I’ve spent the better part of the past 12 years thinking about how we interpret election results, and from that perspective, Tuesday was a big night. As I mentioned at the time, interpreting elections seems to have become an American obsession. Our fixed-term elections mean that off-year contests serve as a referendum on national issues, and narratives allow the losers in a winner-take-all system to tell their side.
But there’s a danger for Trump opponents in overinterpreting Tuesday’s result. Elections also have concrete implications that deserve attention. And any analysis of off-year contests should involve careful thinking about the relationship between national and state/local politics.
Thinking back to the presidential election, we’ve obviously spent a lot of time parsing that unexpected outcome. There is, of course, no single reason why Trump won the presidency. But I think it’s useful to treat the reasons the election was competitive as structural, while the proximate causes of actual outcome were rooted in far more situational factors. These include the timing of the letter from then-FBI Director James Comey, and whatever forces in the universe tipped about 20,000 voters in a few key states. Structural factors include the pain of voters in the Rust Belt, where we’re told that economic anxiety and poor health outcomes and general resentment drove a new political movement. They also include the fundamentals that make it difficult for a party to win three White House terms in a row.
It would be a big mistake for hopeful Democrats to assume that Ralph Northam’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial contest is the opposite. Attributing even a more robust margin like Northam’s to a deep and enduring shift in the values of the electorate is where serious mandate errors come from. In other words, voters are rarely eager to hand the president’s party more power at this point, and Trump’s unpopular agenda means they’re even less likely to do that at this point. But Tuesday’s numbers don’t mean we’re suddenly living in a different country than we were a year ago.
The bad news for everyone is that a national governing majority is still very elusive. Last year, Republicans won control of the federal government, but finding a popular governing agenda and enacting it is another matter. The pendulum swings of American electoral politics contribute to this problem; midterm elections have typically been bad for the president’s party.
More recently, though, they are not just a correction or a bit of pushback. Congressional party control changes more frequently than it once did, and so the stakes are higher, giving politicians an incentive to avoid cooperation. Congressional elections have become more nationalized affairs. It’s great to get to weigh in on what the president is doing and remind the person in the White House that there’s an opposition. It’s less than ideal, to say the least, to be entangled in an ongoing contest for the soul of the nation, in which each side views the other as an existential threat.
The absence of a national governing majority — or the institutional tools to create one — is the main lesson of 2016. You can win elections, but that doesn’t translate into a platform to move forward at the national level. While we saw majorities gather against Trump at the state and local level, we should remember that the national picture is still very murky.
For Democrats, the real victory of Tuesday’s elections was that the party can now boast a diverse slate of state and local officeholders in several areas of the country. That’s how you build a party. Ideally, American democracy would have two organizationally robust parties that reflect the diversity of the nation. We’re a long way off from that, but it’s in these concrete developments, not sweeping election interpretations, that we might find hope for American democracy.