Many Democrats who were looking at this past Tuesday’s elections as an indication of America’s sentiments regarding impeachment and Trump’s conduct in Office might come to the mistaken conclusion that the results are encouraging for them. After all, if recent polling results in swing states are a bellwether for America’s opinions regarding impeachment, the situation looks bad for the Democrats. But they could be forgiven for thinking otherwise based on the narrative that outlets across the media sphere are pushing. According to many national networks, the election results show that Republicans are losing their grip on suburban voters in swing states. While that particular interpretation is true, it does not accurately reflect a change in the sentiments of the wider electorate regarding impeachment or the 2020 elections a year from now. Even if the Democrats’ electoral victories show that Trump’s politics are not playing well in suburbs, state-wide polling still shows that Trump is broadly popular in ex-urbs and rural counties. So while Democrats do deserve to celebrate confirmation that some of their state-level machines are still effective following the 2018 election results, it is very important not to over-interpret Tuesday’s results as a broader endorsement of the impeachment investigation or a shift in the core Trumpian base of support ahead of the 2020 elections.
For example, take a look at the situation in Pennsylvania, a key battleground state and a so-called “must-win” state for Democrats in 2020. In an article titled, “The G.O.P.’s Election Day Problem in the Suburbs Is Getting Worse,” The New York Times’ Upshot wrote, “In suburbs around Philadelphia, which were battlegrounds in the 2016 election and will be again in 2020, Democrats notched historic wins. They defeated the last Republicans on the five-seat Delaware County Council, in a suburb that kept electing Republicans to local offices while rejecting many Republican statewide candidates, and they took control of the board of commissioners in Bucks County for the first time since the 1980s.”
While the Times’ portrayal is true, it fails to note the subtler point that these results in the suburbs of Philadelphia are likely the continuation of a wider political recalibration as a result of the State Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a heavily gerrymandered districting map at the beginning of 2018. For many years, the state of Pennsylvania has suffered under one of the most heavily gerrymandered maps in the country which all but guaranteed that Republicans would be overrepresented in Philadelphia suburbs. After that map was declared unconstitutional and rewritten last year, the new map allowed the results of the 2018 midterms to more accurately reflect the true makeup of the electorate in these suburbs. Tuesday’s results are likely a continuation of that course correction trend. The point here is not that the Republicans in the Philly suburbs are not suffering from Trump’s politics or that the impeachment process is not widely supported. Both could very well be true. The point is that these election results cannot necessarily be used as evidence to make those arguments if the results are heavily influenced by other factors, such as the wider reset in the makeup of county-level representation following the remapping of Pennsylvania districts last year.
Next, let’s take a look at Kentucky. Julian Zelizer, writing for CNN, said that “Republicans will spend the next few days trying to explain why, if Bevin indeed lost, this was all about Bevin's failings rather than about Trump, and that explains why the strong support of President Donald Trump and other national Republicans couldn't secure a victory,” continuing that despite what they say, “the results in Kentucky and Virginia offer evidence that the president's record is putting their party in real jeopardy.”
At least in Kentucky, the numbers just do not support this conclusion. Take a look at the election results in the other Kentucky races this week. In the race for Attorney General, Daniel Cameron
(Republican) beat Gregory Stumbo (Democrat) 57.8% to 42.2%. Cameron earned 823,343 votes compared to Stumbo’s 602,218, which is a difference of around 220,000 votes. In the race for Agriculture Commissioner, the incumbent Ryan Quarles (Republican) beat Robert Conway (Democrat) 58.2% to 38.6%, and 3.2% went to Libertarian Josh Gilpin. Quarles took 821,369 votes compared to Conway’s 545,050. Adding Conway’s votes to Gilpin’s 44,595 votes, you get just under 600,000 votes, which means that Quarles won by a margin of around 220,000. That is almost identical to the result for the Attorney General race. This pattern repeats all the way down the ticket for the State House Special elections, Auditor, and Secretary of State. Meanwhile, the outlier is the Governor’s race, where the Democrats and Republicans split the vote almost evenly, 709,846 to 704,760, with the difference of about 5000 putting the Democrats over the top. Does this indicate that the Republicans are in “real jeopardy” in Kentucky as a result of Trump’s politics, as Zelizer claims? Probably not. Instead, a more accurate interpretation of the numbers suggests that incumbent Matt Bevin was just not very well-liked by about 100,000 Republican voters, and these voters decided to split their ticket, voting for every other Republican on the ballot but voting Democrat for Governor just to spite Bevin. Even if that interpretation is wrong, it is still a more reasonable conclusion to draw from the numbers than the conclusion that Democrats are witnessing a sea change in Kentucky.
The one place where the narrative holds up is in Virginia. As the Times noted, “In the Virginia suburbs of Norfolk, Richmond, and Washington, D.C., Democratic candidates flipped six legislative seats from Republican control on Tuesday — crucial gains that helped Democrats take control of both chambers of the legislature and put state government under one-party control for the first time in a generation. Many Democrats ran on gun control issues and other local concerns, but also excoriated Mr. Trump’s conduct in office.”
Given Virginia’s proximity to Washington D.C. and the shooting at Virginia Beach last year, it is hard to argue with the Times on this point.
Still, for many Democrats who were looking to these results for encouragement that Republican voters are finally waking up to the disaster that is the Trump presidency, the election results are mixed at best and a red herring at worst. A more accurate predictor of the Democrat’s chances of success in the Impeachment effort and the 2020 election comes from looking at polls of voter sentiment in swing states that were released this week. Unfortunately, the polls describe a deeply divided electorate. As the Times’ poll shows, “in the six closest states carried by the president in 2016, registered voters support the impeachment inquiry by a five-point margin, 50 percent to 45 percent. The same voters oppose impeaching Mr. Trump and removing him from office, 53 percent to 43 percent.” Meanwhile, according to Real Clear Politics, Democratic front runners fair well against Trump in Pennsylvania and Wisconson but only Biden polls decisively higher than Trump in Ohio and Florida.
From the polls, it is clear that despite what many on the left had hoped, Tuesday’s elections were not a clear verdict on Trump or the impeachment. Did the Democrats do well in Virginia? Yes. Did the Democrats pick up some seats in suburban Pennsylvania? Sure, but those seats were probably coming their way at least in part for administrative reasons anyway. Did the Democrats score in the Kentucky Gubernatorial race? Definitely, but that was probably due more to an unpopular incumbent than anything the Democrats are doing on the national level. Undoubtedly, some of these voters were influenced by national-level political dynamics, but it would be a bit too much to claim that they show a decisive endorsement of the Democratic impeachment push or the beginning of a wholesale rejection of Trump’s politics. These could be cracks in the facade but it is just too hard to draw a conclusion one way or the other based on the numbers. The incongruence of the national narrative on the left regarding the election results with the polling results this week is a signal for Democrats to remain cautious and keep working in swing states.