Election losses are always an inkblot test for partisans. If candidate’s defeat has no clear and obvious cause, if the data points are all over the map, it is easy for those on the sidelines to claim: “Candidate X would have won if only he or she had been more like …me.”
Both parties engage in this drama. To win again, do Democrats need to win back working-class white voters with an economic populist message – a Bernie Sanders-esque play – or do they need to focus on cultural issues and drive up turnout among core Democratic constituencies who were unenthused by Hillary Clinton? Republicans, too, have gone through this cycle. After Mitt Romney’s defeat, the RNC released its official assessment of what happened – a failure to reach younger voters, nonwhite voters, women – but was met with a counter-narrative that, in fact, it was Romney’s failure to be conservative enough that led to a depressed Republican base.
Without a clear diagnosis of why the candidate or party failed, there can be no clear consensus about how to move forward.
Enter Ed Gillespie and Tuesday's Virginia gubernatorial election. Sure enough, when the buzz in Republican circles was that Gillespie might outperform those “fake news polls,” plenty of people were ready to claim Gillespie as their own, that the way to win was to turn one’s campaign into a McTrump franchise. Steve Bannon himself is on record saying “He’s closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda,” and that Gillespie is “Trumpism without Trump.”
One expects Bannon will walk those comments back. The whiplash already goes all the way up to President Trump; at 6 A.M. on Election Day, he tweeted out that Gillespie “will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of VA” but a few hours later, the word was “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.” Oh really? My oh my, how things change.
No doubt, the debate will now be: did Gillespie lose because he failed to activate the Trump base, or because he got too close to an unpopular President? Those who want the party to become ever more Trump-ish will say the former, those who have loathed the Trump era will say the latter.
There is always, of course, the data. When Gillespie ran a race focused on winning voters in the suburbs, he nearly upset Sen. Mark Warner. When he ran a race that tried to adopt Trumpism, he got numbers that looked a lot like … well … Trump’s.
Trump won 44.4 percent of votes in Virginia in 2016. At press time, Ed Gillespie had won 45 percent of the vote in 2017.
Hewing close to the Trump line in 2017 did pay off for Gillespie in some areas, to be sure. There are absolutely voters who are newly-motivated to support a Republican if he or she tries to get close to Trump. Places where Trump did much better than Gillespie’s 2014 race (Southwest Virginia) are places where Gillespie actually saw a boost in 2017, where some of that “Trump Magic” seems to have rubbed off. If Gillespie had flopped in Trump Country, then the distancing act that we are seeing from Trump would be more credible. But no, the problem was not that Gillespie failed to bank votes in Trump-land.
But let’s set aside the candidates for a second and just look at the way the party labels have held up in Virginia in gubernatorial years. In the 2009 Virginia gubernatorial election, Republicans had a 4-percentage point advantage over Democrats in terms of partisan identification. By 2013, this had atrophied, with Democrats suddenly holding a 5-point advantage over Republicans.
Tuesday night, the exit polls showed Democrats with a double-digit advantage over the GOP.
Ed Gillespie himself has also been on Virginia ballots before, pulling off a surprisingly close race against Sen. Mark Warner in 2014. In that race, Gillespie was able to nearly shock the Democrats in part by doing fairly well in the Washington D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia.
But this year, while his new strategy harnessed a few more votes out of Trump-land, he got clobbered in the suburbs of Washington and Richmond, losing in places like Loudoun, Henrico, and Prince William counties by stunning numbers. His numbers in these places were less than 2 percentage points better than Trump’s margins from 2016, and in all cases were sharp declines from his previous showing.
There may be races where harnessing Trumpism is an advantage and energizes voters. Trump would not be in the White House if this were not at least somewhat true.
But the data out of Virginia do not tell a particularly ambiguous story about what happened: When Ed Gillespie ran as a fairly standard-issue Republican, he came awfully close to becoming a U.S. Senator. When he ran a campaign that looked more like Trump’s, he got numbers that looked more like Trump’s.
In a state that Trump lost, the result is not so surprising.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for the Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."