Elections give us answers — but also more questions. Here are some that arise out of this year’s election:
1. How would Donald Trump have fared if he’d had a better response to the pandemic? It seems quite possible he might have won, given how close so many states were. In other western countries that have had elections since the pandemic began, incumbents have all been re-elected — with increased margins. The best-known example is New Zealand, where the liberal Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern imposed tough restrictions to fight the virus. This should not necessarily be read in left-right terms, though. In Canada, voters have rallied behind incumbents, regardless of party. That country has had three provincial elections this year and incumbents were re-lected, with bigger majorities, in all three — conservatives in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan, liberals in British Columbia. The message seems to be that voters will reward politicians, of any ideology, who are seen as being successful against the virus.
It’s worth noting, yet again, that the virus rates in the United States rank among the highest in the world — and far higher than in any other developed nation. New Zealand is running a rate of 338 cases per 1 million people, Canada 6,890. Both rank among the lowest rates in the world — and the three provinces that held elections have rates that are lower than that, another reason for voters to think well of the incumbents. The United States? 29,497. That puts us higher than all but four other countries in the world, Armenia, Israel, Kuwait and Panama.
Whatever the motivations, the election showed there was no “blue wave” for Democrats. Democrats retained the House but lost seats. They failed to win a majority in the Senate. They still could, depending on the outcome of two run-offs in Georgia, but this election certainly did not see a widespread repudiation of Republicans at every level such as we saw in the Watergate year elections of 1974. Instead this was a personal defeat for Trump, and a personal victory for Joe Biden, who will now likely have to contend with Republican Senate intent on frustrating much of what he wants to do.
2. How will the presidential election effect next year’s state election in Virginia? Historically, Virginia’s elections have often moved in the opposite direction of the national results. Republican wins in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections were followed by Democrats being elected governor in 2001 and 2005. After a Democratic win in the 2008 presidential election, Republicans won the governorship in 2009. That cycle was broken in the 2013 governor’s race, won by Democrats. However, Trump’s victory in 2016 restored the political version of Newton’s Third Law of Motion to Virginia politics. In 2017, Democrats, energized by Trump’s election, not only won the governorship — by their widest margin in 32 years — they also made unexpected gains in the House of Delegates. Democrats followed up by flipping three seats in the 2018 congressional elections and winning control of the entire General Assembly in the 2019 state mid-terms.
Now we enter another election year, and this is the question that looms over it: Has Virginia changed so much demographically, and have the parties realigned so much, that it’s now impossible for Republicans to win a statewide election in the state? Or, with Trump out of the White House, will the political temperature lower so much — and turnout with it — that Republicans can again be competitive? We won’t know the answer to that until November 2021 but this year’s election gave Republicans plenty to worry about. They saw Democratic margins swell in some of the biggest and fast-growing parts of the state. As recently as 2004, Loudoun County and Prince William County were voting Republican — by substantial margins, too. Now they’re voting Democratic by increasingly wider margins. George W. Bush took Loudoun County by 13,111 votes in 2004. Barack Obama won the county by 11,509 in 2008. Hillary Clinton expanded that margin to 30,846 four years ago. This year, Biden expanded it further to a 55,990 votes.
Republicans increased their margins in rural Virginia but trading Loudoun County for Lee County is not an even trade. Republicans need a candidate who can reclaim a big chunk of those suburban voters. Do Virginia Republicans have it in them to make that kind of course correction? This is, after all, a party that nominated Corey Stewart for the U.S. Senate in 2018 and, if the choice were made right now, might well nominate Amanda Chase for governor. (Yes, the same Amanda Chase who appeared with the two men who now face weapons charge after showing up outside a vote counting center in Philadelphia.). Republicans are delusional if they think Chase is their ticket back to the governorship. It’s even unclear whether a more conventional candidate — such as former House Speaker Kirk Cox — can win back what has been lost, but he’d certainly be an easier sell. The prospect of a Chase nomination actually gives Democrats more license to move further left; a Cox nomination might — might — induce a little more caution. That raises another question: Hubris has brought down many. Will Virginia Democrats now think they are bullet-proof?
3. Will Virginia voters continue to embrace early voting once the pandemic has passed? This was the first year that Virginia had “no excuses” early voting — and that voting began before almost every other state in the nation. Virginians enthusiastically exercised that option (Democrats more enthusiastically than Republicans). Statewide, 64% of the ballots were cast absentee — either by showing up early as the registrar’s office or by a traditional absentee ballot sent through the mail. In some places, the figure was higher. In Roanoke, 65% of the ballots were cast some way other than on election day. In Arlington, the figure was nearly 82.5%. Americans love convenience and being able to vote early is certainly convenient. Now here’s a little-noticed consequence: Because those votes are tabulated in a “central absentee precinct,” we’ll never be able to tell which parts of town voted which way. Future candidates for city council will never be able to analyze election returns and conclude they need to concentrate on this precinct or that precinct. Instead, they’ll have to guess — or campaign everywhere. How might that change things?
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