Virginia Goes Red

What happened and what we can learn

If the Democratic and Republican parties caught brain worms in 2016 when Donald Trump won the primary, then it has progressed to full-on brain melt. In Virginia, both major candidates ran less than stellar campaigns. On one hand, Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, ran a campaign that mostly turned on a bag of culture war issues. On the other hand, Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, ran on being anti-Trump. This isn’t to say that there wasn’t any policy. McAuliffe was interested in paid leave, but it was not the centerpiece of the campaign and was widely ignored.

Campaign recap

There were several culture war issues that drove Youngkin’s campaign, mostly about education. Loudoun County’s school system had a highly publicized sexual assault incident that involved a gender-fluid perpetrator in a woman’s bathroom at the high school. The conservative media latched onto this to be their long-awaited incident to prove that trans and non-binary people should be banned from women’s bathrooms. As more evidence comes out, the narrative turned out to be false. The truth, however, has never stopped the culture war before and did nothing to stop it from being a wedge issue.

The second culture war battle, also in Loudoun County’s schools, was a fight over the nebulously defined Critical Race Theory (CRT). CRT is both a conservative and liberal motte and bailey that goes back and forth between the hard to defend bailey and the easy to defend motte forever. Both are almost completely unconnected from the legal theory of the same name that is not even touched upon in 99.9% of K-12 schools in the United States.

What makes this so powerful is that you can always flip-flop between whichever one makes your audience the happiest with you. Liberals can move between “we should teach that slavery was bad” and “we should read Robin DiAngelo’s book in class” and conservatives can move between “we shouldn’t teach liberal indoctrination to teenagers” and “it should be called the war of northern aggression.” In all, these issues scared voters in the suburbs and energized voters in the rural areas.

Not to be outdone by Youngkin’s base scaring, McAuliffe decided to go all-in on yelling about Donald Trump. Enterprising readers would point out that Trump wasn’t on the ballot in 2021 and that Youngkin tried to keep Trump an arm’s length away at all times in the general election. Trump endorsed Youngkin, but he never visited the state for a rally. The peak of this strategy was sending out this completely brain-dead mailer to voters.

The mailer probably boosted Youngkin in rural areas and was ignored in more urban ones. In the end, pounding the table and yelling about Trump may have worked in California, but it did not work in Virginia. The swing suburban voters seem to have not been swayed by “Republican = Trump” like many would have liked.

Red dogs

As I predicted last month, the suburban voters who voted for Romey in 2012 and then voted against Trump in 2016 and 2020, called Red Dog Democrats by Tim Miller, showed to be casual members of the Democratic coalition. Yes, most groups swung towards Youngkin but white women with some college or less swung by 19 points compared to 2020. Parents with children under 18 and home moved right by 11 points.

The pattern of the suburban swing to Republicans can also be seen in the county-level data. Every county-equivalent in Northern Virginia (NoVA) swung to the right compared to 2020. The areas the swung the hardest were the ring of exurbs from Loudoun to King George County.

With swings this big, it is hard to think that people doing redistricting should assume that the 2020 results will hold for any generic Democrat. I would encourage any redistricting group to use 2012, 2016, and 2020 Presidential election data when trying to determine the lean of any district.

Detour through the Lincoln Project

In this election, the grifters supreme of the Lincoln Project moved from making cringey ads to putting on stunts that shoot Democrats in the foot. They seem to have paid 5 college students who have a history of working on democratic campaigns to dress as white supremacists and stand next to Youngkin’s bus in some sort of weird hoax.

The whole thing was tweeted out by a planted Twitter account who was immediately retweeted by several democratic strategists. As quickly as a Jacob Wohl stunt, this one began to unravel. Within hours right-leaning journalists found the Twitter or Instagram accounts of all 5 of the participants. That was followed up by a statement from the Lincoln Project claiming the stunt as their own.

Reporting from The Intercept reveals that this was never supposed to be a hoax, but the events seem weird to me. The woman who was giving these people their marching orders boosted a tweet about the stunt in a way that made it seem real. People who should have known better fell over themselves to make this whole situation even worse in bizarre ways.

The Lincoln Project is gross and they should have no space in the American political system. In my opinion, they don’t care about the outcome of any race and are only in it for the money. They will go away and stop if we just quit giving them money, retweets, and time. Until then, they are going to continue to be a corrosive force in the system.

Where do we go

People need to stop pointing fingers. There is no evidence that McAuliffe would have won if the Build Back Better bill was passed last month. There is also no evidence that vote-splitting from the left killed McAuliffe. The margin of victory for Youngkin was larger than all of the votes that went to Princess Blanding. People need to chill.

There is something to be said for vibes.1 Youngkin looks and acts like a dorky suburban dad who got into politics for this race. On the other hand, McAuliffe comes across as an old guy who has been a party functionary his whole life. Youngkin wins hands down here. In future races, both Republicans and Democrats need to avoid the trap of nominating someone who just comes across as a downer because they have all of the connections. Voters didn’t buy it with Hillary Clinton and they didn’t buy it here.

While McAuliffe started strong on policy, his campaign chose to make a hard turn to Trump as the One Ring of wedge issues. Democrats need to stop doing this. Swing voters might dislike Trump but they also dislike hearing about him. It is much better to stick to core pocketbook issues: the cost of housing, the cost of childcare, the cost of healthcare, etc. Voters trusted Youngkin on the economy and taxes, the top two issues according to the exit poll.

For better or for worse, voters feel that the K-12 education that they pay exorbitant property taxes for is not on the right track. There is definitely an element of unfounded culture war here, but that should not be used as a blanket dismissal. Virginia backtracked on a proposal that some thought would eliminate higher-level math classes after a public outcry. Some school districts elsewhere around the country are eliminated gifted and talented programs. Last year’s school shutdown to the pandemic followed by a broad mask mandate also caused some pushback. It is extremely tone-deaf to respond to these concerns with “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach”. I am not saying that Democrats should roll over, but it would be nice if they stopped handing Republicans easy wins through unforced errors and find ways to increase the trust of parents in the US’s school systems.

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Special thanks to Jane Patzke who pointed this out on Slack the other day