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Let there be hope for the difficult political times we’re going through. It had seemed that all the rules of the game were turned on their head. The 2017 election, however, showed that politics isn’t (yet) a lost cause.
This month’s elections showed that Trump is not immune to his historically unpopular presidency and the effects it has on his party. In a number of states, Democrats made large gains in local and statewide races. This was especially the case in Virginia, where they have nearly flipped one house of the state legislature—unthinkable leading up to the election.
The results were in line with polling expectations
Given last year’s losses, however, Democratic supporters were nervous about the possibility of further surprises. Instead, they made gains in friendly states like Virginia and inroads in more difficult places like Georgia, Montana, and South Carolina. Far from retreating further, the party appeared to solidify its position ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
In Virginia’s governor race, the Republican candidate attempted to use Trump-style media tactics while maintaining a more reasonable profile in campaign rallies. That strategy backfired. If the new rules of the game were supposed to be Trump-style sensationalism at all costs, it appears at least the voters in Virginia didn’t fall for it. For all his flaws, the Democratic candidate managed to win by roughly 9 percentage points.
The formula wasn’t a perfect elixir
Politics, like most social sciences, is about sussing out trends over time as opposed to one-off revolutions of facts. What we know in American politics is that the president’s party is usually at a disadvantage in midterm and special elections. We also know that how low a president’s approval rating sinks tends to correlate with how well the opposition is poised to do in the next round of elections. As a sort of official testing ground, these elections proved that even in the era of Trump, that holds true.
That a bombastic campaign of populist cliches and scaremongering didn’t manage to succeed on Virginia voters should call into question what exactly made the formula work for Trump. The Republican Party is facing stiff challenges in upcoming elections. Whether it should embrace Trumpism and go full steam ahead on that particular brand of toxic populism, or change course to account for more popular public policy, is now more open a question than ever.