The idea that beating Trump should have been easy took hold because it seems intuitively right to some people — even today, it can be hard for educated liberals to take the idea of President Donald J. Trump seriously.
And there is some margin of truth to it: Any election decided by the kind of razor-thin margins the 2016 presidential election was, by definition, winnable by either candidate. And while it is impossible to explore a counterfactual with any real certainly, it is perhaps possible that different choices by the Clinton campaign could have captured the Electoral College, or that another Democratic candidate (Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, etc.) could have won the race.
But the idea that the 2016 election shouldn’t have been close at all — which is at the heart of this idea — is itself counterfactual. The exceptionally high levels of partisan polarization in the last decade inherently puts a high floor and a low ceiling on the number of Electoral College votes even a weak candidate can obtain. In 2008, John McCain (running an unenergetic campaign in extremely unfavorable conditions for the incumbent party with a disastrous vice-presidential pick, against an uncommon political talent running a nearly flawless campaign) still got 46% of the popular vote and 173 electoral votes. For Clinton or some other Democrat to have won in a landslide would’ve required significant numbers of Republican voters to desert Trump in her or his favor. That didn’t happen in 2016 and, barring something akin to a complete economic collapse, it won’t happen in 2020 either.
The idea that a Democrat should’ve been a shoe-in in 2016 also reflects deep denial among mostly white liberals about the continuing potency of appeals to white supremacy in American politics. As Ta-Nehisi Coates put in his coruscating election post-mortem, “The First White President,” “[t]he scope of Trump’s commitment to whiteness is matched only by the depth of popular disbelief in the power of whiteness.“ Trump rose to prominence in Republican politics by popularizing racist conspiracy theories, including the false claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. And then, starting with the opening day of his campaign — when he attacked Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and “rapists” — Trump abandoned the coded racial appeals of post-Goldwater Republican presidential candidates in favor of explicit racism.
Trump’s crude racist appeals carried political costs as well as benefits, and the coalition he assembled wasn’t significantly larger, numbers-wise, than Mitt Romney’s losing one. But by effectively swapping whites with college degrees for whites without them, Trump assembled a coalition that allowed him to capture several key Rust Belt states, which was better suited to winning the Electoral College (and thus the presidency) than Romney’s was.
In the much longer term, demographic changes may allow the Democratic Party to counter this by winning states like Georgia, Arizona and even Texas (especially if the Republican Party continues to alienate Latinos). But in 2020, Trump’s marginal voters will remain overrepresented in the Electoral College and therefore a major issue for the Democrats.
The idea that Hillary Clinton’s negative qualities were the only relevant variable in deciding the 2016 election also carries a substantial element of Murc’s Law; Trump is essentially dismissed from consideration, or treated as someone with no political assets whatsover. But the important marginal shifting of the Republican coalition is much more plausibly linked to Trump than to Clinton, unless you think John Kerry had some magic appeal to whites without college degrees.
As I go on to argue, the Democrats can’t just use good policy proposals to make the election “about economics” — in American politics, race and gender and economic policy are inextricably bound together. An attractive policy agenda needs to be wedded to a strong effort to mobilize voters threatened by Trump. Fortunately, all of the major candidates for the 2020 nomination seem to recognize this.