Columns, Opinions

Cardoso ’19: Democrats, don’t let Virginia get your hopes up

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Opinions Editor
Thursday, November 16, 2017

Last Tuesday, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Virginia, Ralph Northam, raced to victory by a healthy margin. This result was not particularly surprising: Though his opponent, Ed Gillespie, mounted an unexpected comeback in the final weeks of the campaign, Virginians have increasingly voted for Democratic candidates in statewide elections. Virginia currently has a Democratic governor and two Democratic senators, and in 2016, Hillary Clinton took the state by a solid margin of five percentage points. But you wouldn’t be able to tell just how predictable this outcome was based on the immediate reactions to Northam’s victory. “The American suburbs appear to be in revolt against President Trump,”  New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin proclaimed. “The GOP should be scared by Virginia,” wrote New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. In the days following the election, there was no paucity of observers predicting that Trumpism was in full retreat. Yet this claim was based on nothing more than several Democratic wins — including the elections of Danica Roem and Chris Hurst — in this already Democratic-leaning state.

In fact, the results are not necessarily the national repudiation of Trump that liberals hope to see. It is entirely possible the election results in Virginia merely reflect the shifting demographics and urbanization of the state. While Northam won the cities and their suburbs by remarkable margins, he was decimated outside of the metropolises by margins larger than those of his predecessor, Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe, in 2013. It is also important to note that Gillespie gained significant ground in polls after he embraced the rhetoric of the Trump administration — not exactly a unequivocal rejection of the president’s views on the part of Virginian voters. The fact that these points were largely missing from the discourse surrounding the race is indicative of a larger problem in many liberal circles. The issue, particularly for Democrats, is that our discourse on national politics has become increasingly reductive, as each election is treated as a definitive referendum on Trump and his appeal.

This phenomenon is not limited to just Virginia. Take, for instance, the national attention given to the Georgia special election for former Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price’s old seat in the House of Representatives in June. Democratic party leaders, media outlets and voters alike treated the race as a measure of public attitudes toward Trump. For example, before the election, the Huffington Post ran an article entitled “The Georgia Special Election Is Make-Or-Break For Democrats.” This article, and others like it, implied that a loss for Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff would be a sign that Trump’s policies were resonating with voters nationwide. This race solicited the most donations of any House race in history; clearly, party leaders and voters in other states felt that victory in one small, non-competitive district in Georgia was essential to their success in future elections. But it wasn’t. In fact, Ossoff did lose — and this is no real predictor of the Democratic Party’s electoral prospects in 2018. Ossoff was a weak candidate running for a seat that Democrats had not won in decades. A rational and measured analysis of the race would conclude that Ossoff was a long shot, not that his defeat reflects national acceptance of Trump. This knee-jerk reaction — treating each election as a stand-alone litmus test for Trump’s popularity without paying any attention to context or other factors — has come to dominate our political discourse.

It is important that our political dialogue be more than just narrow, wishful thinking that could misinform voters and warp electoral outcomes. Such an approach to political analysis turns almost any Republican defeat into a shock and almost any Democratic victory into a decisive disavowal of the other side. This is dangerous for Democratic hopes in 2018 because it may lure voters into complacency and consequently depress voter turnout — especially if voters take recent Democratic wins as a signal that Democrats are sure to succeed in 2018, and they decide not to engage in the electoral process.

In reality, this belies some very serious structural disadvantages that Democrats face. Rampant gerrymandering has made certain seats in the House practically unattainable for liberal candidates. Democrats are not winning among educated suburban voters by the margins necessary to reclaim the competitive seats they would need to retake the House. And Democrats are defending 25 of 33 seats in the Senate, 10 of which are in states won by Trump. Yet if the dominant narrative continues to suggest that Trumpism is dead and that Democrats are on the path to glorious triumph, then voters may be less inclined to turn out. This mentality is exactly the opposite of what Democrats need from citizens to succeed in 2018.

Of course, some complex and informative dialogue still exists. But at a time when the basic precepts of politics are in question and the forces that motivated Trump voters in 2016 remain unclear, our political dialogue needs careful and nuanced analyses, not facile prophesying.

Connor Cardoso ’19 can be reached at connor_cardoso@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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