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Should This Election Have Been a Democratic Landslide?

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Via Kriston Capps, Republicans still loves them some Donald Trump:

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One strategy of apologists for James Comey and the media is to argue that because of Donald Trump, the election should have been so lopsided it was impossible to steal. This is quite clearly wrong.

As I’ve said, one of the better arguments against Clinton’s campaign tactics was the extent to which the advertising was targeted at marginal suburban Republicans. Whether something else would have worked we don’t know, but we know this didn’t. However, one important implication of this is that any Republican candidate, including Trump, had a relatively high floor. It was plausible during the campaign to think that Trump was so unusually bad that there would be substantial Republican defections. But, in retrospect, we know that this isn’t the case. Donald Trump was an experiment to see just how strong partisan commitments have become, and the answer is “very.”

This isn’t to say that Trump wasn’t a bad candidate. He lost the popular vote significantly in structural conditions that favored the Republican Party. If you assume a generic Dem Candidate, he’s something like 4 points below replacement, which given contemporary partisan configurations is verybad, although much of this badness was mitigated by our undemocratic system for choosing the president. (As I’ve said before, I think it’s very plausible that Rubio or Cruz would have done better in the popular vote and lost the Electoral College.) And I think “generic” is about right for Clinton, although she’s more a collection of significant strengths and weaknesses than someone who was just OK across the board like Kerry. Almost any Democrat would have gotten more favorable press coverage, and while her team was better than in 2008 her personnel judgement has never been very good. On the other hand, she’s easily the best debater of any major Democratic pol, Obama definitely included, and her beating up Trump in all three debates and also controlling the post-debate spin give her a margin that would have been more than sufficient had Comey not intervened. You can argue that Clinton was worse than generic, but then this means that Trump has to be even further below replacement to account for Clinton’s substantial popular vote win, and pretty quickly you run into the problem that it’s nearly impossible for a major party candidate to be much worse that -4/-5% when partisan commitments are mostly unshakable. The math doesn’t work. If the overwhelming majority of Republican votes aren’t gettable, then by definition the election is going to be close enough to steal unless structural conditions strongly favor one party or another.

Let’s run at this from another direction. Almost everyone would agree that Obama is a superior political talent to Clinton. In 2008, he won by 7 points in insanely favorable conditions for the out party against a tired old man who made a rare vice presidential choice that actually materially affected his vote totals (and not in his favor.) In 2012, he won by 4 points as a peacetime incumbent against a candidate who, while better than Trump, struggled to win a party nomination for which he was effectively running unopposed. Obama — a political talent greater than any plausible candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016 — at most overachieved the structural conditions by a point or two. The idea that even a decent Democratic candidate should have been expected to win easily in structural conditions that didn’t favor the party just doesn’t make any sense.

This isn’t to say that a Democratic loss was inevitable in 2016. The margins were so close that it’s possible that Clinton could have made different choices that would have led to a narrow win, and it’s also entirely possible that another candidate could have improved on Clinton enough for a narrow win. But that’s what we’re talking about — very marginal differences. Assertions that because Donald Trump this should have been a cakewalk are clearly wrong. Whether the Dem nominee had been Clinton or Bernie or Biden, the margins were always going to be close enough that unexpected events could produce a fluke win for Trump. No matter how bad the candidate, in national elections Republicans vote for Republicans, and in normal conditions that only leaves so much margin for error.

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