Mellman: Election lessons

Greg Nash

Once again, you have the advantage over me. As you read this, you know what happened on Election Day. As I write on Monday, the outcomes remain uncertain.

But I can reasonably predict that, by Wednesday, you’ll be swimming in a sea of commentary deriving lessons from these elections, particularly in Virginia. 

The tone of those prospective retrospectives may depend greatly on small numbers. To all appearances, the Virginia race is quite close, but if Democrat Terry McAuliffe ekes out a half-point win, it will all sound very different than if he loses by half a point. 

While that half-a-point, in one direction or the other, would make a huge difference for Virginians, and maybe even for the country, would it really tell us something dramatically different about the nation’s political climate and the impact of that climate on the 2022 midterms?

No. 

That die has been cast. McAuliffe is almost certain to do less well than President Biden in 2020, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam in 2017, and Democratic Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine. 

Beware lessons based simply on who won or lost.  

Of course, the whole notion of predicting outcomes in 435 individual midterm House elections across the country, based on a single election for governor a year earlier, may seem almost ludicrous.

But, as CBS analyst Kabir Khanna demonstrates in an excellent graph making its way around Twitter, there is a real statistical correlation between the swing from the presidential election in Virginia to the gubernatorial vote in the Commonwealth and the national swing in the subsequent midterm. 

The relationship is far from 1 to 1, however. In three of the seven elections compared, the U.S. House swing was smaller than the Virginia swing—as much as 10 points smaller.

Thus, while a close gubernatorial race in Virginia does portend a difficult political environment for Democrats at the moment, you didn’t really need the Virginia governor’s race to tell you that, did you?

This cycle, however, massive questions cloud the horizon, potentially rendering the political climate between now and next November quite volatile.  

Will COVID-19 end? Will the president’s economic program pass or fail? Will vast sums be injected into the economy and find their way into people’s pockets, or will real incomes shrink under the weight of inflation?

We don’t know yet, but the answers will shape the midterm environment, improving it significantly, or worsening it further. 

Virginia may suggest other lessons beyond who is how far ahead.  

Parental control over their kids’ education emerged strongly in this contest, and it won’t be the last we hear of it, especially if Glenn Youngkin wins.

But is that really the issue that pulled Youngkin into contention? Would it have worked as well had the normally masterful McAuliffe not stood on the debate stage and said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach?”

Forewarned, few other Democrats will make that mistake.

Then there are the Trump lessons. 

Pundits are already proclaiming that Virginia demonstrates the impotence of Trump-based attacks on Republicans.

In truth, we’ve known for years now that simply labeling a Republican a Trumper is not particularly effective in moving swing voters. 

Chances are it’s particularly ineffective against a guy with no prior political record.

Does that really tell us about how the Trump connection will play if, by November 2022, Trump is again clearly a candidate for president? Does it tell us how he will play in a race against, say, Rep. Mike Garcia (R), a rabid Trump supporter who voted to overturn Biden’s election and against investigating the insurrection?

The right question here is not, “Does Trump matter,” but rather, “Are there circumstances and situations in which support for Trump and his authoritarian agenda can matter a great deal?”

In short, exercise caution as you wade through the lessons of Virginia.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.  

Tags close election lessons Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden Mark Warner Terry McAuliffe Tim Kaine virginia gubernational race

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