After the election, we had some unusual advice for Democrats: Listen to more country music. Seriously.
If they'd listened to country music over the four years, they might have realized how their party was losing touch with blue-collar voters across the country. No need for polls or focus groups. Just listen to John Rich's "Shuttin' Detroit Down" or Hank Williams Jr.'s "Red, White and Pink Slip Blues" or Brandi Clark's "Big Day in a Small Town." Country music right now is the most politicized music genre out there; how many Democrats even know that?
Today, we offer an addendum: Democrats might also want to listen to Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together."
Not because it's a catchy little tune, but because it's the danger that Democrats face as they figure out how to reclaim those voters they lost to Donald Trump in November.
Lots of political analysts have highlighted the Democrats' practical problem: Their voters are too geographically concentrated. Hillary Clinton's landslide victory in California produced a lot of "extra" votes that did the party no good; they could have used those in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania instead.
That's not simply a quirk of the Electoral College. We see it play out in Virginia, as well. The Democratic vote is concentrated in Northern Virginia and the rest of the urban crescent. Democrats can - and have - won statewide elections. But they can't win control of the General Assembly, because legislative districts are drawn geographically. (Republican gerrymandering hurts Democrats, too, but gerrymandering isn't the Democrats' biggest problem. It's that the Democratic vote is packed into a handful of localities - and even in some of them Democrats don't bother to turn out if there's not a presidential election on the ballot.)
All that's old news. Here's the new news: Political analysts Sean Trende and David Byler have crunched the numbers from last fall's election on a county-by-county level across the country and produced a remarkable five-part analysis that you can find on the website Real Clear Politics.
Their analysis doesn't necessarily tell us anything we didn't know, but it does provide a deeper understanding of the obvious electoral trends. We'll boil it down for you: Democrats are not going to win again until they figure out how to cut their losses in rural and small-town America.
That's a prescription that runs diametrically counter to what had been the prevailing wisdom, which is that demography was on the Democrats' side, and that they could win by assembling what was called a "coalition of the ascendant" - Millennials, minorities, and so forth.
The problem for Democrats is that those voters tend to be concentrated in places that are already voting Democratic. As a result, Trende and Byler write: "The place where the Democratic coalition is growing the most does them the least good, electorally speaking."
That's true on the state level; it's even more true when you get down to the level of congressional districts or state legislative districts. Virginia is a good place to look at how badly Democrats have fared in rural areas. Let's look at just a single county: Buchanan County. In 1988, Michael Dukakis took 63 percent of the vote in that coal county. Bill Clinton took the same percentage there in 1992 and 1996. Buchanan County was a consistently Democratic county. The first changes seemed almost imperceptible. In 2000, Al Gore took 58 percent of the vote there. In 2004, John Kerry took 54 percent.
The tipping point came in 2008, when Buchanan first went Republican. Barack Obama took 46 percent that year. By 2012, his percentage fell to 32 percent. In 2016, Clinton took just under 19 percent of the vote in Buchanan County.
Let's state that again: What once was a 63 percent Democratic county is now a 19 percent one.
The Democratic decline in rural areas hasn't mattered in Virginia; the growth in Northern Virginia and the urban crescent has more than made up the difference in statewide elections - though it makes a big difference at lower levels. Once, you could travel from Staunton to the Cumberland Gap and not once leave a Democratic congressional or legislative district. Now those districts are almost entirely Republican.
In other states, though, the rural-urban mix is different, and thus yields different outcomes - to the Democrats' detriment. "Rural counties and towns don't cast a lot of votes standing alone, but they do add up," Trende and Byler write. "This was enough to cost Clinton the states of Florida and North Carolina. Had she won those, she would be president."
Put another way: In many urban areas, Clinton ran better than Obama. But she ran so much worse in rural areas, it didn't matter.
Translation: If Democrats want to win the presidency, they need to do better in rural areas. And if they want to win Congress or state legislatures, they really need to do better in rural areas.
Good luck with that.
It's unclear whether Democrats are prepared to make the accommodations necessary to win back voters who might be amenable to their economic message but are culturally out-of-tune with the rest of the Democratic message.
As one Democratic chairman in rural Ohio told National Public Radio: "The people here thought - wrongly - the national Democratic Party cared more about where someone went to the bathroom than whether or not these people had a job. And, so we're off-message."
The leader of one liberal interest group recently offered this insight to the New York Daily News: Democrats spend too much time protesting, and not enough time organizing for off-year elections where legislative majorities are won or lost. "Many Dems either don't know how to relate to people with moderate or mixed views or they don't want to," he said. "They prefer rock stars and celebrities to bus drivers and food service workers. They like cute sayings and clever picket signs, not long and patient listening sessions with people who have complicated interests, people who might not pass the liberal litmus test."
That's why the next time a Democrat ventures into rural Virginia and starts fiddling with the radio dial, Taylor Swift's song just might start playing.