No Democratic candidate was second-guessed in recent weeks more than their now-victorious nominee in the Virginia governor’s race, Ralph Northam.
Northam’s campaign was called uninspiring. He was deemed to have no charisma. Liberals excoriated him for hedging in response to Ed Gillespie’s anti-immigrant attacks. Even though he consistently led in polling averages for the race all year, pundits assumed that, like Hillary Clinton, he was about to blow it.
You can see a demonstration of that pundit consensus in Monday’s Morning Joe panel, in which co-host Joe Scarborough asks his panel of guests around the table whether they think Northam will win:
The responses are:
- “I don’t think so, I think it’s Gillespie.”
- “It doesn’t look like Northam wins.”
- “Tossup. MS-13, Democrats are gonna look back [and ask] … if he does not win, and the election’s tomorrow obviously, but did we lose on the crime issue? Did we lose on the public safety issue?”
“Oh, my God!” co-host Mika Brzezinski responds. “The party’s weak.”
Of course, anyone who tries to predict the outcome of elections will eventually make some big mistakes, as pretty much any political commentator who covered the 2016 elections (myself included) can attest. The safest approach is just to stick with following polling averages, but even there there will tend to be some surprises.
What’s interesting in the Morning Joe panel, though, is that there was a groupthink conventional wisdom that went against the polling averages — which, again, consistently showed Northam ahead, albeit by a smaller margin than he ended up winning by.
Perhaps overcorrecting for the general failure to predict Trump’s win in 2016, there was an assumption that something similar to what happened that year would repeat itself in Virginia — namely, that the Republican’s use of hot-button culture war issues like immigration would carry him to victory. And this assumption went beyond just these panel participants — for weeks, media coverage of Northam's campaign has tended to portray it as beleaguered and troubled, and Gillespie as on the rise.
The last 3 weeks of the VA governor's race has been all bad for Dems. https://t.co/7VpSw1nbW7— Chris Cillizza (@CillizzaCNN) November 7, 2017
That didn’t happen. Instead, Northam outperformed his polls, winning by more than 8 points. And down-ballot, Democrats defied expectations too, coming within striking distance of retaking Virginia’s House of Delegates. (Control of the chamber will be determined in a few races that haven’t been called.) It’s not 2016 anymore.