In the end, a bitterly fought election came down to the old political aphorism, popularized during Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 run against George H.W. Bush: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
This time, however, it was the Republican incumbent, not his Democratic challenger, who benefited from that truism.
Donald Trump has been decisively re-elected as president of the United States, winning every state he carried in 2016 and adding Nevada, even as he once again failed, albeit narrowly, to gain a majority of the popular vote.
Extraordinary turnout in California, New York, Illinois and other Democratic bastions could not compensate for the president’s abiding popularity in the states that still decide who gets to live in the White House: Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
Yet, unlike 2016, last night’s outcome came neither as a political upset nor as a global shock. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have consistently polled ahead of Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and her running mate, Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, since July. The New York Times correctly predicted the outcome of the race in every state, another marked change from 2016.
In exit poll interviews, Trump’s supporters frequently cited the state of the economy to explain their vote. “What part of Dow 30,000 do the liberals not understand?” Kevin O’Reilly of Manchester, New Hampshire, told The Times.
Warren and Brown never seemed to find a compelling answer to that question, despite an economy that continues to struggle with painfully slow wage growth, spiraling budget deficits and multiplying trade wars that have hurt businesses as diverse as Ohio soybean farmers and California chipmakers.
Yet both Democrats are also skeptics of trade agreements such as NAFTA, which served to mute their differences with the president. And their signature proposals – Medicare for all and free college tuition for most American families – would have been expensive and would require tax increases on families making more than $200,000. Trump and other Republicans charged they would “bankrupt you and bankrupt the country.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.2 percent in the last quarter, the third consecutive quarter in which growth has exceeded 3 percent. Unemployment remains low at 4.1 percent.
With neither a recession nor a major war to run against, Democrats sought instead to cast the election in starkly moral terms. Yet by Election Day, the charge that Trump is morally or intellectually unfit for office had been made so often that it had lost most of its former edge among swing voters.
“I don’t care if he lies or exaggerates in his tweets or breaks his vows to his wife, so long as he keeps his promises to me,” Leah Rownan, a self-described social conservative from Henderson, Nevada, told The Times, citing the economy and Trump’s Supreme Court nominations as decisive for her vote. “And he has.”
Many of Trump’s supporters also said they felt vindicated by the conclusions of Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. While the former FBI director painted a damning portrait of a campaign that was riddled with Kremlin sympathizers and a candidate whose real-estate ventures were beholden to Russian investors, no clear evidence of collusion between Trump and Moscow ever emerged and the president was never indicted.
“It was always a red herring, just like Trump said,” said Bernard Schwartz, a gun store owner from Houston, Texas. “Democrats wasted a lot of ammo on that one.”
Democrats also failed to capitalize on, and may have been damaged by, winning back control of the House of Representatives, but not the Senate, in the 2018 midterms. Trump proved effective, if characteristically vitriolic, in making a foil of the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi. Efforts to impeach the president mainly served to energize his base. Polling surveys suggested that wavering voters saw a Democratic Party more invested in humiliating the president than in helping them.
As is often the case in losing presidential campaigns, it did not take long for campaign aides to Warren to offer damning appraisals of her performance as a candidate. Historical references abounded: The Children’s Crusade; Pickett’s Charge; the McGovern campaign of 1972. The common thread was that the campaign’s moral fervor repeatedly got the better of its message focus.
“Trump succeeded,” lamented one moderate former Democratic lawmaker who asked to speak on background. “He got my party to lose its marbles.” The lawmaker cited calls by party activists to abolish the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency – calls the Warren campaign did not formally endorse but did little to refute – as emblematic of the party’s broader problems.
“What do Democrats stand for?” he asked. “Lawlessness or liberality? Policymaking or virtue signaling? Gender-neutral pronouns and bathrooms or good jobs and higher wages?”
As is his way, Trump wasted little time rubbing salt into Democratic wounds. “Democrats used to stand with the Working Man,” he tweeted Wednesday morning. “Now it’s the party of Abortion and Amnesty. All that’s missing is Acid. Sad!”
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 Eigth Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service