Hours after the end of the 2016 election, the filmmaker and activist Michael Moore published five items of advice for his fellow, horrified Democrats. After advising them to take over the Democratic Party and dump the consultants, Moore told them to repeat, as much as possible, that Donald Trump had lost the popular vote.
“You must say this sentence to everyone you meet today: 'HILLARY CLINTON WON THE POPULAR VOTE!'" wrote Moore. “The MAJORITY of our fellow Americans preferred Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Period. Fact. If you woke up this morning thinking you live in an effed-up country, you don't. The majority of your fellow Americans wanted Hillary, not Trump.”
Having lost the election, Democrats are fumbling for ways to win its aftermath. The exit polls that explain Trump's victory, solidified by narrow wins in Rust Belt states, offer them an opportunity: Trump won the election despite a lower favorable rating, more voter angst about his agenda, and almost certainly a lower popular vote total than Clinton.
In 2008, 54 percent of voters reported feeling “excited” or “optimistic” if Obama won the presidency, and 46 percent said the same of McCain. In 2012, exit pollsters asked only for voters' favorable views of the candidates, and the percentage who saw Romney positively — 47 percent — tracked with his overall vote.
This year's polls found the exact opposite: A majority of voters, 57 percent, saying that they would have “negative” feelings if Trump won, and 53 percent saying that of Clinton. There is no precedent for a candidate winning the presidency with fewer voters viewing him favorably, or looking forward to his administration, than the loser. Moreover, just 40 percent of voters said they had a “favorable” opinion of the Republican Party; 47 percent said the same of the Democrats.
There is precedent for this. Trump is the first candidate since 2000 to win the presidency while his party lost seats in both houses of Congress. That year, the presidency was not decided until mid-December, and Democrats comfortably argued that President George W. Bush lacked a mandate.
But mandate-management, part of every election's next-day spin, seems to have gotten away from the Democrats. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) immediately pronounced a “mandate” for Republicans, and Democrats have fitfully proposed ways they could work with the new president.
“If President Trump wants to spend money on helping to rebuild Connecticut’s roads and bridges and rail lines, then sign me up,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D) in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
“To the degree that Mr. Trump is serious about pursuing policies that improve the lives of working families in this country, I and other progressives are prepared to work with him,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), who in January 2017 is likely to be the most politically popular member of the Democrats' congressional delegation. “To the degree that he pursues racist, sexist, xenophobic and anti-environment policies, we will vigorously oppose him.”
The exit polls that reflected Trump's victory also found relatively few points of agreement between the winner and the electorate. Seventy percent of all voters, and 34 percent of Trump voters, said that undocumented immigrants deserved a chance for “legal status.” Just 41 percent of all voters favored the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, one of Trump's most concrete promises (albeit one many voters admitted to not taking literally). A plurality — 48 percent of voters — said that the justice system treats black Americans “unfairly.”
All of that presents Democrats with a branding challenge — one they no longer have to count on the Hillary Clinton campaign to do for them. Cenk Uygur, the founder and main host of the Young Turks video network, argued that the Clinton campaign bungled by attacking Trump less on economics than on him being “racist and bigoted and sexist.” They should have run the sort of populist campaign that broke Romney, he said.
“For a lot of voters, that wasn’t the bug — that was the feature,” said Uygur. “They should have called him a loser and talked about his six bankruptcies. If those guys who wound up voting in the Rust Belt thought he was pathetic, not just offensive, that’s a different ball game. Call him Dangerous Donald? Eh, okay. Call him a bull in a china shop? Sounds good! But if they have a sense this guy is a loser, that would have affected their votes.”
Historically, the coverage of a presidential transition and the end of a contentious election sees the victor's favorable rating ticking up. But historically, a candidate like Trump does not win presidential elections. Democrats, who expected to win the election until late Tuesday night, are faced with the unique task of opposing a president most voters did not like, or vote for, but who commands a clear congressional majority.
Until late Tuesday night, Republicans thought they might face a similar arrangement, and were preparing to challenge a President Clinton's “mandate” with investigations and holds on judicial nominees. It's not clear what Democrats can do with their available tools; it's only clear that they have the opportunity.