Electoral Trends, the Future of the Republican Party, and Bad Social Science
Last week’s election saw two results that have been deemed far more important than any others. One was that Democrat Andy Beshear defeated incumbent Republican Matt Bevin to become the next Governor of Kentucky. The other was the Democrats took control of both houses of the state legislature in Virginia for the first time in over 20 years.
In Kentucky, some saw the Beshear’s victory as a sign that President Trump is in trouble next year, arguing that Bevin’s poor showing in suburban Cincinnati is in line with what happened in the 2018 midterms that saw Democrats take control of the House. Others pointed out that Bevin was an outlier, pointing to other Republicans who won statewide by wide margins. They pointed out that while a Democratic governor in Kentucky may seem to indicate a sinking Republican ship, that recent history does not support that talking point, in fact, Beshear’s father was governor from 2007–2015.
In Virginia, it is the same story. Some say Trump has turned Virginia blue, again pointing to the suburbs south of D.C. and in Richmond.
Others point out that Virginia has been trending blue for quite some time now and this just makes it official. Virginia has two Democratic senators, a Democratic governor, and voted for Barack Obama twice. It is not the same state that voted for Bush in 2004. They say that as the cost of living in D.C. gets more and more hideously expensive, people have moved to Northern Virginia and naturally, as NOVA gets more and more expensive, people have moved even further south towards Fredericksburg. This has been a 15 year process meaning that Trump’s impact on the pace of change is hard to judge.
So, who is right? Ultimately the answer is the one that no politician or political commentator ever wants to give and that is we don’t know. Because elections take place in the here and now, most analysis is distorted by political spin. Republicans do not want to panic over off year election results and Democrats want the confidence booster as well as the sense of inevitability.
The problem is one election does not make a trend. Two elections do not even make a trend. In 2009 people were writing the Republican Party’s obituary. In 2010 they won a record number of seats in the House, retaking control of that chamber. In 2017, people were writing the Democratic Party’s obituary, they had lost nearly 1,000 seats in state legislatures across the country during the Obama years and had just lost to Donald Trump of all people. They now control the House, are in the process of impeaching the president, and nobody remembers those nearly 1,000 state legislative losses.
While it serves the interest of certain Republican factions to say “Trump lost the suburbs,” it is bad social science. Trump may have lost Virginia, but so did John McCain and Mitt Romney, but unlike those two, he actually won the election (He also lost Virginia by a narrower margin than McCain). As difficult as it may be for some Beltway Republicans to hear, the fate of the Republican Party does not depend on how popular it is within the I-495 ring.
This doesn’t mean factions more loyal to Trump are immune from bad social science as well. Trump won states in 2016 that previously more “electable” Republicans did not, but that does not mean the future of the Republican Party is one that should style itself as a nationalist-populist party. Hillary Clinton was a terrible candidate, arguably the worst in modern history, and Trump’s unfavorable ratings would indicate his only path to re-election is to face an equally terrible candidate next year. If Trumpism as a policy platform is a electoral winner than sometime in the distant future, political commentators will be writing about President Josh Hawley.
It will take 10–20 years after Trump leaves office, whether that be in January 2021 or 2025, to be able to provide a more honest assessment of Trump’s impact on the Republican Party’s electoral prospects. Did he win Republicans the rust belt or did drive suburbia into the hands of the Democrats? Of course, there is a third option that says we could be living in a new age where the pendulum swing that political scientists use to illustrate how power transfers from one party to another is just more dramatic than it has been in years past.
The more dramatic pendulum swing makes sense, because in electoral politics, particularly two-party electoral politics, nothing is forever. If it is newsworthy that a Democrat will now be Governor of Kentucky or that Democrats control Richmond, remember that at this point in Obama’s first term there was a Republican senator from Massachusetts and a Republican Governor of New Jersey. Obama would, of course, go on to win re-election.
It has been commented on many times that we are more polarized today then we were 20 years ago. We should therefore expect that the pendulum swings are more extreme. Before we replaced George H.W. Bush with Bill Clinton and the two candidates to replace him where George W. Bush and Al Gore. In 2000 Bush and Gore were not the controversial figures they would later become. By 2008, we replaced Bush with Obama and in 2016 we replaced him with Trump. The midterms of 2006, 2010, 2014, and 2018 were all power-shifting elections either in one house or both, 1998, despite the unpopularity of impeachment was not. It is certainly not impossible for suburbia to return to Republican Party in 2022 if whoever the Democrats nominate wins next year.
While we may not know what, if any, effects Trump will have on the Republican Party’s future, but until something comes along to discredit it, the smart money should be on the pendulum swing theory. There is not that much difference between 2008 and 2016 or between 2010 and 2018. Truly, the more things change, the more they stay the same.