Terry H. Schwadron
Nov. 10, 2017
The worst part of any Election Day is the torrent of punditry that tries to overwhelm how wrong the predictions had been 24 hours earlier.
Regardless of reporting and insights into party organization, messaging, fund-raising, competing ideologies, all those electronic maps and analytical tools always seem pale next to the actual facts of the situation.
The general takeaway, of course, is that local elections turned into a general referendum about Donald Trump, and that the resounding thump could well echo larger for complete congressional elections next November. The president himself, along with Steve Breitbart and Sean Hannity all said no, the main players on Tuesday had not sufficiently morphed into Trump to legitimize that kind of conclusion.
Still, despite predictions to the contrary, the message since Tuesday was that Trumpism without Trump is either failing to draw enthusiastic vote, or that anti-Trump forces had been provoked to show up in big numbers.
Here’s my backwards take at Tuesday’s election results:
· The polls were wrong again. Democratic blowouts in Virginia and New Jersey showed that television heads, even when armed with focus groups, fund-raising reports and hired insider campaign knowledge, were almost universally wrong. There’s a simple reason. Polls don’t measure turnout, and what happened on Tuesday, just as what happened on a Tuesday a year ago, was that more people who felt angry or motivated braved bad weather and questionable polls to go vote.
· As much as the night was about Donald Trump, local races are, in the end, local, and may represent perceptions about local candidates and campaigns. The campaign in Virginia, for example, turned nasty and insulting; the New Jersey campaign seemed more a referendum on Chris Christie’s outsized personality than a choice between the actual candidates. The Virginia result was a slap at the kind of divisive race-baiting, anti-immigrant campaign that Republican Ed Gillespie had chosen in his campaign for governor. Even if we should not conclude a rosy 2018 for Democrats, at least I could cheer for the idea that campaigns based on scapegoating were recognized for being rotten at the core.
· What did push voters the most on Tuesday was self-interest: The biggest numbers of people who discussed their votes said that reacted to fear of losing their health care. Maine voters voted to expand Medicaid coverage, only to hear their governor, an opponent, announced the next day that he would not do so.
· The Virginia result, however, was a slap at the kind of divisive race-baiting, anti-immigrant campaign that Republican Ed Gillespie had chosen in his campaign for governor. If Tuesday’s results don’t actually portend Democratic success in 2018, at least I could cheer for the idea that campaigns based on scapegoating were recognized for being rotten at the core.
The most usable polling figures came from exit polls, those questionnaires that seek not to find winners, but to learn something about motivation. Those were interesting. That’s how we know the why of voting, rather than pundit blather about what American wants.
Majorities of voters in both Virginia and New Jersey disapproved of the job Trump is doing as president, with significant numbers of voters in each state saying Trump was a reason for their vote. Twice as many said the number one reason for their vote was to express opposition to Trump as express support. Nearly half of voters said he was not a factor in their vote.
According to the exit polls in Virginia, about four in 10 voters said health care was the most important issue to them, and among those voters, they supported the Democrat 77% to 23%. Politicians, particularly those who want to call themselves “populist,” ought to be paying attention.
Remember, of course, that Trump and company don’t really care about Virginia and New Jersey for his political future. But if there is enough of this country-wide, it could boost efforts to turn one house of Congress. Those who said they are disappointed or strongly opposed Trump turned those into Democratic votes by very large margins even in suburbs, where more-educated white voters turned away from traditional Republican support. Charlottesville voted strongly for the Democrat.
Women, and white women, voted Democratic in larger margins than for Hillary Clinton in those states.
That suburban vote buoyed Democratic hopes around cities like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Tampa, Miami, Houston, Phoenix and Southern California that are crucial to the party’s House and Senate majorities.
Still, lasting messages here were that cities voted Democrat and rural areas were overwhelmingly Republican, the pattern that Trump was able to use to generate enthusiasm on the ground a year ago. Despite the loss, Gillespie, the Virginia Republican, showed that anti-immigrant and racially dividing themes are alive and spreading. And Democrats might want to come up with actual plans other than being anti-Trump.