What went wrong for the Democratic Party in the 2016 presidential election?

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Throughout the run-up to the 2016 US Presidential Election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was the favourite. Many could not believe that Donald Trump had achieved so much. A campaign once viewed by many of the electorate as nothing more than a publicity stunt had yielded success, leaving Trump as Clinton’s Republican challenger.

On to a winner

In the months leading up to the election, Clinton’s advantage in the polls gradually wore away, and although she did win the popular vote on Election Day, many of the crucial swing states went the way of Trump, allowing the Republican candidate to win the Oval Office. The current 2020 US Next President odds from Betfair show Trump as the favourite to retain the presidency, and if the Democratic Party is to upset those odds then it’s important they learn from what went wrong in 2016.
Clinton had much in her favour ahead of the campaign. Her policies on issues such as LGBT+ and women’s rights garnered popularity from the public, and there was a general feeling that it was high-time a female was elected US president.

Meanwhile, Trump was drawing negative coverage with his comments on issues such as immigration, as well as the alleged sexual misconduct that hung over him. Also, the fact that Obama’s approval ratings had been rising as his presidency drew to an end was a sign that the Democrats had the odds in their favour.

Where it all went wrong

Several factors contributed to the Democrats’ downfall in 2016. Few could have anticipated the popularity that Trump would ultimately enjoy. His populist campaign drew support from a section of the electorate that could get behind his direct style of campaigning and his hard-line view on immigration.

Clinton had already come through a closely fought series of Democratic primaries, with Bernie Sanders proving a formidable opponent, and the result was that she should have felt well-placed to overcome Trump’s challenge even in the face of his rising popularity.

However, an FBI investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server for public communications saw Clinton’s popularity take something of a nosedive. FBI director James Comey said Clinton had been “extremely careless” in how she had handled her email server. Even though no charges were filed against her, the whole investigation and fallout meant a lot of prospective voters undoubtedly lost trust in Clinton.

It was the perfect controversy for Trump to latch onto and use against the Clinton campaign. The Democratic candidate had held a significant lead over Trump in the polls up to that point, but in the aftermath of the email controversy, the two were on par with one another. Perhaps one lesson the Democratic Party can learn ahead of the 2020 election is to ensure that no such hidden controversies are waiting to disrupt their candidate’s campaign again.

The email scandal does not change the fact that Trump’s victory in the election was a surprise, particularly the margin by which he won the electoral vote. The Republican candidate won six of the swing states that Democrat Obama had won in the 2012 election, and this was the key to Trump’s success. He performed better than Clinton in those crucial parts of the country, winning the electoral vote in Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The future for the Democrats

For 2020, a clear, focused campaign will be needed to regain a foothold in the swing states. Whoever the Democratic candidate proves to be, they must let sensible, effective policies counteract those of Trump – to take advantage of whatever ill-will may be harbouring against Trump in those parts of the country.

The 2016 election ultimately ended in disappointment for the Democratic Party, but 2020 offers a fresh chance at winning back the Oval Office with a new candidate. Whoever that proves to be, they will have a challenge on their hands defeating Trump. Choosing the right candidate with the right policies will be crucial to the Democrats’ chances of success.


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