On Tuesday, Virginians will be choosing a governor, and the stakes are very high. Not only will this be viewed as a real test of the ability to resist Il Trumpe and ‘Trumpism’ (which is just a purer form of Palinism), but if Gillespie wins, Republicans will likely gerrymander Virginia, such that Democrats won’t be able to regain control until 2032.
So if you live in Virginia, please vote for Northam, despite whatever misgivings you have about the man: Gillespie will be much, much worse. I hope Northam wins, and there’s some evidence based on absentee balloting that Democratic turnout will be high; it also appears that the undecideds could break for Northam*. I really don’t want to write a post-mortem this week on why Democrats lost again. We need real victories, not symbolic ones.
But Northam is part of a long-standing general trend that is very disturbing. As much as I dislike Andrew “Science tells me black people are stupid” Sullivan, he is, unfortunately, correct about the trajectory of the Virginia gubernatorial race (boldface mine):
Northam seems to me almost a classic Democratic politician of our time. I have no idea what his core message is (and neither, it seems, does he); on paper, he’s close to perfect; his personality is anodyne; his skills as a campaigner are risible; and he has negative charisma. More to the point, he is running against an amphibian swamp creature, Ed Gillespie, and yet the Washington lobbyist is outflanking him on populism. Northam’s ads are super lame, and have lately been largely on the defensive, especially on crime, culture, and immigration. He hasn’t galvanized minority voters, has alienated many white voters, and has failed to consolidate a broader anti-Trump coalition. In Virginia, Trump’s approval rating is 38/59, but Northam is winning only 81 percent of the disapprovers, while Gillespie is winning 95 percent of the approvers. Northam’s early double-digit lead has now collapsed to within the margin of error.
The last sentence is what worries me: this seems to happen a lot to Democratic candidates. Not in gerrymandered districts (we’ll return to this point), but in competitive races, Democrats often have comfortable leads that they then blow (e.g., Martha Coakley in Massachusetts). While some of this might be outlier polls and regression to the mean (i.e., an overstated lead), we almost never see this happening to Republicans (I write almost because I don’t want to make an absolute statement, but it’s rare enough that I can’t think of one). It’s a disturbing pattern, and it raises the obvious question: why can’t Democrats close out races? Why can’t they gain a lead and hold it?
(We’ll ignore for now that the converse of a surging Democrat, overcoming a massive Republican lead, is incredibly rare.)
The one exception, despite his other faults, in recent years was Obama. He didn’t get large leads (for the obvious reason), but he did hold them and finish well.
So, here in no particular order (I don’t pretend to have a well-thought out answer) are possible reasons:
- Most Democrats don’t have extremely strong support from the base, which is minorities, labor Democrats, and what used to be called liberal Democrats. The racism directed at Obama convinced liberal Democrats to turn out, and African-Americans didn’t want to see him lose, so those groups didn’t become disaffected (labor wasn’t that excited in 2012, and it showed). But without that, these groups, which have been treated shabbily (by Obama too), just aren’t quite as enthusiastic. When the Republican counter-assault begins, they just don’t feel like defending the candidate as strongly, in everything from private conversations to donations and canvassing.
- Due to gerrymandering, Democratic political consultants don’t have to win close races very often: they simply don’t know how to do this.
- Republicans commit mistakes that offend voters outside of their base, while Democrats commit mistakes that offend their base (e.g., bashing teachers unions, leaving your black running mate off of your campaign mailers). This matters, especially in off-year elections, where turning out voters who are very unlikely to switch allegiance is critical. Given the increasing polarization of the public, particularly the voting public, this depresses support for Democrats over time. The odds of any candidate in any party not saying or doing stupid things during the course of a campaign are pretty close to zero. If a Democrat has to run an error-free race to win a close race, victories in these races are going to be extremely rare.
- When things start to go south for Democrats, much of the vocal base gets stupid. By stupid I mean, rather than returning to the things that helped build the lead, the vocal supporters too often turn the race into a personality contest: Democrat X is a good person (and look at his resume!), Repubican Y is awful. This might be true, but in a country where one-third of white voters are highly prejudiced, it’s clear awfulness isn’t a deathknell. By a long shot.
- Democrats too often don’t excite their base, and the base is hurting. To the extent that campaigns are run by people who are not middle and lower-middle class (notice I didn’t write white middle and lower-middle class), they don’t focus on things that will make their voters’ lives better. Not less awful, but better. Policy, in broad strokes, does matter, as a recent poll of Ohioan black voters and non-voters indicates. Or as we say around here, people have to like this crap.
- Democrats don’t know how to have negative messages (‘my opponent is a monster’) reinforce positive messages (‘here is my easy-to-understand monster slaying policy’). At various times in campaigns, a candidate will have to send positive or negative messages. For too many Democrats, these messages do not reinforce each other. Running away from economic populism does not help with this, as that’s an obvious way to toggle between positive and negative messages: ‘I will put a chicken in every pot’ segues nicely into ‘my opponent wants to EAT ALL UR CHICKENS (and drink your milkshake)’.
- A bad ground game. Too much money is spent on TV adds (where consultants make their money), and not enough on voter turnout and outreach.
- Related to the previous point, the Democratic Party is a brand, not a human institution for most people. Movements rely on human connections, and the Democratic Party isn’t a movement.
- Democratic candidates don’t nationalize elections. They need to tie local Republicans to the known awfulness of national Republicans–they are part of the same party after all.
Regardless, in you’re in Virginia, please vote for Northam for governor on Tuesday.
*A poll released a couple of days ago indicates that 17% of black respondents were unsure about whom they supported. While the good news is that they probably won’t break for Trump (and even with that poor showing, Northam was still ahead), this is a problem for Democrats. Black voters are not enthusiastic (and, no, I’m not ‘blaming black people’, I’m blaming the Democratic Party for doing a shitty job).