Off Year Election Results Don’t Tell Us Much
There is an instinct to overinterpret elections results, whether they be from special elections, midterm elections or off-year elections.
These results can be useful directionally, but the idea that they predict the next presidential election is fanciful.
These nonpresidential election results occur at a specific moment in time and are often decided by local issues, candidate quality and campaign effectiveness, not national trends.
This week’s election results in Kentucky, Mississippi and Virginia, as well as other places, already are being overanalyzed.
Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin’s narrow reelection loss does not reflect poorly on President Trump. Mr. Bevin’s electoral weakness has been well-chronicled, and he was running against a moderate Democrat from a well-known political family. Republicans won other statewide offices by strong margins, including electing rising star Daniel Cameron to be the state’s first black person to serve as attorney general. State races in Kentucky have traditionally gone Democratic, while federal races have traditionally gone Republican.
Mississippi’s results were consistent with expectations, as Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves won election as governor.
Virginia’s results were bad for the GOP, but that was also expected. Northern Virginia is now entirely Democratic, and the macro and micro trends in Virginia have been building since at least 2013. Democrats in Virginia won both legislative chambers. The simple fact is that Virginia is no longer a swing state. It is a blue state.
Down-ballot races in Pennsylvania, especially in the Philadelphia suburbs, went Democratic as well, in what should be a worrying sign for the GOP. If Democrats win the Philly suburbs by strong margins in 2020, then Trump can’t win Pennsylvania.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
The reason this week’s elections have limited value is that the electorate this week is but a small fraction of what it will be in 2020.
Much was written about how the off year and midterm elections were a repudiation of President Obama in 2009, 2010 and 2011, but he easily won reelection in 2012.
Mr. Trump may be in a similar situation.
Mr. Obama was able to recreate his winning coalition only when he was on the ballot. There is evidence that Mr. Trump may be the same way.
Additionally, the 2020 election will be nationalized, and different issues will contribute to voter decisions. The economy will be front and center, as will trade, immigration and impeachment.
The eventual Democratic presidential nominee will be significant, with wide variance among the top contenders.
Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden would be instantly competitive in Pennsylvania in a way Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts wouldn’t be.
About 2020, we can say two things with confidence.
First, the battleground map is Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Second, it is absolutely the case that the 2020 presidential election will be fought in the suburbs.
Democrats made gains in the suburbs in 2018, including in cities that were unexpected such as Salt Lake City, Oklahoma City and Charleston, South Carolina. Republicans need to win back the suburbs, and this will require a sustained focus.
Republicans need to argue that the economy is strong, with hiring and wages up, and that their policies will keep it strong while Democratic policies threaten both the economy and employer-based private health insurance.
In 2018, Democrats nationalized the midterms and Trump voters did not turn out.
In 2020, both parties will nationalize the election and voters will have a distinct choice.
This week’s results weren’t positive for the GOP, but I don’t believe they were predictive, either.
The national election is still one year away.
Matt Mackowiak is president of Austin, Texas, and Washington-based Potomac Strategy Group. He’s a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney reelection campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.
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