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Bloodbath: Trump and the GOP leave Democrats searching for answers

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump react as they watch the election results during Trump's election night rally in New York Tuesday night. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Entering Election Day, Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had every reason to believe that they would buck the modern trend and have a wildly successful night. In the modern era, any political party that has held the White House for two consecutive terms has struggled to hold it for a third, but Democrats were bullish — the polls were in their favor, the demographic shifts were in their favor, and the GOP had nominated the wildly unpopular Donald Trump to oppose the first female major-party presidential nominee in U.S. history. It seemed like the time was ripe to deliver a death blow to the Republican Party.

One day later, all those dreams have fallen by the wayside as a series of excruciatingly close elections all seemed to fall the GOP's direction. The party did not win many blowouts last night, but almost every closely contested race in the country managed to go the Republicans' way, including the most stunning result of all: an Electoral College win for Trump on a night when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton appears to have won the popular vote by possibly a full percentage point, once all the votes from California are counted.

Democrats also hoped to pick off as many as six or seven GOP Senate seats, but once again it appears that every close race -- with the exception of the election to replace outgoing Minority Leader Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) -- went to the Republicans. And they might end up losing only the seat belonging to incumbent Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) — although incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) remains locked in a too-close-to-call battle with Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte was clinging to a narrow lead in the early morning hours Wednesday. It also appears, stunningly, that Republicans may have held serve or better in the House, where Democrats were hoping to pick up between 10 and 20 seats.

Democrats were so confident of victory — at least in the presidential race — that they appear to have engaged in absolutely no contingency planning for a Trump victory. Texas Democratic Rep. Marc Veasey brashly stated last week that a Trump victory was "never talked about in much depth or detail" among Democrats: "[T]he guy is such a joke. We can’t fathom it and therefore are not planning for it." Team Clinton is already producing spin suggesting that they saw this defeat coming, but even if that is true, most Democrats are waking up this morning to a sobering reality: Their party has a major problem connecting with American voters. Worse, the problem is so acute that they lost to a candidate who seemed, in so many ways, to be a poor caricature of the worst qualities of their partisan opposition.

It wasn't supposed to be this way for the Democrats. Trump's incendiary rhetoric toward Hispanics was supposed to present an insurmountable demographic firewall that would send the GOP marching off the cliff into oblivion. There simply was not supposed to be enough white voters who were susceptible to Trump's message to overcome these demographic shifts, particularly given Trump's struggles with well-educated whites. But  he worked his strategy to perfection: As predicted, he lost places like Chester County, Pennsylvania, but he ran up the score in the rural "T" area of the Keystone State, far outperforming Mitt Romney's 2012 loss. Trump made a political calculation that, in the short term, it would be easier to increase his share of the white vote by a few percentage points than it would to increase his share of the Hispanic vote by 20 percent, and he rode that calculation to victory.

As a stunned Democratic Party begins the process of regrouping, the danger they face is that much of the data emerging from Election Day might convince them that no serious soul-searching is needed. Democrats may well conclude that their planned path to eternal political dominance remains unchanged; that Trump rode a wave of voter blocs that are shrinking demographically (evangelicals, whites, older voters) to a last-gasp, razor-thin margin. They might reason to themselves that doing the same things (only louder and shriller) will right the ship in 2018 and beyond.

Democrats would do well instead to confront an appalling reality: According to every set of exit polls, a majority of Americans who voted yesterday do not believe Trump has the right temperament, experience or judgment to be president, and he won anyway. The problem is not limited to dislike of Hillary Clinton, as the results in numerous Senate and House races from swing states demonstrated. The problem is that the American public does not appear to take the Democrats seriously as a party that can fix their problems. Democrats might well consider how defending a failing Obamacare system that has sent health care costs through the roof and spending much of the year confronting the critical issue of transgender bathrooms may have played into that perception.

For now, however, Democrats appear to have not even properly wrapped their minds around what happened Tuesday, as evidenced by the bizarre scene at Clinton headquarters, where Clinton herself refused to address her supporters, opting instead to send campaign chair John Podesta — who has been the focus of many WikiLeaks stories — on stage to defiantly promise that they would fight "until every vote was counted," only to call Trump and concede mere minutes later. Many speculated that this bizarre dance occurred because Clinton literally did not have a concession speech prepared and had no idea what to say.

In that sense, Clinton's campaign is a microcosm of the Democratic Party today — bewildered, bloody and without a clue which direction to take.

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