Maryland voters, who gave Hillary Clinton almost exactly the same margin of victory over Donald Trump that they provided Barack Obama over Mitt Romney and John McCain — and a substantially bigger one than they gave John Kerry, Al Gore or Bill Clinton either time — may be at something of a loss as to what just happened. Maryland might seem like the poster state for all those decrying about coastal elites who are out of touch with what's going on in real America, but actually, we should have seen this coming. In retrospect, true-blue Maryland actually served as something of a bellwether for the dynamic that would propel Mr. Trump to the White House.
Gov. Larry Hogan rather famously refused to endorse the Republican nominee and looked somewhat pained whenever Mr. Trump's name came up, but his upset victory over Anthony Brown two years ago turns out to have been a pretty good preview of 2016. Mr. Hogan may not be prone to outrageousness on a Trumpian level, but he is in some respects quite similar. Both are businessmen who have never previously held elective office. Both mounted change-campaigns at a time when voters were ready for them, and both built massive social media followings. Mr. Hogan ran against Annapolis, and Mr. Trump ran against Washington. Both had simple economic messages, and neither got bogged down in policy details.
And the Anthony Brown of 2014 was, in many respects, similar to the Hillary Clinton of 2016. He was next in line. He had the widespread backing of elected officials, union leaders and assorted activists. He was a centrist who faced a far-left challenge during the primary from a little-known candidate who electrified progressives. He was a bit stiff on the campaign trail, overly cautious and tightly managed. He put out hundreds of pages of white papers and policy positions. And while his Republican opponent inspired supporters to go to the polls, he failed to turn out his base. Sound familiar?
Nationally, the Democratic Party is engaged in earnest hand-wringing about its direction. Should it have nominated someone like Vice President Joe Biden, who speaks fluent Rust Belt, or should it have put forward someone like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whom Goldman Sachs would probably pay handsomely to go away, not to give a speech? Did the party's focus on the demographic destiny of a multi-cultural America cause it to ignore the needs of the white working class?
We certainly don't disagree that the Democratic platform could use some freshening, though the same is true for Republicans. The world is changing rapidly, thanks to globalization and technology, but the two parties are largely having the same arguments about the same policies that they were having in the Reagan era. But the truth of the matter is that elections, particularly at the presidential level, are rarely decided on policy. Did Mr. Trump win because voters carefully weighed the nuances of his positions on the issues versus Ms. Clinton's? We rather doubt it. Indeed, although Mr. Trump ran as a repudiation of Mr. Obama's legacy, his margin of victory may well have come from voters who had previously supported the president. The Washington Post identified 200 counties that went for Mr. Obama twice but supported Mr. Trump this year; they're clustered in the electorally crucial upper Midwest, specifically Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa.
The real lessons of 2016 for Democrats nationally are the same ones Maryland Democrats should have learned in 2014: Voters don't like coronations; they do respond to a clear message and authenticity; and after a while, they will want something new.
Putting those lessons into action isn't easy; we're not certain that the party has a better answer to Mr. Trump in 2020 than it does to Mr. Hogan in 2018. But it can be done. Anthony Brown proves it.
Two years after a humbling defeat, Mr. Brown hit the campaign trail again, running for Congress in the district being vacated by Rep. Donna Edwards. He ran a low-budget campaign largely free of advisers and managers. He appeared to actually be enjoying himself, and voters responded, pushing him through a highly competitive primary and giving him an easy win in Tuesday's general election. "It was getting back to basics, getting back to fundamentals," he said in an interview. "It was getting in touch with the voters, the constituents, my neighbors." Can Democrats find a way to do that on a national scale? They're going to have to try.