I had a weird feeling today as I looked over the election results from last night. What I am seeing looks almost exactly like what I hoped the results would look like a year ago. I didn’t consistently predict such a positive outcome, although once or twice I may have succumbed to some irrational exuberance when Trump was at particularly low points in his campaign. But what I did is paint best-case scenarios. Republican support would crater among college-educated folks, white professionals and minority and immigrant communities. Yet Clinton would hold much of the white working class, particularly women and those with a long history of supporting the Clinton political dynasty. In other words, Clinton would make big gains while suffering correspondingly modest losses during a realignment of the electorate.
Since I live in the Pennsylvania suburbs and know this state the best, last year when the returns started to come in I had certain markers I was looking for to indicate whether a best-case scenario was playing out. And, initially, those markers looked good but not great. Clinton’s margins in the big cities were where they needed to be, and her performance in the suburbs was significantly better than Obama’s had been in either of his successful elections. The first problem I saw, though, was that Trump hadn’t totally collapsed in the suburbs the way I thought he should have. He was getting an inexplicable number of votes considering the expressed sentiment of the people I live and work with. Long before the absolutely devastating numbers came in from the rural parts of the state, I knew that the best case scenario wasn’t going to happen. It has hard to fault Clinton for what looked like an outstanding performance in the suburbs, but the fact that it hadn’t been even stronger cost her the state and its critical electoral votes.
Another way of putting this is that a realignment had indeed happened, just as I had envisioned. But it had been larger in the rural areas than I had considered possible even in a worst-case scenario, and this had more than wiped out Clinton’s gains among college educated, well-to-do white professionals. As I began to analyze what happened in other states, the same general pattern repeated itself. Another thing that became clear is that even in the districts where Republican support had cratered, it had been worse for Trump than for the downticket candidates. Clinton did not have coattails.
There are some mixed signals from last night. While the Democrats picked up a few seats in the New Jersey legislature, we didn’t see anything remotely like the tsunami that swept out Virginia’s Republican lawmakers. Still, the general impression I get is that the Republicans finally suffered the suburban, white professional collapse I hoped for last November.
Here in the Philly suburbs, the realignment definitely came, and it came with historic force. Nowhere was that clearer than in Chester and Delaware Counties. In Chester County, the Democrats won races for four so-called “row office” positions, with a general massacre of Republican officeholders throughout the county that extended even to magisterial district judges. For perspective, since Chester County was incorporated in the 18th century, no Democrat had ever been elected to any of the nine row office positions.
In Delaware County, the Democrats won two county Council seats and took all three of the row offices that were on the ballot. Amazingly, this is the first time in history that any Democrat has won a competitive countywide election there.
These results for the local GOP are equivalent to what happened to the Democratic Party in the South over the last couple of decades.
I can’t say why exactly these results were delayed by a year. I could blame James Comey or Russian interference or reach for some other easy explanation, but I think it can best be explained by three interrelated factors. Since the Philly suburbs are historically strong Republicans bastions, there are a lot of voters here who spent the 1990s railing against the Clintons. Hillary was a tough sell for these folks, and they were still more sympathetic to Republican candidates in downticket races. Secondly, they had no indication that Pennsylvania was actually competitive, so they thought they could vote for Trump or against Clinton without any consequences. Thirdly, some people needed to see Trump in action, as an actual president, before they could be convinced of how unfit he is for the job.
As for the other parts of the state, it looks like Trump may have maxed out in 2016. To whatever degree he’s retained his support, he certainly hasn’t improved on it. And so the realignment that began last year has proceeded, but now it has moved against the GOP.
Something similar happened in Virginia last night. The state’s demographics were more favorable to the Democrats to begin with, which is why Clinton won there even while losing in Pennsylvania. But a total collapse in the suburbs and among the well educated and white professional classes was not matched by any increased strength in Trump’s strongholds. The result was that a state that took all night to call on election night last year was called in barely over an hour this time around. And Republican lawmakers who weren’t even considered vulnerable fell like bowling pins.
Congressional Republicans must be terrified by these results, and with good reason. But Trump might be a little less worried; his strongholds held fairly steady, which means he still has hope of carrying states with more favorable demographics than Virginia. Considering his narrow victory in the Keystone State, Pennsylvania might not be one of them, but it remains to be seen if he can swing the pendulum back in his direction before (or if) he faces the electorate again. To truly assure Trump’s defeat, the Democrats still need to get their rural losses under control. That might be easier to accomplish in areas that aren’t in the heart of Robert E. Lee’s Confederacy or in coal country. Regular small-town America in places like Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin could move back in the Democrats’ direction if they hear a message that resonates.