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Day of reckoning for the Democrats is here

President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on stage during the Hillary Clinton 'Get Out The Vote' campaign rally on November 7, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Gilbert Carrasquillo | FilmMagic | Getty Images
President Barack Obama and Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on stage during the Hillary Clinton 'Get Out The Vote' campaign rally on November 7, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

For Democrats, the nature of the electoral defeat suffered on Tuesday was not just historic. It was all but biblical. Across the board, the failure to win governorships, legislatures, U.S. Senate seats, the House of Representatives, and most importantly the White House, sent a very powerful message: We're mad as hell, and since you won't listen to us, we're going to make you listen. Hence, Donald Trump will be our next president of the United States.

Now, when a party suffers a painful defeat like this, especially one where so many foolishly believed the polls couldn't possibly be this wrong, it is easy to want to blame others. Specifically, those who voted for Trump.

All across social media, an explosion of vitriol has been directed at Trump voters. How could they vote for someone with such offensive views, and who has said so many horrible things again and again? Clearly, they must be racist, sexist, or bigoted.

Now, I don't doubt that some percentage of Trump voters may share these abhorrent views, but nearly 60 million adults voted for Trump. And if we think that all 60 million Trump voters are racist, sexist, bigoted, or what have you, we are missing one of the primary reasons we lost: Democrats stopped listening to millions of people who have voted Democrat who feel real economic pain across America.

How many voters did Democrats lose or choose to disengage? Millions.

Consider this: John Kerry got over 59 million votes in 2004, while Obama got over 69 million votes in 2008, and nearly 66 million votes in 2012. In 2016, Hillary Clinton got nearly 60 million votes – basically a little better than Kerry. For one reason or another, even as our population grew, we somehow lost 10 million Democratic votes between 2008 and 2016. How is that even possible?

Well, one explanation is that our message – especially the Clinton campaign's message – didn't work.

"One of the key mistakes Democrats and the Clinton campaign made was choosing not to listen to these voters, many of whom were Democrats, because we assumed these voters would never – ever – vote for someone like Donald Trump."

Consider that throughout the 2016 cycle, in focus group after focus group we conducted during the primary and general elections, comprised of Democrats and Republicans, voters reacted viscerally to the populist economic messages of Bernie Sanders and Trump.

It spoke to their reality. Clinton's populist message was practically nonexistent.

These undecided voters we talked to, of all ages, genders, and races, were almost universally afraid for their economic future, and of the current economic status quo that, even under Obama, showed the wealthy becoming even wealthier, while they themselves continued to struggle to make ends meet.

Many believed that their jobs and their communities were sacrificed in the name of corporate greed, globalization and trade – all to benefit a class of corporate and political elites who, in their opinion, could care less about their lives. And nearly all of these voters, regardless of where the group took place, saw Washington as a broken, rigged system that works against the betterment of their lives.

While these voters despised Trump's offensive statements – a fact that the exit polls confirm – his economic message spoke to them in an incredibly powerful way. Clinton's simply did not.

But what happened to the Democratic Party is also much bigger than an incredibly flawed Clinton message or bad polling. It is about the harsh economic realities tens of millions of Americans have lived through for years that have gone unchanged.

Consider that for at least eight to ten years, Americans have said that the country was headed in the wrong direction. But Democrats chose not to listen.

For years, confidence and trust in government, corporate America, and the media has all but collapsed. And yet, the elites of both parties ignored what this meant.

In a period of time where the same American people screamed for change, and elected Barack Obama twice in the hopes that that change would come, we now know the consequences of what happens when it doesn't. Voters get angry or they disengage.

One of the key mistakes Democrats and the Clinton campaign made was choosing not to listen to these voters, many of whom were Democrats, because we assumed these voters would never – ever – vote for someone like Donald Trump.

And while after such a painful loss, it may make one feel momentarily better and superior to hate those who voted for Donald Trump, I think that perhaps if Democrats, let alone the Clinton campaign, had actually listened better, if we had actually had an economic message that spoke to what these people felt, Tuesday would have turned out very differently.

Because make no mistake: The day of reckoning for the Democratic Party is here, and the choice we face is whether to start listening, or prepare to lose again in four years.

Commentary by Chris Kofinis, a Democratic strategist and CEO of Park Street Strategies. Follow him on Twitter @chriskofinis.

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