The fallout from Tuesday's election: hope, yes; optimism? I wouldn't go that far...


Tuesday's election results in Virginia and elsewhere are grounds for hope—and maybe, just maybe, a soupçon of cautious optimism. I am not inclined to be giddy over the the outcome. There was ample reason for concern when the day dawned. Polls showed the race for governor far closer than it turned out to be. Virginia Democrats and self-styled progressives surely did their damnedest to achieve the anatomically improbable feat of biting themselves in their own collective wazoo. The headline of the day came from Politico: The Democratic Circular Firing Squad Dodges a Bullet. Michael Tomasky penned two excellent, preelection pieces at The Daily Beast, neither apt to provoke optimism: The Democrats Have an Even Worse White Working Class Problem Than We Thought and The Most Self-Righteous Political Act of 2017 Just Took Place in the VA Governor’s Race. I found his analysis convincing and am grateful that things did not pan out as he—and I—feared they might.

Somehow the Dems must find a way to speak to the concerns of small-town and rural voters in the heart of the country and to those of so-called liberal elites on the coasts. The data geeks' divide between college-educated voters and those without any post-high school education has become something of a metaphor for the divide between elites and the working class, with Democrats doing better among the former, Republicans among the latter, a breakdown that somehow puts the Rs more "in touch with the people." There is a tendency among commentators across the political spectrum to speak in blithe generalizations as they mythologize both groups. In come circles the epithet "educated" has come to be a pejorative synonym for "elitist." Is something skewed about this kind of thinking, or is it just me?

Much ado has been made about Trump's hardcore base, 30 or so percent of the electorate, that is unwavering in its support. They get their worldview from Fox. The mainstream media is fake news across the broad. Thirty percent may be a distinct minority, but that is still a sizeable chunk of the country, enough to be worrisome. Ezra Klein makes a heartening case that it was "a lot of weak Trump supporters and a bunch of voters who disliked Trump but hated Clinton even more" who made his electoral college win possible and there is reason to hope they will not be there for Republicans in 2018 or for Trump in 2020. I take the liberty of quoting extensively:

Here’s the thing: No one will win in 2018 or 2020 by trying to convert the most hardcore of Trump supporters. That isn’t how elections are won. It never has been: Herbert Hoover, in the depths of the Great Depression, held about 80 percent of his vote from the previous election.

. . .

One reason that coalition could come together is that Trump had the advantage of running without a record. He had no unemployment rate to explain, no votes to justify.

Trump didn’t win in 2016 by a healthy margin. Even with James Comey’s assist, he lost the popular vote, and the election turned on a mere 74,000 ballots in three states. Which means Trump can’t lose support and win again in 2020. He has to expand his coalition, or at least stop it from shrinking. At that, he’s failing.

This isn’t to take anything away from [Michael] Kruse’s excellent reporting [at Politico, Johnstown Never Believed Trump Would Help. They Still Love Him Anyway.], or the importance of trying to understand what voters of all orientations think. But we shouldn’t mistake Trump’s hardcore support for the votes that won him the White House, and that he’s at most risk of losing. (“Trump country” stories help explain our politics, not the next election)

Klein is one of our most astute political observers. I hope he is right here but remain wary. The Democratic propensity for circular firing squads

and party self-immolation persists. It may also be worth our while to consider, if only hypothetically at this stage, how Trump's base might respond if he is defeated in 2020. It is not unfair to note that some of these folks are well armed and bunkered down. Would they accept that outcome as legitimate? Would Trump, for that matter? The next few years promise to be unnerving however they swing.

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David Matthews

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