Overestimated?

When you look at places like North Carolina -- and, let's be clear, this is not my language, this is the courts' language -- what the Republican legislation was trying to do was in fact stop black people from voting. When you have state legislative bodies working actively to get in the way of black people voting, it's going to impact it. Not only in North Carolina; go and look at Wisconsin. There's a lot of folks in Wisconsin saying that just with the number of people who got disenfranchised from the new voting laws there who tried to vote, Hillary Clinton [would have won] Wisconsin. What these Republican legislative bodies are doing is to disenfranchise people. Two points here, three points there -- it absolutely makes a difference in these battleground states.

In terms of thinking about this white working-class obsession that has possessed too many Democrats, how do you reach those voters? Is it just a fool's errand?

This is the most ridiculous thing ever. There are not millions upon millions of Trump-Obama voters. This is a story that is in search of factual evidence.

They're reasoning backwards.

Right. When you look at why Trump won, it wasn't because Trump over-indexed. It was because we under-indexed. When you look at battleground state after battleground state, Hillary was off Obama's margins by five or six points and Trump was, at best, one or two points up in Michigan or Wisconsin or Florida. Again, it wasn't like he was four, five points better than Mitt Romney. It was that she was five or six points below what Barack Obama did.

So if you are just thinking of cold business calculations, you have two marketplaces where you're going to spend most of your resources. You have a shrinking and increasingly resistant marketplace and you have an expanding, growing, less resistant market place. Which is the best business decision?

Right. The growing market. The willing consumer.

Yes, we have to compete for every vote. But don't tell me that we have to spend more of our time and resources chasing blue-collar white voters. Because when you look at who you gave the advertising dollars to and where your ads were on broadcast television, that was in fact trying to move white voters, particularly white blue-collar voters.

We are not going to win more blue-collar white voters as long as they feel as though they are losing their country and the Republican Party is the group that's going to help them.

When presidential candidate Donald Trump says, " You know we are going to take back our country. Yes, we absolutely are going to take back our country, believe that," he is having a racial conversation. Our response to that conversation can't be, "We are going to raise your minimum wage."

Why do you think that the Democrats are so bad in terms of their storytelling?

Progressives have a blind spot when it comes to race. They do. Conservatives and Republicans don't have a blind spot when it comes to race. They understand the power of race and they use it. It is mind-boggling to me how tough it is for progressives to have a conversation about race without them wanting to make it a conversation about class and economics.

What do you think are some of the other incorrect lessons being learned right now by Democrats? Is it just the identity politics being framed as a canard, some type of anchor on the leg of Democratic candidates? Is it something else?

We've got to confront the unconscious "soft bigotry" that we also have among progressives. This conversation over the last couple of weeks has been startling to me because it's almost like we have amnesia. Instead, we want to pretend as though it's the 1980s again and we have to compete for a shrinking and more resistant electorate. You've got to shake up things, even within the progressive community and the Democratic Party, because what you are talking about is really empowering a new generation of people who don't look like the past generations of progressives.

I was out the other evening and happened to listen in on a conversation with three young African-Americans who had to be in their early 20s and were talking about the election. The young brother to the left of me was saying, "Well, Hillary and Trump are the same thing. They are the same poison." Then he said, "If anything, I like Trump more. Trump is honest. At least I know he is going to screw me over, whereas Hillary and the Clintons have been lying for years and I'm not going to vote for either of them." Where do you think the failure in messaging is?

There was a disconnect, particularly among the younger voters who did in fact reject Hillary. When you look at the younger people who voted third-party, it's not an issue correlation; it is an emotional correlation between them and their third-party voting. They were not feeling Hillary Clinton.

I did focus groups two weeks out from the election in Charlotte, North Carolina, with a group of young brothers and sisters who had voted for Barack Obama twice. Remember what was happening in Charlotte around that time, a lot of upheaval about what was going on with the police and the need for justice reform. Talking to those young folks, what is the No. 1 issue? The No. 1 issue, of course, is criminal justice reform. I showed them a platform for criminal justice reform. They responded that this is exactly what we need; this is exactly what we've been demanding. Who put this out? Is it this Black Lives Matter? No. This is Hillary Clinton's platform. They had no idea.

They did know about the "super-predator" comments from the 1990s, though. 

They are not connecting into our traditional mainstream vehicles for moving communication. When Donald Trump, the day after the election, says, "I was more powerful on social media than Hillary Clinton was with those millions upon millions of dollars of television advertising," he was right.

When you look at the studies after elections, you look at battleground states; Donald Trump was dominating social media in the battleground states at the close of the election, absolutely dominating them. It is absurd for Democrats to be spending 70 or 80 percent of their resources on television. Again, it's not the 1980s or even the 1990s anymore. This amnesia that's going on among some of the Democratic Party is going to spark an absolute disaster.

What lessons are Republicans going to learn from Donald Trump's victory? Are they going to say run away from this or triple and quadruple down on his strategy?

It is tough for them, because now they can't fight Trump and what he did. They have to go along with it. So they are doubling down on it and trying to go along with it. You can see the Republican brand growing more and more negative in the minds of voters -- particularly those voters who are younger and will be the majority electorate in a decade or so.

Another possible lesson: They can also run toward it and continue to shrink the electorate and rely on voter demobilization and suppression.

You can. It gets Republicans caught in this game and I think we also lose our democracy, because you have to try and disenfranchise more and more voters and shrink the electorate in order to be successful. This is how we lose democracy. When we are shrinking and giving less voice, then we can't compete and win the future.

Our racial aversion is how our democracy ends because we can't solve this. One of the things that W. E. B. DuBois said was, "The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line." That is as true today as it was when he said it, and we still have not confronted or tried to solve for it.

What do you want readers to take away from your new book, "A Black Man in the White House"?

I try to tell a story of how race has impacted politics. Of course it is data-driven, because I've been doing polling around racial-aversion issues over the course of this presidency, the Barack Obama presidency, and showing how that aversion and Donald Trump created a perfect storm. The point I'm trying to make in the new book is that it's not about pointing a finger at that white blue-collar worker in middle America who has really seen his or her world change and is anxious about the future. It's about us having a conversation about one America, and how we come together and compete as one America, and stop playing these racial games where we pit working-class whites against working-class blacks to the benefit of only the wealthy like Donald Trump and his Cabinet.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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