Why the Democrats Didn’t Do as Well as You Might Think

Michael Barone makes a few of points worth remembering. Here’s one:

The parties are evenly matched, but differently distributed. Democratic voters are clustered in central cities, sympathetic suburbs and university towns, giving the party an Electoral College advantage. Republican voters are spread more evenly elsewhere, giving their party an advantage in equal-population congressional and legislative districts.

Here’s another:

Donald Trump changed that in 2016, but just a bit. Rough extrapolations from exit polls suggest he lost 2 million to 3 million college graduate whites who previously voted Republican, but gained some 3 million to 4 million non-college whites who previously voted Democratic or didn’t vote. His college graduate losses cost him zero electoral votes; the non-college gains netted him 100 new electoral votes and the White House. The art of the deal.

Here’s one more:

Hillary Clinton carried New Jersey 55 to 41 percent; Murphy won it by 56 to 43 percent. Clinton carried Virginia 50 to 44 percent; Northam won it 54 to 45 percent. The two Democrats, lacking Clinton’s reputation for dishonesty, gained a few points she lost to third-party candidates; the two Republicans got almost exactly the same percentages as Trump.

Back in January, Daily Kos Elections completed their analysis of the presidential vote in Virginia and concluded that Hillary Clinton had carried fifty-one of the one hundred House of Delegates districts in the Commonwealth, despite “the fact that Republicans drew these very lines to benefit themselves during the last round of redistricting.” This was an improvement from the forty-seven districts President Obama had won during his reelection four years earlier.

So, setting aside gerrymandering completely, the Democrats should have roughly half of the seats in Virginia’s House of Delegates. And that’s exactly where we are after Tuesday’s elections, with recounts still to determine the exact distribution.

The Washington Post has some helpful graphics of the Virginia electorate, and the news isn’t all rosy. For example, “where Trump performed far better than Mitt Romney, Gillespie grew the Republican margin by almost eight percentage points compared to the 2013 governor’s race.” And, while the Democrats improved their performance “by 12 percentage points or more in about 30 percent of the state’s precincts,” the Republicans accomplished the same thing in about 20 percent of precincts.

When you look at all of this in its totality, what looked like a giant, unpredicted landslide win for the Democrats in Virginia that has wide implications for the nation suddenly looks far less impressive. Almost every seat the Democrats won on Tuesday was carried by Clinton last November. In much of the state, Gillespie actually improved on Trump’s numbers and on the numbers of the Republican candidate for governor in 2013.

Getting back to one of Michael Barone’s points, what we saw was the Democrats exercising their power within the narrow confines of their base of strength. It’s easy to forget that because of the Republicans’ “advantage in equal-population congressional and legislative districts” and the clustering of  Democratic supporters, we’re celebrating winning a mere half of the seats in a state where the top of the ticket won fifty-four percent of the vote. The gerrymander comes into play here, too. But even within the limitations of the gerrymander, we did about exactly as well as we should have, and no better.

The reason this matters is because this is not evidence that the Democrats have fixed the problem Barone described where despite an Electoral College advantage the Democrats lost the presidential election due to an unfavorable trade-off of non-college whites for college educated whites.

The dynamics are still working heavily against the left. It’s almost impossible to win enough seats in our nation’s legislatures to reflect our numerical strength, and that’s true before we even get to the gerrymanders that exacerbate the problem. And we’re still in trouble in previously safe blue states where there are a high number of non-college educated whites.

Part of me doesn’t even like to point any of this out, because the elections were a great success and a much needed morale boost. But I don’t want us to learn the wrong lessons from them. In one sense, the Democrats definitely got their act together and they deserve credit for making sure they won where they should win. They maximized their strength so that it more closely resembles their true potential. That’s excellent news, and if we had done that last November we almost surely would have won the presidency.

But we wouldn’t have won the House of Representatives or the Senate, and we would have still been in the minority in the vast majority of legislatures in the country, even in many blue-leaning states.

The Democrats have a distribution problem, and that makes expanding their reach imperative, even if it is only to reduce the size of their losses. I was encouraged today to see that my senator, Bob Casey Jr., seems to have been reading my stuff:

“There remains a lot of work to do in reaching those small-town or rural Democratic voters,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said. “They are the ones who need to hear from us, too. Those are the voters our party has had a problem with over the years. We need to speak to them about the lack of wage growth and the opioid crisis. We may not even win in those areas, but we could narrow the margins.”

That’s about as succinct a summary of my Johnstown piece as I could ask for. I think “wage growth” is too narrow, but it gets to the basic point.

The Democrats had a great night on Tuesday, but they aren’t out of the woods yet, and they still have a lot of work to do.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.