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Mistakes Were Made

The Democrats didn’t see the cracks forming in their “Blue Wall.” Now the Midwest is red and Donald Trump is president-elect. Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs explains what he thinks happened.

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Getty Images

Many reasons have been cited for Donald Trump’s stunning presidential election upset. Was it the result of widespread economic anxiety, or was it a racial backlash? Former White House press secretary Robert Gibbs explains that it isn’t an either/or dilemma — and focuses on Michigan (which will likely remain red when all the votes are counted) to show how Trump won.

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed.

It’s Not an Either/Or Explanation

Robert Gibbs: It’s stunning. And where is the party gonna go through this either/or debate? It’s stupid to [even] have the either/or debate, because, and I’m sure Barack Obama would also probably say this way, it’s [actually] a both/and [debate], right?

Of course you’ve got to go get your base out. But we can’t just forget these big chunks of the country that, in all honesty, Barack Obama did really well in.

Losing Michigan Explains a Lot

R.G.: I got up last Saturday morning, and I had it stuck in my head like, how did we lose Michigan? I worked in Michigan before on a Senate race, so I’ve got some geographical understanding and some political understanding of where the state is. And I’m also reminded [of how] we won the state by 16 points in 2008. [And] almost 10 points in 2012. How did we lose a state like that? And so I started looking at the counties, and we lost in suburban Detroit, and in [Macomb] County. We got many, many fewer votes than Barack Obama did in Warren and Macomb County. We got fewer votes in Wayne County, which is Detroit.

Then you look at some of the counties in the middle of the state, [and] so I was focusing on one that I thought was kind of interesting in Bay County. It’s up near Saginaw. It’s in the bay area of Michigan. It’s 95 percent white. The median household income is $45,000. The median home price is $93,000. And 4 in 5 people don’t have a college degree. Barack Obama won that county, a medium-sized county, by 3,000 votes [in 2012]. And Hillary Clinton lost that county by 7,000 votes. And so you think about, there’s just all this commentary devoid of real reality. That somehow there’s this big racist vote that came out for Donald Trump. Even in 95 percent white counties, that voted twice for Barack Hussein Obama. They didn’t become racist in the last four years. They didn’t go, “Well, gosh. We voted twice for the black guy and now we’re racist.”

The Democrats Have to Focus Their Message

R.G.: The truth is, the [Democratic] Party doesn’t have an economic message. The party didn’t fight in places that it should have in a way that it should have. You’re not going to win some of these places, but you’re sure going to cut down on their margins in ways that are important. We have a lot of people that are going through economic strife and turmoil, and the truth is, we’re going to elect a president who was going to represent all of those people, and so you’ve got to go to those places. I think they’ll look back at some of the strategic geographic decisions and really wonder and second-guess themselves.

It’s Not Just Racial Backlash — It’s the Economy

Jon Favreau: The thing that sticks with me is, if this was 2012 and she lost, you could say, “OK, [those voters] took a chance on Barack Obama in the middle of an economic crisis,” and then [say] “This was a racial backlash,” and stuff like that. But I keep thinking about 2012, like these counties did not elect Barack Obama once. They elected him twice. They had him for four years, four tough years where he didn’t fix everything, and they still said, “We want to give him another chance.” So I think when that happens you have to do some thinking about the economic message there.

R.G.: Remember, we had the benefit of an auto recovery. … We were always out talking about jobs. We were always out talking about an economic narrative and how that governed our thinking and our thoughts.

We’ve got to understand [that] the health of the economy can’t be measured by the stock market and the unemployment number. Because there are people that want to work longer. They want to work in different jobs. They have educational aspirations. They watched their parents work in a factory, and their grandparents work in a factory, and the factory is now gone. And so how are we as a country going to prepare ourselves and our citizens for competing in that new economy? All of those things are debates and policies that we have to think through. And I think to just not be there means we’re not intellectually, as a party, having that discussion and that debate in the way we should.