You might recall that in 2016 Hillary Clinton lost what the president of the United States has repeatedly described as one of the biggest landslides in history, solely because of the poor tactical decisions and neoliberal ideology of the Democratic nominee. Clearly, the Democratic Party was permanently doomed to perpetual defeat, unless perhaps full control of the party was turned over to people whose political identities are largely constructed around despising the Democratic Party. Even worse, earlier this year in an election of world-historical consequences, one pro-labor left-liberal became head of the DNC and his ally, another pro-labor left-liberal, became his deputy, unquestionably dooming the Democratic Party to eternal irrelevance.
In light of these true facts, I find this Yglesias explanation for last night’s results highly unusual:
Despite all the hand-wringing, Ralph Northam didn’t blow it. And it seems that neither did Virginia Democratic candidates Justin Fairfax for lieutenant governor and Mark Herring for attorney general. Dems also won the New Jersey governor’s race in a landslide, and seem to be in position to pick up a bunch of seats in the Virginia House of Delegates.
Off-year gubernatorial elections are only weak predictors of future midterm results, but tonight’s outcome is yet another sign that the GOP really is in electoral peril. Donald Trump’s flukey, narrow win in the 2016 presidential election did not inaugurate some crazy new era in which the rules don’t apply and nothing matters. If you have an incumbent president who’s unpopular, backed by a Congress that’s pursuing an unpopular agenda, you’re going to be in trouble.
And Republicans are definitely in trouble.
And of course, nothing about this should be surprising. It’s entirely typical for the president’s party to struggle down ballot. That happened to Democrats under Obama, but it also happened under Bill Clinton and Kennedy/Johnson. It happened to Republicans under Eisenhower and Nixon/Ford and George W. Bush. The only exception to the rule of down-ballot losses is that the South continued to shift toward the GOP under Ronald Reagan — more an effect of long-term partisan realignment.
On top of all that, Trump is unusually unpopular for an incumbent president. The handy approval tracker tool from FiveThirtyEight lets us see that no previous president has ever had such a low approval rating at this point in his term, and this has been true for the overwhelming majority of his tenure. An unpopular incumbent president is a recipe for defeat, and Republicans have barely been trying to do anything about it.
I guess anything’s possible. But having consulted the best social science available — Game Change, Double Down, Ron Fournier columns — it seems much more likely that starting in fall 2017 the Democratic Party suddenly developed better messaging, better campaign tactics, better candidates, visited Wisconsin, and recognized that running on a platform precisely identical to my ideological views is the best political strategy in every jurisdiction in the United States.