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A simple, boring lesson from Democrats’ landslide in Virginia and beyond

There’s no microtargeting magic — when you win you do better everywhere.

Virginia Gubernatorial Candidate Ralph Northam Holds Election Night Gathering In Fairfax, Virginia Win McNamee/Getty Images

A funny thing happened on the way to Ralph Northam getting elected governor of Virginia: He improved on Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in an already-blue state despite running a campaign that struck most observers as somewhere between lame and disastrous. And even more striking is how he put his coalition together — he just did better than she did.

He did better in the suburbs of Washington, DC, but also better in the small cities of Richmond and Norfolk and in their suburbs. But he also did better in the small swath of Appalachia that cuts through Virginia. And he did better in the small, rural part of the state that constitutes the Southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula. The New York Times’s excellent map of the vote switch shows that Northam didn’t literally do better in every single precinct, but he did do better in the clear majority of them and in most regions of the state.

The lesson here is that most of the broad public handwringing about Democratic Party geographic and demographic targeting is misguided. Actual candidate and campaign professionals do need to make some fine-grained decisions about how to allocate resources. But much of the conversation about “winning back” working-class white voters versus pursuing new “Panera Democrats” in upscale suburbs is misguided.

Trying to win in the Sunbelt versus trying to win in the Rust Belt is a false dichotomy. So is trying to mobilize people of color versus trying to make inroads in rural white areas. Nobody is equally popular everywhere and nobody ever will be. But winning campaigns tend to just do better in all kinds of places and with all kinds of voters than losing ones.

Northam did better with almost every group

A few key exit polls tell the tale.

By age, for example, Northam crushed Ed Gillespie with younger voters while dramatically improving on Clinton’s already large margins — scoring 69 percent of the under 30 vote instead of 54 percent.

But he also did slightly better with the two oldest cohorts of voters. There was a distinct age skew to his appeal, in other words, but there was no sharp tradeoff where to win younger voters he had to alienate older ones.

Race and education tell a similar story. Northam’s ultimate coalition reflects what’s basically a “Panera” strategy — pairing a slight edge with white college graduates and overwhelming majorities among nonwhites to overcome a large disadvantage among white working-class voters. That’s appropriate to the general course of national politics and to the particular demographics of Virginia.

But note that there was no particular path Northam took to his landslide. He did a lot better with white college graduates than Clinton did, but also somewhat better with non-white college graduates and with white non-graduates. He didn’t improve on Clinton’s already impressive majorities with working class minorities, but he didn’t lose ground here — and he drove solid turnout — even while increasing his appeal to both upscale and downscale whites.

Keep scrolling through exit poll results and you keep seeing the same thing.

  • Northam did better with low-income voters but also better with high-income ones.
  • He did better with Evangelicals but also better with non-Evangelicals.
  • He did better with working-class white men who swung hard to Trump in 2016, but also with college educated white women who swung hard to Clinton.
  • He did better with married men and he did better with single women.

He just did better, which led to an overall larger margin of victory and paired with winning a lot more seats in the House of Delegates and flipping a bunch of County Council seats.

We see this pattern repeatedly

This was also a major lesson of the once-hyped, now-forgotten special election to replace Ryan Zinke as the House member from Montana. Democrats nominated an eccentric local guy, Rob Quist, who caught the attention of Bernie Sanders and the grassroots left of the Democratic Party as an alternative to the enthusiasm the party establishment had for Jon Ossoff’s campaign in the suburbs of Georgia.

Quist ended up doing a lot better than Hillary Clinton while still falling considerably short of winning.

Montana also conveniently has an incumbent Democratic governor who won in 2016 and who offers a counterpoint to both Quist and Clinton. And the striking thing about Montana is that if you look at the three statewide races, Quist the banjo-playing leftist did better than Clinton just about everywhere. He did better in the rural deep-red part of the state. But he also did better in the areas with a large Native American population, in the college towns, and in what passes for cities by Montana standard. But the governor, Steve Bullock, a moderate-ish Democrat with a few populist views, a bolo tie, and a lot of personal charm and charisma, did even better than Quist in all of those places.

In other words, better, stronger candidates do better by doing better everywhere. Despite their various quirks and eccentrics there was no magic formula to win over this kind of voter or that one. And there’s also surprisingly little in the way of hard tradeoffs. Successfully chasing voters Clinton didn’t alienate ones she won.

Waves crash everywhere

Election Day 2017 is an oddball off-year where not that much was on the ballot, so there were limits to how much the GOP could lose. But it’s striking that they didn’t just lose in Virginia — a blueish state that’s not very Trumpy in its politics.

Democrats also picked up a very Trumpy state legislative seat in Michigan.

They won two special elections for the Georgia House of Representatives in seats Trump had won that Romney nominated in. They scored some big wins in the suburbs of New York City, too, picking up county leadership positions in Westchester and Nassau County. They won a mayor’s race and a state legislature race in New Hampshire and flipped a state senate seat outside of Seattle.

There’s no magic to any of this. Being out of power has boosted Democratic enthusiasm, making it easier to recruit more and better candidates and easier to turn voters out for lower profile elections. At the same time, Trump is broadly unpopular nationwide which flips some voters into the D column while anti-inspiring others to stay home. In an atmosphere like that, a lot of different kinds of candidates using a lot of different kinds of strategies can win in a lot of different kinds of places. But there’s no particular magic formula to it. When you do better, you just do better.