In Virginia, Republican Party more to blame than Trump

In Virginia, Republican Party more to blame than Trump
© Greg Nash

If the Democrats could pull off a 4-point shift in their favor across the country in 2018, similar to what they accomplished in Virginia, they would win the House of Representatives decisively and perhaps the Senate.

The wave is shifting from the Republicans over to the Democrats. But there are a few caution flags down on the field for each party as they look forward — especially for the divided Republican Party.

In the congressional elections of 2016, the Republicans won the national votes cast in congressional races by a little over one point, 49 to 48. Even if the Republicans got a midterm turnout advantage to gain another point or two, the changes of the magnitude we saw in Virginia would wipe them out.

The differences on Tuesday in favor of the Democrats from 2016 were concentrated among moderates, especially men, and single, better-educated women. Ed Gillespie, the Republicans’ gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, it should be noted, actually did slightly better than presidential candidate Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump says he doesn't want to use 'adversary' to describe Russia Comey urges Americans to vote for Democrats in midterms Roby wins Alabama GOP runoff, overcoming blowback from Trump criticism MORE among minorities.

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But this favorable news also should not be exaggerated — it was neither the sweeping repudiation of Trump that some Democrats would like to believe nor the ushering in of the age of Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersMellman: (Mis)interpreting elections Dems to propose legislation to prevent ICE from shackling pregnant women Rasmussen poll: Nearly three-quarters of Dems want 'fresh face' as nominee in 2020 MORE and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenSenate Dems protest vote on controversial court pick Dems call for hearings on Trump’s CFPB nominee to be put on hold Dems to propose legislation to prevent ICE from shackling pregnant women MORE.

 

The measured takeaway in Virginia for the Democrats is that moderate candidates, especially after they have done a good job in a state, can beat establishment Republicans today, perhaps even handily. Democrat Ralph Northam defeated the liberal he faced in the Virginia primary who had the backing of the left; he is an Army veteran, and backed away from such signature liberal-left policies as sanctuary cities. He represents the power that Democrats could unlock with moderate candidates in the bullpen.

In the national vote in 2016, Clinton won women by 12 points and lost men by 12 points, bringing the race almost even except for the higher women’s turnout. In the 2017 Virginia race, Northam expanded Hillary’s 2016 women-voter edge in Virginia from 17 points to 22 points, including a 16-point jump in votes from unmarried women. If any group was likely sending a message to Donald Trump, that group, which was 16 percent of the electorate, was probably going to the polls for that reason.

But the more significant change occurred among the moderate middle-income, especially among men, in the suburbs of the state.

Moderates went 64/33 for Northam; among $50,000-$100,000 wage-earners, a group that was a toss-up in the 2016 presidential race, Democrat Northam picked up a 57-41 advantage. And men split almost evenly in the state after having been solidly for Trump by 13 points in 2016. 

We see pretty consistent swings in the D.C. suburbs, Central Virginia and the Hampton Roads area. Perhaps raising even more alarm for the Republicans is that the turnout in 2017 not only had more men but more older voters, indicating the significance of the moderate erosion here.

The easy storyline is to blame Donald Trump for the loss — but only 34 percent of the voters labeled that a major factor in their voting. Trump’s approval rating in the exit polling was 40 percent in a state he lost by 5 points; that strongly suggests his actual national approval rating is about 42 to 45 percent, rather than in the 30s, as many national polls have been proclaiming. That’s still short of a majority but well above George Bush, who was often in the low 20s, and close to ratings that Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTrump has the right foreign policy strategy — he just needs to stop talking The Hill's 12:30 Report — Trump faces bipartisan criticism over Putin presser, blames media for coverage Wall Street Journal editorial board rips Trump on Helsinki: It was a 'national embarrassment' MORE had much of the time.

A more likely suspect here is the Republican Party and the fratricide going on within. Asked about the Virginia Democratic Party, voters gave it a surprisingly positive 51/46, while the Republican Party was intensely disliked, garnering  a 37 favorable/59 unfavorable rating. The Republican Party, therefore, is significantly lower than Donald Trump in its ratings — it was 3 points further down in favorable ratings and 2 points higher in unfavorable ratings. This 5-point swing is exactly how much worse the Republicans fared this time compared to 2016.

Bear in mind, this is not a very liberal electorate. Voting groups who cared about guns or immigration favored the Trump policies; 57 percent said hands-off those Confederate statues. And, judging by the turn-about Northam did on sanctuary cities, it’s unlikely there is much support for sanctuary cities in Virginia — and we know nationally it is a big loser for Democrats.

It appears that Gillespie, running against a doctor, misjudged the power of the health-care issue and, like national Republicans this summer, lost it badly: 39 percent of the voters said that was the No. 1 issue, and that issue overwhelmingly went to Northam. This is a warning to Republicans that they have been soundly beaten on health care and this issue has flipped around from mandates and unnecessary coverage to the importance of Medicaid expansion and the need to keep everyone insured.

A more pedestrian explanation for Virginia and the defection of the moderates is that things in the state have been going pretty well. Only 17 percent said the economy was deteriorating, and outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe had a 54 percent job approval rating among the voters. This was not the kind of kettle ready to boil over that is ripe for a political revolution.

Overall, Gillespie was a D.C. lobbyist and party chairman; he couldn’t battle “the swamp” — he was “the swamp.” It wasn’t Trump who lost those moderate men, but Gillespie, who was neither fish nor fowl to them; he wasn’t going to do a better job on the core issues than Northam, and the last-minute Hail Marys on the social issues probably just created more confusion about who he was.  

People want these elections to be about simple storylines and, yet, real events are more complex. This election was one-part moderate Democratic candidate, one-part anti-Trump reaction, especially among young women, one-part successful state Democratic administration that people wanted to continue, and one part “swamp” establishment lobbyist from a disrespected Republican Party.  

Together, the mix was good for the Democrats, toxic for the Republicans.

Mark Penn is co-director of the Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll and was a pollster for Bill Clinton during six years of his presidency.