The Democratic sweep of 2017 is by no means a catastrophe for Trump

The Democratic sweep of 2017 is by no means a catastrophe for Trump
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The 2017 election results have unleashed a flood of grim news for the losing party and rosy prospects for the winning side. But much of it proves highly overblown when one looks at the numbers. Make no doubt about it: Winning is more fun than losing. Winners inevitably feel they are headed in the right direction while losers fret about being stuck on the wrong track. Meanwhile, pundits like E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post have gone so far as to proclaim that last Tuesday “a new era has begun.”

Voters repudiated Trump in droves. Going far beyond this week’s results, the backlash against him is projected to realign the politics of the nation. Really? Before getting caught up too much in scenarios of upheaval, despair or exuberance in the wake of one election, take stock of a simple fact that seems to have gotten lost in the rush to speculation. Last Tuesday, the Democrat in the governor’s race in Virginia got about half a million fewer votes than Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Monica Lewinsky responds to viral HBO intern's mistake: 'It gets better' Virginia governor's race poses crucial test for GOP MORE did a year ago (1.4 million versus 2.0 million).

To be sure, the Republican candidate got a lot fewer votes, too, than did Trump. How many fewer? About the same number at more than half a million (1.2 million versus 1.8 million). So where was the massive turnout that swept the Democrat to victory in Virginia? It was more like politics as usual. It was an election where the partisan balance remained remarkably the same. Stability trumped change. Word of a new era in Virginia is old news.

In the other state that commanded national attention, it was very much the same story, if not more so. The Democrat in the governor’s race got almost one million fewer votes than did Clinton a year ago (1.15 million vs. 2.15 million). True, on the Republican side there was a drop, too, amounting to just under a million (0.8 million vs. 1.6 million). No new tidal wave for Democrats in New Jersey either if last year’s presidential contest is the benchmark. Moreover, New Jersey is a deep blue state, victories by bluish Republicans like Chris Christie notwithstanding.

In the annals of American elections, what happened this week is a recurring fact of life. A lot fewer voters go to the polls in off year elections than presidential elections. It is a predictable surge and decline phenomenon. The high tide of turnout in presidential election years is inevitably followed by a low tide in off years. In Virginia, the dropoff was over one million votes, and in New Jersey it was close to two million votes. That being so, what message did voters who turned out at the polls this week convey to Trump and the two major parties? Did they repudiate the president in droves? If they did, was it any more so than when he won a year ago?

The answers come from exit polls. Asked about their opinion of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpHead of firms that pushed 'Italygate' theory falsely claimed VA mansion was her home: report Centrists gain foothold in infrastructure talks; cyber attacks at center of Biden-Putin meeting VA moving to cover gender affirmation surgery through department health care MORE as president, Virginia voters this year split 40 percent to 57 percent between approval and disapproval. One could call it a repudiation. But what was the opinion about Trump in Virginia last year on Election Day? It turns out to be a 37 percent to 61 percent split between favorable and unfavorable. Quite a repudiation, too. But no change for the worse in voter opinion about Trump in Virginia. It is hard to see the vote in Virginia as signaling a growing backlash against Trump.

New Jersey proves to be a carbon copy of Virginia. On the question of rating Trump as president, 36 percent of New Jersey voters this week, according to exit polls, approved of Trump while a whopping 63 percent disapproved. No question, a solid repudiation of Trump. But again, a year ago Trump also fared badly among New Jersey voters, with approval at 35 percent lagging disapproval at 64 percent. What is most striking, though, is the resemblance of the numbers in those two elections. Whatever ill feelings voters in these states have about Trump today is practically the same as in the presidential contest a year. These are states, needless to say, that Trump lost anyhow.

What is more, in both Virginia and New Jersey, Trump was not the only personality casting a shadow over the governor’s races this year. Politics is local, as they say. The outgoing governors of those states colored the voting in ways that helped Democrats. In Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffe was a popular figure with a 54 percent approval rating, according to exit polls, whereas in New Jersey, Republican Christie had an abysmal approval rating of just 22 percent. The vote for a new governor in those states closely aligned with voter views of the outgoing one.

Hence when it comes to personal legacies, the Democrats who won governorships in Virginia and New Jersey this month owe a big thank you to the respective incumbent of their states. It was not just Trump. All in all, with local factors in play and no Democratic surge evident in Virginia and New Jersey, the recent elections were no catastrophe for Trump and the GOP, nor the beginning of a golden era for the Democratic Party.

Helmut Norpoth is professor of political science at Stony Brook University. He is coauthor of “The American Voter Revisited.” His forthcoming book is ”Commander in Chief: Franklin Roosevelt and the American People.” Follow him on Twitter @PrimaryModel16.