How Virginia Resisted Trumpism
In an election where Democrats underperformed in nearly every swing state in the country, Virginia proved a key exception. Hillary Clinton captured nearly 50% of the vote here, beating Donald Trump by 5 points and besting Obama’s 2012 victory by a full percentage point.
At first blush, the explanation for why Virginia bucked the national trend seems obvious: Hillary had previously chosen Virginia Senator Tim Kaine as her running mate, and according to some models, that provided a margin of about 3-5% of the vote. But history is littered with VP candidates who had little effect on their home states (Wisconsin’s Paul Ryan in 2012, North Carolina’s John Edwards in 2004). And more importantly, very few people base their vote on who the Vice President is.
Digging into some of the district and county-level data, however, reveals a slightly different story, where educated and more “well to do” voters mobilized for Hillary Clinton. Indeed, this was one of the more important trends throughout the country—Hillary tended to do better in more urban areas with higher levels of education and affluence.
Just look at the closest Congressional battleground race in Virginia’s 10th district located in Northern Virginia. Voters here reelected Republican incumbent Barbara Comstock 53-47 after a strong challenge by Democrat LuAnn Bennett. But the very same voters of the 10th district rejected Trump by going 52-42 for Hillary. Mitt Romney won the same district in 2012 by a two-point margin, 51-49. In a year where Hillary’s strategy to pick off moderate Republican-leaning voters failed in many other parts of the country, it worked quite well here in Northern Virginia.
In the rest of Virginia, the results were mixed, mostly mirroring the 2012 election. Hillary indeed was able to bleed Republican-leaning support from moderates, but that came at the expense of an uptick in white voters. This was how the Clinton campaign was hoping the election would go in the rest of the nation.
So why was Virginia able to resist Trumpism? Having Tim Kaine on the ticket helped, and certainly Northern Virginia has a cozy relationship with Washington, DC. When your regional economy is based on the system that Donald Trump wants to blow up, you might not vote for the guy. But that hasn't stopped Virginia from going red before, and mostly, it’s that Virginia is a diverse, well-educated state that’s done well economically. Thirty-four percent of Virginians have at least a bachelor’s degree, the sixth-highest rate in the nation. North Carolina is at 26.5%. Ohio is at about 24%. From Wikipedia:
Unfortunately, appealing to college graduates will only get you so far with the rest of the nation. As Matt Karp details in a very good analysis of Team Hillary’s strategy to win moderate Republicans, the fact that the working class never got onboard with Hillary cost her dearly:
“For every one of those blue-collar Democrats [Trump] picks up,” former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell predicted in February, “he will lose to Hillary two socially moderate Republicans and independents in suburban Cleveland, suburban Columbus, suburban Cincinnati, suburban Philadelphia, suburban Pittsburgh, places like that.”
Electorally, of course, this strategy proved catastrophic. In the Midwestern swing states, Clinton hemorrhaged white “blue-collar Democrats” without winning nearly enough “moderate Republicans” to compensate.
Nevertheless, the election results show that the Democrats’ conscious effort to woo the rich wasn’t entirely for naught. Clinton ran nine points ahead of Obama’s 2012 tally among voters earning more than $100,000. Further up the income ladder, among voters making more than $250,000 annually, she bested Obama’s margin by a full eleven points.
And although overall Democratic turnout declined substantially from 2012, it is wrong to say that nobody was excited to vote for Clinton. In the wealthy and well-educated suburbs of cities like Boston, Chicago, and Minneapolis — as in the effectively suburbanized enclaves of Manhattan and Washington, DC — Clinton’s vote total far surpassed Obama’s mark four years ago.
The rest of Karp’s piece argues that a Bernie-like populist message and party apparatus would have performed far better. For Karp, Hillary underperformed Obama in working-class enclaves throughout the country because she didn’t have an economic message that resonated with these folks. With perfect hindsight, it's hard to not agree that some more TV ads reminding voters that Republicans opposed the federal rescue of the automobile industry and pointing out that Chinese steel Trump used in his buildings would have helped.
The problem with perfect hindsight—of course—is that we don’t know if what wasn't attempted this cycle will get these marginal Obama voters out to vote next time. After all, where were these voters in 2010 and 2014? Would a strident platform of Medicare-for-all have inspired that fireman in Milwaukee to vote? Would Bernie Sanders have gotten Latino voters in Florida to turn out in the numbers needed to win? Would promises of huge tax increases to shore up the social safety net have been able to win those moderate suburbanites in Virginia?
For every assertion that a different strategy would have worked, there’s a counterpoint. If being a bold progressive was the ticket, why did liberal hero Russ Feingold in Wisconsin perform worse that Hillary Clinton? If Hillary should have moved to the left more, why did Barack Obama do so much better running on a significantly more conservative platform? If a different economic message would have worked, what would it have looked like, and how would any message on the economy and jobs have gotten through to people in a media environment way more focused on e-mails and faux controversies? When 39% of voters in battleground states say they wanted change more than anything else, would someone like Bernie have gotten the “change” vote? Here's what Lake Research found when they surveyed swing state voters back in October:
In a tight election where about 200,000 votes going the other way in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would have netted a completely different set of narratives, you can pick a hundred things that would have changed the outcome. But when you take the whole sum of the 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, and now 2016 elections, it’s clear that only a few threads run through all of those contests. Namely, that as progress was being made on healthcare, regulating big business, and civil rights, there was a deep and lasting backlash among a very large segment of non-urban and mostly white voters. For whatever reason, Obama’s marginal voters that lived in places that don’t look like Fairfax County, Virginia decided to stay home whenever he wasn’t on the ballot. When we diagnose the root causes of that and what motivates these voters to turn out, we'll have little problem figuring out the way back to power.