Joined: 14 Mar 2005
I was wrong! Thank God Almighty, I was wrong!
You probably felt the same thing I did last Tuesday night: a euphoric whiplash as deepening dread turned suddenly into a wave of intense relief in the off-year results from Virginia. Iím still riding it. I hope you are too. Almost every surprise since last November has been a soul-crushing one. I feared yet another one. But Tuesday nightís string of decisive victories by Democrats dispelled the gloom and was the first time since Trumpís election that hope appeared a little more realistic than despair. So letís take a moment to soak it in.
But I do owe you an account of why and how I misjudged this one, and failed to see the glimmer of dawn on the horizon. I didnít predict anything. But I feared Northam might fall short ó and what that would portend. Iíll stick by much of my analysis. I donít think anyone suddenly believes that Ralph Northam, now governor-elect of Virginia, ran a great campaign. He didnít. Nor is anyone reevaluating him as a charismatic, inspirational figure. He is who he is ó a regular, normal candidate, with a mushy message. The good news is that he won convincingly anyway.
How? My fear was that his positions on the cultural issues could hobble him, and further polarize the electorate. I was right but also wrong. The exit polls do indeed show an even deeper tribalism than 2016. Rural Republican districts became more solidly Republican, and Democratic urban and suburban districts more reliably Democratic. The margins of victory increased in both Republican and Democratic regions. The cultural issues absolutely had an impact ó by polarizing the state still further. Where I was wrong was on turnout. The extraordinary Republican vote in rural areas in 2016 just couldnít replicate itself a year later, while the Democratic base was on fire. Trump woke up the GOP base in 2016; but he has roused the Democratic base just as powerfully in 2017. Weíre seeing the usual backlash against an incumbent president, but with special intensity.
Demographically, the only real shift outside of turnout was in white votes. Clinton won blacks and Hispanics by 88 and 65 percent, respectively. Northamís compatible numbers were 87 and 67 ó barely distinguishable. But Clinton won only 35 percent of the white vote, while Northam won 42 percent. Part of this was the evaporation of third-party votes ó curse you, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein! But a big part was turnout. There was a huge Democratic surge, particularly in North Virginia, where the voter margins for the Democrats soared over 2013.
Another huge factor: a big jump in the youth vote. The under-30s turnout in the Virginia governorís race in 2009 was 17 percent; in 2013, it was 24 percent; this week it was 34 percent. And as young turnout surged, it became progressively more Democratic. In 2013, the under-30s split 45Ė40 percent for the Democrats; in 2016, in the presidential race, it was 54Ė36; last week it was 69Ė30. The third-party vote among the young also collapsed: from 15 percent in 2013 to one percent last Tuesday. I draw a couple of inferences from this: Trumpís extraordinary success among older voters in 2016 has produced a backlash among younger voters in 2017, who are far less complacent than they were last year and ever-more repulsed by Trumpís racist reactionism. And the younger generation has learned one thing from 2016: Voting for your ideal candidate is less important than voting for the candidate that can effectively halt the advance of the far right. Better late than never, I suppose ó and Charlottesville may have helped concentrate their minds.
Iím less forgiving of myself on a more basic question. Partly because I was being dragged left and right, up and down, by Trumpís daily offensiveness, and because I was spooked by the reactionary wave across the West, I lost sight of something pretty basic and unique to the U.S. Trump and the GOP are now deeply identified with throwing millions of people off health insurance; this issue was the main one in the Congress this past year; and this direct threat to the welfare of millions was easily the most important issue in the eyes of Virginia voters. Obamacare, in other words, is now a real asset for the Dems, and an anchor sinking the GOP. The record surge in new enrollments and the vote for Medicaid expansion in Maine confirm the popularity of the law and its central place in votersí minds.
More to the point, if the Democrats focus on health care next year, and make it the center of their campaign, they can appeal to both moderates and lefties at once, without opening up Democratic divides on race, gender, and culture more generally. If the GOP passes a massive and deeply unpopular tax cut for the super-rich, this advantage will intensify. The basics still apply: Trump is historically unpopular (by miles); and the GOPís policies on health and taxation are widely despised. That should be enough to win at least one half of the Congress next year, especially with an improved ground game.
In other words, we remain in a deeply tribal polity, and itís getting worse ó but one tribe has now replaced the other in demographic momentum, enthusiasm, and policy edge. Immigration still matters ó and the Dems better find a plausible answer to the ďsanctuary cityĒ question before too long. But the idea that 2016 was, in fact, one last death rattle of the older America, emboldened by a uniquely charismatic and populist figure, and opposed by a historically dreadful candidate, gains some traction. Both energy and time are on the Democratsí side, as long as the cultural issues dividing the country do not overwhelm core concerns such as health care and economics. And as long as, in 2020, they can find a decent candidate.
Just one big caveat: We still have an emergency in the White House. We have a deranged president, with no understanding of the Constitution, prepared to do anything to save himself. The more he feels cornered, the more intense will be his venting and acting out. Heís currently fomenting a new war in the Middle East, at the behest of the Israelis and the Saudis. He can play the race card ever more dangerously every day. He can still provoke a constitutional crisis ó and almost certainly will, when Mueller finally reports. The danger at the top remains, in other words, and may even get worse. More to the point, his support within his tribe is not collapsing; itís intensifying. For every piece of good news, thereís still plenty of evidence that his own core supporters remain passionately behind him. The power of the red minority does not look as if itís waning; itís just being more successfully countered. Itís still dangerous and potent, just currently on its heels.
In other words, relief is fully justified. Complacency isnít.
http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/11/andrew-sullivan-hope-arrives-in-virginia.html Andrew Sullivan: Hope Arrives in Virginia
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