If the only information we had heading into yesterday’s election in Virginia was (1) that Hillary Clinton carried the state by five points and (2) that President Trump’s approval rating in Virginia was 40 percent (compared to 57 percent disapproval), it would have been fairly easy to predict that Republican Ed Gillespie would lose by around 9 points.
If, in addition, we recalled that four presidents in a row had seen their party lose the Virginia governor’s race in their first year in office, this would have firmed up the prediction.
We should have kept our eyes on the fundamentals.
Is there any comfort for Republicans that Gillespie’s defeat shouldn’t have surprised us? Not much. Trump’s national approval rating is about the same as his rating in Virginia. And considering the narrowness of Trump’s 2016 win, Republicans can’t afford for their candidates to run an average of four points worse than Trump did that year.
It is also sobering to remember that in two of the last three instances in which the first-term president saw his party lose in Virginia the year he became president, his party lost big the following year. Had it not been for 9/11, this might have happened in three instances.
Is there any comfort for Republicans if we look beyond the numbers in last night’s race? Again, not much.
This was a high turnout election. I’m told by a good source that turnout was up by about 11 percent from the 2013 governor’s race.
The problem was that the spike in turnout was mainly attributable to what happened in left-wing precincts. In Bernie Sanders’ best areas, turnout was up from 2013 by as much as 30 percent. In pro-Trump areas it was up from 2013, but only by a little.
The voting surge in pro-Sanders areas had much to be with young voters. The Dems were extremely effective in identifying, registering, and turning out college students in Virginia (I’m told, but have not verified, that they used a FOIA request to obtain directories that assisted this effort).
There is no reason to doubt that the Democrats will be able to replicate their turnout feat in 2018. There’s nothing much the Republicans can do to prevent this. Trump will continue to motivate leftists just as Obama motivated conservatives.
Republicans must therefore find a way to dramatically increase turnout. Trumpians say this can be achieved by candidates who wholeheartedly embrace the president. But wholeheartedly embracing a president whose approval numbers are in the toilet doesn’t seem like a winning strategy, generally speaking.
What needs to happen, I think, is for Trump to get his numbers out of the toilet.
There are steps Trump can take towards this end, but he can’t accomplish it by himself. He needs help from congressional Republicans.
And since it is congressional Republicans, not Trump, who will face the voters in 2018, they need to provide that help to a greater degree than they have so far.