Is the Obama coalition finished?

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: In close race, even a slight fraying at the edges of the Obama coalition was enough to change course of history
  • He says Dems faced reckoning when just enough of winning coalition stayed home or voted for Trump

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)Small fractures in the Democratic coalition began showing themselves during the primary season, illustrated during the Democratic Convention, in one example, in the frozen face of actress Susan Sarandon -- a progressive stalwart and major backer of Barack Obama in 2008 and of Bernie Sanders this election cycle.

Issac Bailey
The fractures came into full focus when #BlackLivesMatter supporter and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick announced he was likely not going to vote because he believed Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were untrustworthy.
But the main story of this election remains that there were enough white voters in America who were tolerant enough of Donald Trump's bigotry and misogyny to make him our next president, while an overwhelming majority of people of color rejected him.
    And it wasn't just, or mostly, about economic angst. Clinton won the vote among those making less than $50,000 while Trump did best where the jobless rate has improved the most since 2009. (Trump won white voters overall by 20 percentage points, the rich and poor.)
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    Given that Clinton received the usual percentage of the Democratic vote for the party nominee, Sarandon and Kaepernick likely represented only what was happening on the edges of the Obama coalition. In a race that was closer than expected, with Clinton still likely eking out a small popular vote victory while losing the all-important Electoral College, anything fraying at the edges becomes significant enough to change the course of history, preventing the passing of the baton from the nation's first black president to its first female president.
    Instead, it was passed to the man who rose to national political prominence on the bigotry of birtherism. That fraying contributed heavily to Clinton's inability to match the 66 million votes Obama garnered in 2012 -- the so-called "Obama coalition" -- by just enough, in just the right places, to lose the race to the White House.
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    A day with Clinton fans: From jubilation to devastation 01:46
    I've long believed that the Democratic Party, like the Republican Party, has work to do to maintain a winning coalition, the deeper we get into the 21st century. I just thought Trump's nomination would force the GOP into a reckoning now, allowing Democrats to postpone their own for at least another cycle.
    Instead, the opposite occurred. Early voting returns showed a big rush by Latino voters in places like Nevada and Florida to get to the polls early, potentially cutting off any path Trump had to 270 Electoral College votes. But by the end of Tuesday night, it became clear that just enough members of the other portions of the Obama coalition decided either not to show up -- or to vote for Trump.
    According to exit polling data, Trump actually won by 6 percentage points among white voters age 18-29, which underscores data from Pew showing that young white Americans' views on many issues resemble their parents' more than fellow young people of color, an under-discussed stressor inside the Obama coalition.
    Not only that, but Trump nearly split the vote of educated white women with Clinton -- despite the Billy Bush tape, despite the repeated allegations of sexual assault -- even as black and Latino women provided Clinton with most of her female gender gap. And maybe more importantly, Trump received nearly a third of Latino male voters and 13% of black male voters, which raises the question: How much of a role did gender bias play in this election?
    And while it is right to point out Clinton's flaws -- the unfathomably unwise decision to set up a private server, the paid Wall Street speeches during an era of populism -- FBI Director James Comey's decision to reinsert himself into the election at the 11th hour, along with a weeks-long drip-drip-drip of leaks from WikiLeaks (possibly from a Russia-connected hacker), likely was just enough to strip Clinton of needed enthusiasm within her base. Political death by a thousand small cuts.
    Even with all those factors, and all of the fractures within the Obama coalition, the most disturbing thing that happened Tuesday night is the reality that more than 59 million people felt comfortable enough with Trump's open bigotry to send him to the White House in the 21st century anyway. As Nate Cohn, a numbers cruncher at The New York Times tweeted, even if Democrats had perfect turnout, Clinton would have only squeaked by with a victory because of that fact.
    Those who voted for Trump sent a message, loud and clear, that when it's time to make a tough choice, bigotry and mistreatment of women will get a pass under the right circumstances. If the Obama coalition can't find a way to counteract that development, it won't remain a coalition worth saving for much longer.