I was quite concerned that Ed Gillespie might win last night. The polls had tightened considerably over the last ten days. Gillespie had also significantly nationalized the race, explicitly getting behind President Trump’s most aggressive racist “nationalist” political symbols and messages. Had he won it would have been a big psychological blow to Democratic enthusiasm, confidence, and momentum. Beyond psychological impact, though gubernatorial races are never perfect proxies for national issues, it would have been a daunting substantive sign: that a conventional Republican candidate, running an aggressively Trumpite campaign, chockfull of racist cultural symbols and messages, could super-charge the GOP base and win, even with what appears to be historic levels of Democratic enthusiasm. I was not terribly worried that that was what a Gillespie win would mean in reality. But the perceived impact would have been immense and taken on a life of its own.
Of course, that did not happen. Ralph Northam won by roughly 9 percentage points, a large margin in a state that Democrats have dominated at the state-wide level in the 21st century but seldom by large margins. But this most watched race was not the most significant or telling result of the night. The down-ballot results were far more telling. Democrats swept the state-wide races and ran the table in state legislative races, taking a 2-1 GOP majority in the state General Assembly to possibly taking control. (A series of recounts will decide the final result.)
This wave-election type showing was mirrored in a number of other states with Democrats making state legislative gains and ousting Republicans in various local and statewide races. Democrats were hoping for a big night and they got a significantly bigger night than most expected. But we should not be surprised. For a year, political analysis and thinking have been living under the weight of the shock of the 2016 election result. Donald Trump was historically unpopular. He ran a race that should have stoked the core of the GOP at the expense of alienating a decisive majority of the electorate. But he won. Sure, he lost the popular vote. But he was sworn in on January 20th. He won.
It was never quite that simple. The polls were ‘wrong’. But not that wrong. The measure of the popular vote was surprisingly accurate. And the differences in the critical states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan were quite small. Another critical factor is that many political observers – myself included – were relying on a conventional wisdom from 2012, based on flawed exit polls, which underestimated both the number of non-college educated white voters in the upper midwest and their support for Barack Obama. Democrats had done better with “white working class” voters in those states than most realized. Thus they had further to fall. Everything had to fall into place for Trump to win and it did.
But the net result was to cast a pall of uncertainty over virtually every rule of politics and prediction. Maybe unpopularity and every bad sign simply didn’t matter for Donald Trump. Perhaps there was a pool of voters and a limitless reservoir of ‘enthusiasm’ that trumped all of that. In the simplest sense, it seemed like gravity might not apply to Donald Trump.
That wasn’t true. And we shouldn’t have expected it to be. This is the genesis of countless bizarrely circular Trump voter profiles in which we learn that people who still consider themselves Trump supporters still support Trump. When a President is locked below 40% approval and often closer to 35% approval, his party will face a brutal and unforgiving electorate. This was a fact a decade ago and it’s a fact today. We’ve just been stunned into an unwarranted uncertainty by the fact of Trump’s victory one year ago today. The so-called congressional generic ballot is running near 10 points in the Democrats’ favor at the moment. Again, that kind of margin will produce a punishing result for the party on the short end of the stick. It’s a similar kind of rule.
The best argument against this reasoning, for President Trump, if not for Republicans trying to imitate him, is that Trump was quite unpopular throughout 2016 too. Indeed, his “favorability” ratings were not that different from what his approval ratings are today. But that’s deceiving. “Favorability” and “approval” are often treated as rough analogs – one for candidates and another for incumbents. They’re not. One is general likability and the other is about actual approval of actions in office. They’re not the same. The biggest difference for non-presidential elections, though, is that the President stands alone. It’s not a this person versus that person situation in which the incumbent can try both to improve their numbers and knock down the opponents. They stand alone. It’s a referendum on that person. As your parents might have said to you in tense moments as a child, it’s not about them. It’s about you.
President Trump went on Twitter last night to explain that Gillespie’s showing didn’t matter and that Republicans were still 4-0 in special elections since he was elected. Trump may or may not believe this. But many sensible people have been tempted by or overwhelmed by that reasoning. That was always a basic misunderstanding. Presidents pick members of Congress to serve in executive positions who come from safe districts. All four of these races came in what were by every measure safe Republican districts. We still don’t know who will control the Virginia General Assembly next year. We’ve got recounts to go through. But it will be close to 50/50 either way. About 50% of the Republican candidates for delegate won last night, even amidst the wave. All four of those special election House seats were the equivalent of those races where the Republicans held on. In most of those cases, they were at the rightward end of the spectrum of Republicans who held on. The idea that winning those four special elections amounted to some kind of streak or counter to the numbers showing Republicans entering a storm was always silly. But a lot of people fell for it. Don’t fall for it. Those results were entirely consistent with last night’s results.
Now, we’re a year from election day 2018. A lot can happen. But if numbers and enthusiasm look like this on election day, Democrats are in a strong position to reclaim the House and possibly the Senate. A certainty? Of course not. And it is critical to recognize that this didn’t just happen. It happened both because of the country’s basic rejection of Trump and the Trump Republican party but also because of countless hours of work organizing, knocking on doors, planning, and money to fund it all. It took lots of people simply deciding to take the effort to vote.
All of this is confirmation of a simple point. Gravity still applies in the political world. Midterm elections are generally tough for the party in power. It’s a referendum on them with an opposition which usually enjoys some advantage in enthusiasm. When the President is skirting support of only one-third of an electorate and furious opposition from more than half, the results of an election are likely to be brutal, as they were last night. Many Republicans in Congress would likely say, if they were candid, that they have not chosen to ally with Trump but found themselves in a Trump party and done their best to survive in that reality. They have all sown the wind and stand ready to reap the whirlwind.