The Cold Take From Virginia

One of the luxuries of running this sideblog is the ability to publish “cold takes.”  In this case, it means having the luxury of examining the lessons of the Virginia gubernatorial campaign before the votes are counted.

At the outset, the most important thing to note may be the low stakes: this election won’t tell you much, if anything, about the national midterms in 2018.  Not that this will stop the “winning” side from telling you otherwise.

Accordingly, let’s also consider that the “winning” side may not necessarily be the winning side.  Let’s look at a general assessment of the situation as of yesterday morning, which is when I’m writing this:

The GOP candidate, Ed Gillespie narrowly won a primary in which rival Corey Stewart raised cultural issues like the removal of Confederate monuments.  Gillespie has been trailing the Democratic nominee, Ralph Northam, who beat the Bernie Sanders-endorsed Tom Perriello by a wider-than-expected margin.  On a purely abstract level, Virginia has been trending Democratic in recent cycles, but the Republican candidates have generally managed to close to at least a close race.  Accordingly, while the public opinion polling here has been as sketchy as polling tends to be for off-year elections (in this case based mostly on what pollsters think turnout will be in NoVa), the average showing a 3-4% lead for Northam seems entirely plausible.

Gillespie did close on Northam in polling, but was this an echo of the recent history in Virginia races, or something more?  To unify his base vote, Gillespie has adopted the cultural issues championed by Northam, including the Confederate monuments and concerns over sanctuary cities and the operation of the MS-13 gang.  Some on the Right therefore would like to see this election as a test case of “Trumpism without Trump,” in which a fairly generic GOPer is otherwise able to benefit from cultural politics.

This has not gone unnoticed by folks on the Left of center.  Activist groups have attacked Gillespie as running a racist campaign.  One group created an ad (with a small buy, hoping for and getting earned media coverage) depicting a Confederate flag-waving Gillespie voter running down minority children with a truck.  Another group attacked Northam‘s campaign as racist for conceding the sanctuary city issue, despite the fact that it’s a symbolic concession insofar as Virginia lacks such cities.

Even closer to the center, the left-leaning establishment has not particularly helped their cause.  When Gillespie claimed there are more than 2,000 MS-13 gang members in Fairfax County alone, the response from the Washington Post was to fact-check him and conclude the true number was lower — as though the presence of only 900 or 1,400 violent gang members is some great comfort to residents of Fairfax and its neighbors.

Despite these seeming errors from the Left, that 3-4% polling advantage for the Democrats is probably the line against which “winning” should be measured.

If Northram wins by more than that 3-4%, one might conclude that Gillespie’s gambit truly failed, or that anti-Trumpism fueled Democratic enthusiasm above normal levels.  Conversely, if Gillespie wins — or even loses by less than 2% — one might be encouraged that the “Trumpism without Trump” was relatively successful and thus worth trying in other races.  (The tale here is likely to be told in terms of any tradeoff Gillespie has between college-educated whites and less educated whites.)  Or your margin of error / estimation of noise here may be wider, in which case one might conclude: (a) Gillespie’s strategy was ultimately not as important in either direction as general partisanship; or (b) the Left’s reaction — which may or may not occur in other races — was as important as Gillespie’s strategy; or (c) both.

What happened:  Gillespie lost, by a yuge margin that suggests Gillespie’s Trump-fusionist strategy did not work.  But the losses in VA’s House of Delegates may be more alarming to the national GOP than the gubernatorial race.

All of that will be fun to discuss today.  Just remember the first thing I told you: last night’s results may not matter much outside Virginia (a state trending leftward for years), except that people will believe they do.  Regular readers know I might like to write the Trump-skeptical take here, but while the Virginia results can’t be credibly spun as good news for Trump or the GOP, the point of today’s exercise was to check my priors by analyzing the race in advance.  I just noted that Trump was in a spot that might help the GOP lose the House — Virginia may well be another indicator, but I’d stick to the larger picture.

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