As Democrats continue to sort through the wreckage of 2016, to ensure we are not doomed to repeat it, we would do well to honestly confront some fundamental realities.
Too many Democrats desperately cling to the politically inconsequential fact that Hillary Clinton bested President Trump by over 2 points in the national popular vote.
Indeed, the national popular vote does not determine the occupant of any office in the land.
The popular vote of states, cities, counties, congressional districts, legislative districts and even wards carry with them the keys to some office or other.
Though it is polled thousands of times, the national popular vote stands almost alone in its irrelevance.
Nonetheless, some take solace from Clinton’s plurality — it wasn’t a majority despite the assertions of some, apparently innumerate, Democrats — among voters nationally and the fact that Democrats have secured popular vote victories in six of the last seven presidential elections.
But before the cheering starts, note that Clinton won just 19 states. If Senate races followed presidential preferences, as they are increasingly wont to do, Democrats would hold just 38 out of 100 senate seats.
If governors’ contests followed the presidential lead, we’d have a mere 19 governors’ chairs.
Clinton won just 205 congressional districts. If those contests followed the Presidential race, Democrats would be 13 seats short of a majority.
And my party, which aspires to a 50-state strategy up and down the ballot, won just 487 counties to Trump’s 2,626.
This is not a new problem.
In winning both the popular and electoral votes in 2012, President Obama also prevailed in just 209 congressional districts while besting Mitt Romney in a bare majority of states and 689 counties — far more counties than Clinton, but still less than a third the number Romney won.
Of course, Senate, gubernatorial, congressional and county commission races don’t slavishly follow the presidential outcomes.
That’s why we have Sens. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), among others. But as I’ve written here before, the tightening correlation between presidential and down ballot voting is one of the most important, and least heralded, political trends of our time.
But, to put the problem more broadly, Democratic congressional candidates have won a majority of districts just twice in the last 12 elections.
The last Democrat to win a majority of the nation’s counties was Jimmy Carter over 40 years ago.
The last time Democrats controlled a majority of state legislatures was in 2010.
While one can certainly find some recent years in which Democratic presidential candidates won majorities of states and congressional districts, the number of counter-examples is fewer than I, for one, would prefer.
The response to this conundrum is as easy to articulate as it is difficult to implement: Democrats need to be able to carry on persuasive conversations with a much broader swath of America.
The ideas we have communicated, the symbols we latched onto and focuses of our attention have simply not resonated with most Americans.
We need a wider repertoire of subjects and symbols, a somewhat modified vocabulary in which to discuss those subjects and a somewhat different look and feel if we are to appeal to those who aren’t already with us.
That doesn’t mean compromising our values. It does mean being authentically different in New York and California than in North Dakota and Kansas.
Pro tip 1: Spending the next two years telling Trump voters they are racist xenophobes is not going to bring them to our door.
Pro tip 2: Merely telling ourselves that everybody wants a higher minimum wage, decent healthcare and good schools isn’t enough.
We need better answers, but first we must recognize we need the discussion.
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years.