Democrats always had the White House — until last week.
As their majorities in Congress slipped away and they ceded the lead in governorships over the past six years, President Obama and his top lieutenants comforted themselves with the changing demographics that they said would make it impossible for a Republican to win the top job.
Donald Trump punctured that belief in stunning fashion last week, sending Democratic voters scrambling to make sense of their losses and igniting a new battle for the party’s soul that promises to last for months.
“We have to take the time to figure out what happened,” said Jim Manley, a senior Democratic strategist and director at QGA Public Affairs who said Democrats knew their grip on Congress was tenuous, but were stunned by losing the presidency. “It’s obviously much more than cyclical. Something went wrong and we need to figure out what it is and how to stop it.”
In the near term, some Democrats are vowing massive resistance to anything Mr. Trump proposes, saying he is an incorrigible racist. Others counsel that their path to power is to hold true to liberal principles while finding places to cooperate with Mr. Trump.
The battle over strategy will play out over the next few weeks as the Democratic National Committee elects a new chairman.
At least three high-powered candidates are eyeing the role: Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress; former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who flamed out of this year’s presidential primary race; and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who lost the 2004 presidential primary and went on to serve a term as party chairman.
“We did not motivate enough people to the ballot box,” Mr. Ellison said Monday, diagnosing Democrats’ disease as he announced his bid. “Let’s put the voters first.”
The other candidates echoed a similar message: The party needs to energize voters and build a better organization.
Mr. Obama, in a press conference Monday, hinted that the problem was partly operational and partly a result of the candidate the party picked — though he didn’t mention Hillary Clinton by name.
“I believe that we have better ideas. But I also believe that good ideas don’t matter if people don’t hear them,” he said. “We have to compete everywhere. We have to show up everywhere. We have to work at a grass-roots level, something that’s been a running thread in my career.”
The past several years under Mr. Obama have not been kind to Democrats. When he took office in 2009, Democrats had an effective 58-seat majority in the Senate, had a staggering 256 seats in the House and held 28 governorships.
They lost the House and ceded the majority of governorships in 2010, held serve in 2012 with Mr. Obama’s re-election, then lost control of the Senate in 2014 and control of the White House this year. All told, Democrats have shed 63 House seats, 10 Senate seats and 12 governorships.
Some political scientists said Democrats’ losses are in line with the political cycle.
“Typically, the president’s party loses ground in the House and Senate during that person’s time in office. This is particularly true in midterms, where the president’s party usually does poorly,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the political prognosticators at the University of Virginia.
Even if the losses are cyclical, it’s a major letdown for a party that, a little more than a decade ago, was basking in predictions of an emerging, long-lasting Democratic majority, based on the party’s ability to build a coalition of expanding minority populations such as black, Hispanic and gay voters, young people and women.
Mr. Obama said Monday that counting on demographics to carry elections is a mistake.
“I won Iowa not because the demographics dictated that I would win Iowa. It was because I spent 87 days going to every small town and fair and fish fry and VFW Hall, and there were some counties where I might have lost, but maybe I lost by 20 points instead of 50 points,” he said.
“There’s some counties maybe I won, that people didn’t expect, because people had a chance to see you and listen to you and get a sense of who you stood for and who you were fighting for,” he said.
John B. Judis, one of the political analysts who predicted the emerging Democratic majority in the early 2000s, said that worked for a few elections. But he wrote in a Washington Post op-ed last week that the Great Recession reordered politics in 2008 and awakened the white working class.
“Democrats can’t win elections simply by appealing to the identity groups of the rising American electorate,” he wrote.
Richard Eskow, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future, said in his postmortem piece that Democrats “lost the presidency on a technicality.” He added, though, that some lessons can be learned, including a need for the party to put more distance between itself and Wall Street.
Instead of a war with the left, he said, Democrats need to embrace those like Sen. Bernard Sanders, the democratic socialist who gave Mrs. Clinton a run in the presidential primary.
“The future is the left,” he wrote.
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