- The primary exposed the divide between progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party
- Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will play leading roles
Washington (CNN)The sting of defeat is still fresh.
But Democrats are embarking on a soul-searching exercise to determine how they ended up in the political wilderness, losing the House, the Senate and the White House at a time when President Barack Obama's approval ratings are at record highs.
Hillary Clinton may very well still win the popular vote, and there are myriad theories about why Democrats fell short when it came to electoral college math: inaccurate polling and modeling, an unprecedented surge of white voters for Trump, Clinton's failure to ignite enough enthusiasm and excitement among women, blacks and Latinos.
But the former secretary of state's stunning losses in the Rust Belt spoke to deeper problems facing a Democratic Party that has become unmoored from its roots. Most stark in the results was the party's disconnect from white working-class voters.
The primary exposed the deep divide between the progressive and centrist wings of the party, which clearly have not healed. And strategists learned the hard way just how difficult it is to replicate the Obama coalition without the President at the top of the ticket.
As they sift through the results, most baffling to some Democrats was how some voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012 ended up backing Trump.
As Clinton retreated to private life in Chappaqua, New York, and the President prepares to leave office, it was clear that there was no consensus about who should lead the party, or even lead the discussion about where the party needs to go after Tuesday.
Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer will play leading roles. But there are broad policy disagreements among them, as well as competing objectives. Schumer, for example, must keep his eye on the 2018 races when he will have slew of Democrats up for re-election in conservative states.
Clinton's unexpected losses in industrial states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania -- as well as the razor-edge race in Michigan, which CNN has not called — underscored the view of Democratic strategists who privately complained throughout 2016 that Clinton hadn't found a message that connected with working-class Americans.
Though polls showed many Latinos and women were repelled by Trump before Election Day, Trump actually slightly outperformed Mitt Romney among Latinos. And Clinton drew a slightly smaller share of women to the polls than Obama did in 2012, according to exit polls.
She won the lowest share of union households of any Democrat since 1980 -- notching 51% of union households to Trump's 43%, according to exit polls. By comparison, Obama won 59% of union households in 2008.
Trump's campaign was vacuous. Many of his policy proposals were unachievable, even in the eyes of his supporters. Yet his populist message struck a chord with voters across the ideological spectrum.
"Clearly what this election demonstrated -- from the primaries through the general election -- was that the centrist, more moderate wing of the (Democratic) party has no standing with working class and middle class voters in this country," said Jeff Weaver, who was campaign manager for Clinton's Democratic rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
"It's time for the progressive wing to reassert themselves and offer a bold agenda to the American people," Weaver said. "The real losers in this campaign were the Democratic and Republican establishments. People clearly wanted change. Trump became the vehicle for that change in the general election. I think many people voted for him in spite of his outrageous positions, as opposed to in favor of them. So we need to demonstrate to people that we stand with them, not with the wealthy and powerful."
Though Clinton was raised in a middle-class household familiar with economic struggles, she never managed to find a message that connected with struggling working class families. That was particularly ironic considering she ran against a billionaire who lives in the penthouse of a gold plated tower.
Long before Trump was viewed as a real contender, Bill Burton, a former adviser to Obama, recalled discussing the message challenges facing Democrats in 2016 as far as two years ago.
He argued then that no one would be able to recreate the Obama coalition, because Obama was simply a uniquely talented candidate and "special guy." Democrats already knew at that time, he said, that they had a problem with middle-class white voters "that we're not paying attention to." He believed that if the party didn't fix that, they couldn't win.
"And that's what happened," Burton said in an interview Thursday. "We couldn't win a race where we didn't have enough white voters to make up for the gaps in the Obama coalition. There's any number of reasons for that -- from (FBI Director) James Comey to Donald Trump having a message that appealed in middle America."
"There's going to be a lot of soul searching, and there's no one answer for it -- anyone who suggests that there is, is just wrong," he said. "In 2020, we've got to be thinking about a coalition of voters that builds on the Obama coalition to the best that we can, but also reaches out to a big group of voters in the middle of the country who feel like they've been left behind."
The conversation about how to do that will unfold over many months, after operatives and activists have time to digest the data and missteps from this campaign.
One early proxy for the internal struggles of the party will be the election of the party's chair next year.
On Thursday, Sanders said he would back Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota as the next chair of the Democratic National Committee and attributed Tuesday's losses to a lack of enthusiasm.
Former DNC Chairman Howard Dean pointed to what he views as party infrastructure problems Thursday, as he also threw his hat into the ring for party chair.
"The Dems need organization and focus on the young," Dean tweeted. "Need a fifty State strategy and tech rehab. I am in for chairman again."
Donna Brazile is currently serving as the party's interim chair through March 2017 after stepping in replace Debbie Wasserman Schultz in July when Wikileaks released emails showing that Democratic officials tried to help Clinton clinch the nomination, instead of playing the role of neutral arbiter in determining the nominee.
Democratic strategist and CNN commentator Hilary Rosen noted that the margins in battleground states where Clinton lost were relatively close, making the discussion about what to do even more complex.
Many Democrats were stunned by the fact that Clinton and Trump were separated by only about a percentage point in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—and the race in Michigan still looks even closer than that.
Sanders supporters noted it was hard to imagine him losing states like that in the Industrial Midwest. (Obama won Michigan, which is still too close to call, by 9.5 percentage points in 2012).
"What I don't think even a win would have masked, though it would have masked it more easily, is the divide between center left and left" in the party, said Rosen, a Clinton supporter.
She noted that many Sanders supporters will argue he might have done more to galvanize young voters and the Democratic base, but that could have come at the expense of votes from independents and centrists that Clinton won.
In the annals of history, the election may be remembered as having been decided by Pennsylvania, Wisconsin -- which nudged Trump over 270 electoral votes -- and Michigan, where the vote count continues.
When Trump's advantage in those three states is tallied, it currently amounts to close to 110,000 votes out of tens of millions that were cast (the final turnout figure may not be known for some time).
"By virtue of those 110,000 votes, we're now going to have the conversation in the Democratic Party that we thought the Republicans were going to have in their party," Rosen said.