If you’re to the political left of, say, Mussolini, enjoy celebrating the overall good results Democratic candidates had in Tuesday’s elections. The much-hyped Virginia gubernatorial race was over almost the moment the polls closed, depriving the evening of drama. That’s OK; after more than a year of non-stop bad news, liberals will gladly take the win.
Now, the bad news: special and off-year elections receive far more attention than any scattered batch of state-level races deserves, and the urge to over-interpret the results is irresistible for the media and political class. Whether you were pleased or upset on Tuesday evening, take a deep breath and remember that if not for the odd timing of these races – in an off-off-year – they would barely have been noticed.
The media likes elections. Elections are more interesting to news consumers than the standard non-electoral political fare, and content providers have the ratings and clicks to prove it. If the 24-hour cable networks can find an election to cover, they will give it saturation coverage.
Sometimes the only elections available are oddly timed special elections – last month’s Alabama Senate primary was a good example – or a few state-level races. They end up filling a vacuum in the ability of political news outlets to provide election coverage. Talking about 2016 gives most of us a migraine at this point, and it’s too early to go H.A.M. on the 2018 election stories yet.
So, elections that are important but not Earth-shattering end up receiving the kind of grand, breathless coverage and punditry that blow what is happening out of all reasonable proportion.
These races deserve coverage. They are important. But they’re not nearly as important as the Hot Take industry is going to claim over the next few days. There is something to be learned from these races, but maintaining perspective is important.
For Democrats, who seem destined to struggle to control the narrative of elections, Tuesday night was a no-win situation for the 2018 storyline. Had Democrat Ralph Northam lost in Virginia, the “No matter what the liberal fake media says, REAL ‘Mericans support Trump and his agenda!” storyline would have carried the day. This would reinforce the idea that no matter how bad things seem to go for the Republicans, Democrats will screw it up.
Now that Northam won – and it is worth noting that Hillary Clinton won Virginia handily in 2016, so Northam would have had to be spectacularly inept to lose – jubilant Democrats took to the internet immediately to proclaim, as journalist and political analyst Dave Wasserman did, that Tuesday’s results lead to the conclusion that Democrats are likely to take the House in 2018.
He concludes, “You can't really look at tonight's results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the U.S. House in 2018.” With due respect to a good journalist, that is truly spectacular overreach. A year ahead of the 2016 election, nobody could have predicted Trump’s victory. Much can happen in a year. We have no idea where we will be one year from today. Given the way Trump is operating, we may not even be alive (or having elections) in a year. Chill. Virginians picking a governor is not, as some pundits are excited to say, a nationwide referendum on Donald Trump.
This serves no positive function for Democrats. Idle chatter about one party being the favorite can lead only to complacency – marginal voters failing to show up because they’ve heard for a year that the candidate they support is going to win – or unhelpfully high expectations. Bold assertions that they will overcome a forty-five seat GOP majority in the House will feed the eventual narrative of Democrats doing well…but “not as well as we expected.”
The media and the professional readers of political tea leaves have no incentive to follow Tuesday’s results with careful conclusions that invoke context and the dangers of overstating limited evidence. They prefer to grab your attention with bold, unqualified statements that this. is. HUGE. But that does not make it true. Give it a month and there is a good chance that Tuesday’s elections will be largely forgotten.
The valid, sober interpretation of these races is simple: Democrats won some races they very much should have won, and they can feel good about getting their base to show up and follow through. You can’t win the hard races if you’re unable to pick up the ones that should be slam-dunks. So, Tuesday was a good night for a party and a group of supporters that needed badly to have a win to boost morale.
For the GOP, they will shrug the races off as unimportant but behind the scenes a lot of people who have to run in 2018 will learn from Ed Gillespie’s mistakes in Virginia. He engaged in a shameless campaign of Trump-style race baiting and immigrant bashing and it accomplished little except to bolster pro-Democratic Latino/a voters. Rather than rushing to embrace the preferred strategy of a President who is currently about as popular as genital herpes, Republicans should ask if pandering to the worst aspects of the GOP base has run its course. Trump is loud and monotonous. Voters may just be tired of the act. Why imitate it?
In the end, what we learned on Tuesday evening consists largely of things we already knew. If Democrats can get their base out, they can win. Pandering to white populist sympathies is only a useful strategy for Republicans in solidly red states. And the President is a delusional, gutless sack of lame excuses and Taco Bell Mild Sauce.
What we didn’t learn is who will win a year from today. We didn’t learn what Americans think. We didn’t learn any universal truths about politics. These races are not unimportant, but the urge to draw large conclusions from a small sample is dangerous.