Democrats are absolutely giddy about last night’s elections. The press is loudly pronouncing that this is a repudiation of Trump and a foreshadowing of 2018’s mid-terms. Much of that feels like putting the cart before the horse. But there were two trends that seem significant, and you can bet republicans are watching them right now. How they decide to interpret those trends could either push them closer to Trump’s agenda or finally drive them away from him.
1 The Enthusiasm Gap
The first is democratic enthusiasm and turnout. This chart tells the story nicely from the last 3 Virginia gubernatorial elections.
You can see that Gillespie, the republican, actually did better than in 2013. Republican turnout was up 15% from 2013 (population rose just under 3%). Pretty solid. But democrats were up by nearly a third, and much of that enthusiasm came from women! Now, it’s not a total surprise that enthusiasm is up on the left, but the amount of the increase has to be concerning for the GOP, and that could drive republicans away from Trump. At the very least, expect them to put more pressure on him to tone down the divisive rhetoric behind closed doors.
But what’s likely to concern republicans even more is WHERE that enthusiasm gap came from.
2 The power of the suburbs
Over the last few decades, rural areas have gotten increasing red and cities increasingly blue. As that has happened, the suburbs have become the critical battleground areas, and democrats improved consistently in these areas last night. College educated whites went from a 4% Trump win to a 3% republican loss, a 7 point swing.
Now, Trump did poorly in suburbs in 2016, but other republicans did alright in those districts in 2016. He didn’t drag them down. But now they’re not only losing those districts, but losing them WORSE than Trump did. That’s something that will surely set off alarm bells in Washington, and you’ll start seeing the impact well before the next election.
In particularly on the tax bill, many of the tax deduction changes will hit these suburban areas hard, a fact that democrats didn’t let go unnoticed. From Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer:
“Let me give you some numbers here,” he said. “Barbara Comstock’s district in Virginia, the 10th, 49 percent of the taxpayers take the [state and local tax] deduction,” he said. “Barbara Comstock, in my view, would write her own, uh, defeat, if she votes for this bill with state and local deductibility in it. Rep. [Ed] Royce of California, 33 percent of the taxpayers take an average SALT deduction of $15,000,” he said. “He’d be committing political suicide to vote for a bill that eliminates or greatly curtails SALT.”
Republicans have to decide whether its worse to be utter failures to deliver ANYTHING of legislative substance or to actively harm one of their key constituencies and hope they don’t notice. It’s possible they’ll strip the tax bill of these provisions and scale it back to avoid these outcomes, but given current leadership, I wouldn’t bet good money on it.
The republican dilemma
Now, both of these trends seem to hint that republicans should run AWAY from Trump. However, it could also work in his favor. Republican candidate Gillespie tried to kind of split the difference, running a Trump style campaign in his ads, but not fully embracing him. Few republicans will try that again, either going all in or rejecting him outright. You will also see it reflected in how aggressively they try to pass their agenda. In either case, the math will come down to whether they should try to whip their own base into a frenzy to match liberals, or distance themselves from Trump. There are good arguments on both sides, but building enthusiasm in your own base feels more realistic to me.
Those democratic voters aren’t going away, so you will need a fired up base to match their turnout. I would predict that on the tax bill, it will get pared back and they’ll pass SOMETHING so they can crow about it. But in the mid-term elections, I think there’s a good chance more republicans will embrace Trump and run hard to the right. However, if they’re smart, they’ll think longer term than that. Doubling down on a very narrow (and shrinking) base will change political leanings for potentially decades the way the Carter/Reagan era changed the liberal/conservative balance for the last 30 years. Republicans could limit their losses in 2018 and lose an entire generation if they play this wrong. I’ve been wrong before about how far to the right the American public is willing to go, but this is dangerous territory for republicans.
The biggest thing that could change this math is Trump’s approval ratings. If his core supporters remain enthusiastic, republicans may stick with him, because they can’t even win their own primary without those voters. But if his approval rating tanks — say the economy goes south or he starts a war — then the GOP will abandon him like Harvey Weinstein supporters at a N.O.W. conference.