When Hillary Clinton lost her White House bid, it was a jagged exclamation mark punctuating several painful years for Democrats.
Come January, the party will have at least 11 fewer U.S. senators, 63 fewer House seats and perhaps a dozen fewer governors than in 2009, during President Obama’s first year in office. Nationally, there will be about 900 fewer Democratic state lawmakers.
By some benchmarks — the control of state capitols, for instance — the Democratic Party is in worse shape than it has been in more than a century.
But Democrats, after several periods of exile from the White House, are no strangers to the political wilderness — nor fractious infighting over how to find their way back.
The most immediate battle is for leadership of the Democratic National Committee. The contest will pit Washington insiders against Beltway outsiders, liberal backers of Bernie Sanders against more centrist Hillary Clinton holdovers, and advocates of a full-time chairman versus those who feel it is fine to hold another job as well — serving in Congress, for instance.
The vote will take place sometime after President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20.
The broader fight grows out of Clinton’s stunning defeat. (Few will very loudly criticize Obama for having failed to strengthen the party, or lay down a firmer foundation, during eight years as Democrat in chief.)
Instead of expanding the political map against Trump into the Republican-leaning reaches of Arizona and Georgia, Democrats are reckoning with the loss of Michigan and Pennsylvania, states they won in the last six elections, and Wisconsin, which had not voted for a Republican for president since 1984.
“How does the party come back? That’s the million-dollar question,” said Jill Hanauer, a longtime Democratic strategist who has focused on expanding the Obama coalition of minorities and young voters into swing and red-leaning states. “If anyone thinks they can answer that today, don’t listen. It’s just begun.”
The last time the party faced such deep existential angst, after three straight losing presidential campaigns, Democrats shifted their philosophical course and moved closer to the middle, nudged by a fresh-faced Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton.
Paul Begala, who helped Clinton win the White House in 1992 and worked this year for a political action committee backing his wife for president, acknowledged it was time for a new set of Democratic leaders to emerge.
That said, he suggested the party’s message should be a throwback to the one that helped elect Bill Clinton in a time of similar voter anxiety and frustration: “It’s still the economy, stupid,” Begala said.
If Democrats can’t speak to the pain of poor people and working-class people, then we don’t deserve to be a party.
“If Democrats can’t speak to the pain of poor people and working-class people” — whether in Appalachia or the inner cities — “then we don’t deserve to be a party,” Begala said.
Few in the party would disagree. But every campaign requires an allocation of limited time and money, and much of the unfolding debate will focus on where Democrats need to devote their energy and resources: winning back disaffected voters, especially white members of the working class, or coaxing new ones — blacks, Latinos and millennials — to the polls.
In Missouri, Democrat Jason Kander came within three points of unseating Republican U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt in a state Trump carried by 19%. He did so by performing well in party strongholds like Kansas City and St. Louis but also, Kander said, by campaigning hard in the rural stretches of the state.
“If a voter thinks you’re not focused on them, you’re not going to get their vote,” he said.
But Cornell Belcher, a Democratic pollster who specializes in African American voters, warned against focusing too much on the proverbial angry white male who helped deliver Trump’s upset victory.
“It’s hard for me, making a cold calculation, to understand why we spend even more money and even more effort going after an increasingly resistant, shrinking marketplace,” Belcher said. “If we expand the electorate, we have a majority. That’s where the future is.”
Obama, in a news conference Sunday night after wrapping up an international summit meeting in Peru, waded into the debate, urging Democrats to pursue even those voters who might appear unreceptive.
“Doing better involves us working at the grass roots, not ceding territory, going out into areas where right now we may not stand a chance of winning,” he said. “A strategy that is just microtargeting particular, discrete groups in a Democratic coalition sometimes will win you elections, but it’s not going to win you the broad mandate you need,” he warned.
Beyond the ideological argument, Democrats are also talking about process. After past setbacks, the party overhauled its presidential nominating system and changed the political calendar, ideas being floated once more.
Supporters of Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who ran against Clinton in the primaries, are still furious at the favoritism shown by the Democratic National Committee and insist on reducing the influence of “super delegates” — elected leaders and others who hold significant sway in choosing the nominee.
“There is no doubt the Democratic Party would have been stronger in 2016 if we had a field of seven to 10 strong candidates — senators, governors, mayors — who were actively debating the future of our country,” said Lis Smith, who helped manage O’Malley’s campaign.
“We need to open up the whole party, not make this a cabal of insiders who are nostalgic for names from the past.”
Reformers also want more open primaries, allowing independents and others to vote for the Democratic nominee, the way they can in November.
The idea, advocates say, is to better test the party’s eventual nominee.
“We need to replicate the battlefield of the general election as closely as possible and nominate candidates who demonstrate they can win in such an environment,” said Tad Devine, a senior campaign advisor to Vermont Sen. Sanders, who beat Clinton in Michigan and Wisconsin.
In the past, tinkering with the nominating process hasn’t always produced the hoped-for outcome.
In 1972, an effort to reduce the role of party insiders and give voters greater say resulted in the nomination of George McGovern, who was buried in President Nixon’s reelection landslide.
After another Republican rout in 1984, when President Reagan carried 49 states, Democrats sought to give party centrists greater influence by creating “Super Tuesday,” a day of balloting heavily concentrated in conservative-leaning Southern states. Despite that, the party ended up with Michael Dukakis, a northeastern liberal, as their nominee.
As for who runs for president in 2020, there are plenty of prospects — leafing through the directory of Democratic U.S. senators offers a good start — none of whom rise to immediate advantage.
Four years before winning the White House, Obama was a state senator from the South Side of Chicago who gained notice for delivering an uplifting speech at the Democrats’ 2004 convention. He ran in 2008 as a long-shot against the heavy favorite, then-New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
So the next president of the United States, if a Democrat, could well be someone few today can imagine; even on election day, some of those working hardest for Trump never thought he could pull it off.
On Twitter @markzbarabak
5:15 p.m.: This article was updated with a comment by President Obama at a news conference.
The article was originally published at 3:30 a.m.