Not So Fast

October 14, 2017

Democrats have been jubilant about the election returns in Virginia and New Jersey. While the results from this year's off-year elections certainly bode well for the Democrats and ill for the Republicans, a closer review of the election results indicates that Democrats would do well to keep their champagne on ice. The big surprise from the November 7th elections was the huge Democratic wave in Virginia's House of Delegates; however, of the 16 districts that Democrats won, Clinton won 15 of them and received 49.7% of the votes in the 16th district. Clinton won 12 of those 15 districts by five points or more. College educated, white voters (especially women) swung hard away from the Republicans, but the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, didn't even come close to matching Governor Terry McAuliffe, Senator Tim Kaine, or President Obama's percentages in rural western Virginia. The Virginia results show an accelerating realignment of political preferences with Democrats improving their support among minority voters, women, and college educated suburbanites, while continuing to lose support among working class whites and rural voters.


To gain majorities in the House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and win back control of more state governments, Democrats will need to do (much) better than they did in the elections this November. The combination of partisan gerrymanders favoring the Republicans and the Democratic concentration of voters in urban areas makes it imperative that Democrats establish a message that resonates not just in the urban upscale enclaves but also in rural and working class communities that continue to suffer from the impact of globalization and slow wage growth. There are only eleven Republican-held Congressional districts where Clinton won by five points or more. Even if Democrats sweep those eleven districts, they will still be thirteen seats short from achieving a House majority.


This November's elections provide further proof that we are living in an age of global populism as our two parties undergo the most radical realignment they have faced since 1968 and indeed since 1905. Political geographies, identities, and divisions are changing in a way that is much bigger than the Trump phenomenon and is caused by a global populist movement that has spread throughout western Democracies. It is important to place the changes in American politics within the context of the decline of center-left parties across Europe and the West. Center-left parties in Western democracies have lost touch with working class voters and are finding it increasingly difficult to replace them with what The New York Times columnist David Brooks refers to as "a mixture of identity politics and faculty lounge populism." In Germany, France, Australia, India, Mexico, and beyond, we are witnessing the decline of major political parties, and the fragmentation of political parties both in presidential and parliamentary democracies.


The question for both parties is: Will they decide to double down on their base voters and attempt to win in 2018 by increasing the enthusiasm of their core supporters or will they try to appeal to a broader, more inclusive constituency? President Trump and the Republican Nominee in the Alabama Senate Race, as well as Bannon's War on the more moderate, "establishment" Republicans, have made it almost impossible for all but a handful of Republican members to meaningfully engage with the broader electorate. This has given the Democrats a huge advantage, but the Democratic leadership continues to be seriously challenged in delivering a consistent message of economic fairness, security, growth, and opportunity that appeals to voters in places like Johnstown, PA, Waukesha County, WI, Maricopa County, AZ, and Macomb County, MI. 



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