Thursday, November 07, 2019

How to Interpret an Election--And How Not To

Sometimes it seems as if the interpretation of election results has about the same objectivity as an astrological forecast. In the case of the recent state elections in Kentucky, Virginia, and Mississippi, the analyses we have are mostly the customary partisan interpretations--either that they showed that Trump was weak because of the loss of Matt Bevin in Kentucky, or that Republicans did not do well in Virginia because Trump never showed up there.

Everybody has the interpretation that makes their side look the best, although it was interesting that analysis of the New York Times "The Daily" podcast was more flattering to Trump than the one offered on Ben Shapiro's show--partly because Shapiro knew less about what was going on in the ground in Kentucky than The Daily's reporter, who actually bothered to spend some time in the state in the weeks leading up to the election.

In Kentucky, I think there are objective reasons to believe that Bevin's loss had little to do with Trump other than Trump was able to stave off a much more crushing defeat. Bevin was, after all, the least popular incumbent governor in the country. The fact that he only lost by 5,000 votes is, in light of that fact, something of a miracle.

The key observation is, of course, the fact that the down ballot Republican candidates dominated their Democratic opponents, several winning by close to 2-to-1 margins. This clearly indicates that something was happening to Bevin that was not happening to the others. Bevin was personally unpopular, particularly with teachers who, despite the fact that he led the effort to fully fund the pension system and put it on solid footing again--something that previous administrations had failed to do--blindly followed their largely Democratic-leaning liberal union leadership. But Bevin made it worse for himself by using rhetoric that teachers took personally.

Partly because of his personal unpopularity, Bevin had to run on national issues in a non-national election. The result was predictable.

In other words there are factors in the governor's race that make it a bad weather vane for either the political fortunes of Republicans in Kentucky or the fortunes of Republicans in other red states next year. A far better indicator would be the down ballot races, where Republicans swept the Democrats by large margins. 

Now there are two things that make the sweeping nature of these races significant. The first is that there is good reason to believe this was partly due to Trump visiting the state the night before the election. It is hard to believe that he did not have any effect at all. 

But perhaps more significantly, this happened in an off-year election. I don't know the history of why Kentucky's election is on a different cycle than the national election, but one thing is sure: it doesn't help Republicans in a red state like Kentucky, that benefits from a strong conservative candidate heading a national ticket. Trump's visit was meant to re-create the effect a simultaneous national race would otherwise have had. Whatever assistance Trump's appearance may have had the day before the election, it would not be able to fully duplicate the effect of a presidential election on the same day.

In other words, imagine what things would have been like had this election been fully nationalized. The fact that Republicans were able to do as well as they did in an off-year election in a red state bodes well for Republicans in legislative races in 2020 and is an indication of how well Trump will do in Kentucky in 2020.

I can't think of a good reason that won't be the case in other red states. And if you have Elizabeth Warren threatening to take away the cushy union health insurance of blue collar workers in places like Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania, Trump might stand a good chance of winning again.


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