Democratic Virginia Governor Ralph Northam
Win McNamee Getty Images
By Greg Burnep
November 14, 2017

It turns out that there are actually three certainties in life: death, taxes, and pundits and partisans overreading election results.

It started happening again last week. Democrats are aglow, celebrating victories in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia and at the state and local level in places like New Hampshire and Georgia. Voters in Maine chose to expand Medicaid. Democratic dominance of the West Coast is now complete; a state Senate election in Washington state flipped control of the chamber to the Democrats, giving the party unified control of the state governments of Washington, Oregon, and California (is it time to rename it the Left Coast once and for all?).

These gains led columnist E.J. Dionne to proclaim a “new era” in American politics, one in which anti-Trump sentiment might be harnessed to “realign the country.” Many Democrats seem to agree. Some Republicans do, too: Scott Taylor, a state legislator from Virginia critical of President Trump, said of his state’s results, “I do believe that this is a referendum on this administration.”

There’s no question that last Tuesday was a good night for Democrats. But talk of the end of “Trumpism” and a resurgence of the Democratic Party is premature.

The Virginia governor’s race has received the most attention. Democrat Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie by 9 percentage points. Democrats are jubilant because Northam outperformed polls that had him only a few points ahead in the days leading up to the election. For a party that has had precious little to cheer about since Barack Obama’s reelection five years ago, the excitement is understandable. But one should resist the emerging narratives that cast last week’s results in Virginia, and elsewhere, as a bellwether of fundamental change in American politics.

For one thing, Virginia is a blue state, not a purple state. Democrats have carried it in the past three presidential elections, its two United States senators are Democrats, and, with Northam’s election, four of its last five governors have been Democrats. It is true that the Democrats made important gains in state legislative races last week, where the GOP had an advantage thanks in part to gerrymandering and in part to its strength in rural areas. But Virginia’s time as a “battleground” in statewide races was already up.

Add to this that the party out of power in Washington, D.C. almost always performs well during a new president’s first term. This has long been true, but has been increasingly stark in recent years. In November 2009, then-president Barack Obama watched a pair of Republicans, Bob McDonnell and Chris Christie, win the governorships of Virginia and New Jersey. We have entered into a period of extraordinary volatility in American politics, where sudden swings of the pendulum have become the norm: George W. Bush wins reelection in 2004; the Democrats retake Congress in 2006. Barack Obama is elected president in 2008; the Republicans win the House of Representatives in 2010. Barack Obama is reelected in 2012; the Republicans retain the House and retake the Senate in 2014. Donald Trump wins the presidency in 2016; it is quite possible that Democrats will win back the House in 2018. This volatility is likely attributable in large part to the anger and frustration that many Americans express toward their governing institutions, especially in Washington, D.C. Throw the bums out, as the refrain goes…but then replace the new bums at the next possible opportunity! Rinse and repeat.


It’s worth asking why last Tuesday’s elections have garnered so much national attention. Perhaps it’s the fixation with the “horserace” atmosphere that surrounds our elections—that we can’t wait to watch CNN count down to the first votes, hyperventilate when the race is within one percentage point (even though only three percent of precincts are reporting), and roll out its fancy electoral maps. Perhaps it’s a sign of our hyper-polarized age, where partisans of either party will gleefully grasp for anything that might be spun as good news for them or bad news for the other team. But Americans would do well to remember former House speaker Tip O’Neill’s famous observation that “all politics is local.”

According to exit polls, half of Virginia’s voters said Donald Trump was not a factor in determining their vote. Presumably these people were voting on all sorts of other state and local-level issues that matter to them. Americans of all political stripes should resist the temptation to draw sweeping conclusions from the events of last Tuesday.

Greg Burnep is an assistant professor of political science at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.


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