NEW YORK — The election wipeout for Democrats, an utter rebuke from America’s heartland, left top White House and Hillary Clinton strategists wiping away tears Wednesday as they began trying to make sense of the 2016 election results.
Some blamed Clinton as a fundamentally flawed candidate who was never able to connect in a visceral way with audiences in a year when voters clamored for change. Others wondered whether their party had become a bastion of the elites, unable to hear the regular people they claim to serve. One suggested the party is due for a “top-to-bottom rebuild.”
Just days ago the same cadre was sure of a White House win, felt confident taking back the Senate, and even had a shot at winning the House of Representatives.
Instead, they didn’t just lose, but lost big league.
“This is painful and it will be for a long time,” Clinton said Wednesday in an emotional concession speech standing next to her husband, as the book closed on their hopes of a political dynasty. “We have seen that our country is more deeply divided than we thought.”
The first female nominee of a major political party apologized for falling short.
“I’m sorry we didn’t win this election,” she said speaking from the Grand Ballroom of the New Yorker Hotel in midtown Manhattan. “I know how disappointed you feel because I feel it, too.”
Clinton’s team was so certain she’d win Tuesday night that it had fake glass confetti ready to fall from the ceiling of the Jacob K. Javits Center after the race was called. It would demonstrate that she was finally breaking the “hardest, highest glass ceiling” that she memorably cited when she lost her bid for the 2008 nomination.
Instead it was Clinton’s ambitions, and the Democratic Party, left shattered. She won the popular vote, according to the latest tallies, by 200,000 votes, but lost five crucial swing states that Obama won in 2012, blowing a hole in the blue Electoral College firewall.
The candidate remained in her hotel Tuesday night and never stepped foot in the setting of her planned celebration.
“I know we have still not shattered that highest and hardest glass ceiling, but someday someone will,” Clinton said Wednesday.
She extended an olive branch to Donald Trump, who she has repeatedly said is temperamentally unfit to have possession of the country’s nuclear codes.
“Donald Trump is going to be our president,” Clinton said, words that were unthinkable a year ago. “We owe him an open mind and a chance to lead.”
Democratic Party leaders sought to strike a magnanimous note Wednesday, with the progressive wing of the party sending a signal that it will be open to working with a new Trump administration — at least on some issues.
“President-elect Trump promised to rebuild our economy for working people, and I offer to put aside our differences and work with him on that task,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said in a statement to the Globe.
Trump and Warren appear to share views on some issues, including opposition to massive trade deals, a skepticism of Wall Street institutions, and support for Social Security. Both count support among working-class voters, with Warren embraced by union members. She said she was frustrated that Clinton lost the election despite winning the popular vote.
Others believe the vote was a rebuke of not just the Democratic Party, but the nation’s leadership and government.
“The system did not work and does not work,” said Representative Joe Kennedy III. “Our system of governing is not addressing the concerns of people. . . . We have to make the system work a little better.”
That’s particularly true in the Rust Belt and Appalachian regions where Kennedy’s grandfather famously wooed voters — in regions that Clinton lost Tuesday.
“We have to do better job determining why those voters believe that Mr. Trump was going to be a better advocate for their concerns,” Kennedy said.
Democrats are fearful of descending into the kind of civil war that has plagued Republicans. The party has racked up big losses across the board in the past eight years and not just at the federal level. It has lost governorships and state houses, in addition to losing members of the Senate and now the White House. This is leaving the party with what some worry is a thin bench.
Over the next few weeks, party leaders will be looking more deeply at turnout data to determine where and why the Obama coalition didn’t come out to vote and how Trump found so many white working-class voters and got them to the polls.
President Obama tried to shield Clinton from too much blame, offering kind words for her.
“I could not be prouder of her,” Obama said. “She has lived an extraordinary life of public service.”
He added that “a lot of Americans look up to her” and said her “candidacy and nomination was historic and sends a message to our daughters all across the country that they can achieve at the highest levels of politics.”
But a reminder of what could have been stood next to the president: Joe Biden. The vice president opted not to challenge Clinton for the Democratic nomination. He said the decision was made because of the death of his son. And White House strategists also advised him not to run, believing he would just weaken Clinton in a primary but not beat her.
Now many were wondering if that was wrong, and wondering if a Biden-Warren ticket would have been the answer to beating Trump.
Others looked wistfully at Bernie Sanders, the fiery liberal narrowly rejected by Democratic voters.
“It is inconceivable that Bernie would have lost Wisconsin, Michigan, and New Hampshire,” said Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager during the Democratic nomination process. “It just would not have happened. Bernie Sanders was the perfect match-up against Trump because he always was a change agent. It would have taken a lot of air out of the balloon.”
He predicted rounds of recriminations in the future.
“There is going to be a lot of finger-pointing. Maybe we should have polled more. Maybe we should have run more ads,” said Weaver. “That is not the fundamental problem. Working people didn’t have faith that the Democratic Party would represent their interests. That is the problem.”
He identified the real loses on Tuesday night as the establishment of the Democratic and Republican parties, who, Weaver said, “are not in touch with the American people.”
“They thought the same old, same old was going to be enough,” Weaver said.
Democratic strategists were still picking through the smoldering ashes from their election night, and hardly had arrived at a consensus.
Some said that the results are a rebuke of the party’s progressive wing, and faulted Clinton for tacking too far to the left. Clinton never veered from the liberal policies that she adopted while struggling to capture her party’s nomination.
“There is clearly a white male working-class problem” said Erik Smith, a Democratic strategist who used to work for House Speaker Dick Gephardt. Obama, he said, appealed to the demographic because of the perception that Mitt Romney was “the guy who laid you off.”
A common refrain was that Clinton, no matter what she said, just could never be the “change” candidate that the voters wanted.
“Our country is an anti-establishment culture,” said Jamie Raskin, a representative-elect from Maryland. “We were conceived from insurgents. [Trump] claimed the mantel of conservative populism. Clinton was left pretty comfortably holding the flag of the establishment, not a good place to be.”