Seth Masket’s new book, Learning from Loss: The Democrats, 2016-2020
(Cambridge UP, 2020) takes the outcome of the 2016 presidential race and Donald Trump’s unexpected winning of the presidency as the jumping off point to examine not only what the Democratic Party came to understand about this outcome, but also how it shaped the nomination battle in 2020. Masket, a political scientist and the Director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, spent the past four years examining the many narratives that have shaped the various understandings of what happened in 2016, and, in this exploration, he has also threaded together the thinking that led to the nomination of Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic standard bearer. At the outset of the book, it is clear that the original conception in 2015 was that this book would be about the Republican Party, but then Hillary Clinton lost the Electoral College on election night in 2016. And the direction and subject matter for the book shifted. In this shift, the often-perennial tension within the Democratic Party between the elusive idea of electability
and the ideological commitments of the party and party members became the focus of the research.
Masket notes both in the book and in our conversation that his analysis builds on and interrogates recent political science literature that examines each of the many threads woven together in the book. Scholars who analyze the nomination process, like Cohen, Noel, Karol, and Zaller in The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform
, provided one framework to examine whether the thesis as to the role of the party in determining the nominee was actually true in the 2020 process as compared to the experiences of both the Democrats and the Republicans in 2016. Political Scientists Julia Azari (author of Delivering the People's Message: The Changing Politics of the Presidential Mandate
) and Philip Klinkner (author of The Losing Parties: Out-Parties National Committees, 1956-1993
) also provided frameworks for aspects of Learning from Loss,
as their respective work dives into the theorizing about narratives and political outcomes, and how these come to influence and often guide future political activity—both by elites and by grassroots party activists.
Masket does impressive work in combining a host of theoretical threads, multiple different kinds of research methodology, and an historical perspective to produce a lively analysis of the four-year process that the Democrats undertook to try to understand Hillary Clinton’s disorienting loss and to move forward in a political world that they weren’t always sure worked as they had once understood it to work. Masket spent time with political activists and organizers in the early primary states and in Washington, D.C., interviewing them about their experiences during the 2016 election cycle and how that was contributing to the kind of work and decision-making procedures that surrounded the 2020 nomination process. The research also examines campaign finance patterns to determine which of the candidates were receiving donations from traditional, big doners, and which were getting funds in small amounts from broader, more grassroots contributions. This information was also read against the endorsements that candidates received from a variety of sources, including party elites and the media. Masket integrated experimental surveys that fleshed out reactions by voters to questions of identity as they relate to the candidates pursuing the nomination. As Learning from Loss
highlights, the capacity to understand the narrative that comes out of a political loss, especially an unexpected and disorienting loss, contributes to the direction of the party in the future. But, the book also notes, there isn’t always consensus about the narrative.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics
(University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).