Sabato's Crystal Ball

Working-Class Republicanism

A new book reassesses Reagan & prompts Trump comparisons

Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 22nd, 2017


Editor’s Note: The Crystal Ball is taking a break for the July 4 holiday next week. So we will not publish on Thursday, June 29. We’ll be back on Thursday, July 6. Have a safe and pleasant holiday.

— The Editors

A new book tells the story of a president who made his name as an entertainer and a Democrat before moving to the Republican Party and then launching a bid for the presidency. This candidate won his party’s presidential nomination despite objections from some party stalwarts that he was unelectable in the fall. He then captured the presidency in part because he was able to perform better than Republicans typically do in some traditionally white, working-class areas in key states.

This description applies to the current president, Donald Trump, but the book itself is actually about Ronald Reagan. The Working Class Republican, an intriguing new book by Henry Olsen, argues that Reagan was less conservative than is commonly acknowledged, and a close examination of his campaign message and time in office provides a model for Republicans going forward. In fact, Olsen argues, Trump mimicked Reagan in some ways. But now Trump is in danger of squandering his Reaganesque coalition, Olsen says, because unlike Reagan, Trump may be governing too far to the right.

Olsen, a senior fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, argues that even as Reagan moved from left to right throughout his time in public life, he did not deviate all that much from his ideology as a young New Dealer in the 1930s and 1940s, when he vigorously supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a man Reagan idolized his whole life. Reagan’s criticisms of government had more to do with opposing what he saw as the leftward drift of Democrats on both opposition to communism and support for bigger government, as exemplified by Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. Despite making one of his most famous political speeches on the eve of the 1964 election backing Barry Goldwater, Reagan did not go as far as Goldwater in his own ideology. Instead, Reagan accepted the New Deal and allowed a role for government programs such as Social Security and, eventually, Medicare (part of Johnson’s Great Society, which Reagan rebuked) even while criticizing a government that he saw as too big and too unresponsive to the people. In Olsen’s telling, Reagan occupied a position on the center-right, with contemporaries such as Goldwater and supply-side economy acolytes like David Stockman (Reagan’s one-time budget director) to his right and the Democratic Party to his left. “In short, Reagan was against returning to the America before the New Deal. He was for interpreting Roosevelt’s legacy in a way that maximized freedom and minimized bureaucratic control and the direction of Americans’ lives,” Olsen writes.

Olsen applies to American politics what he calls the “truckers and cashiers” test. Truck driving is the biggest employer of white, working-class men, and being a cashier or waitress is the most common blue-collar job for white, working-class women. For Reagan, “virtually every speech had this person in mind, and virtually every speech had something that person could uniquely relate to.”

Reagan, a man whose public warmth shrouded a lifelong inability (or uninterest) in developing deep relationships with others — save perhaps his wife, Nancy — remains a difficult person for historians to fully nail down, and others have come to different conclusions about him. For instance, Slate Group editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg concludes in his recent book on Reagan as part of the American Presidents series that “Reagan had two enormous and related blind spots. One was about the possibility of government serving as a positive force in people’s lives. The other was about private enterprise serving as a negative one.”

But our point here is not to litigate Reagan’s legacy; rather, it’s about how both Reagan and Trump peeled away some traditionally Democratic voters in winning victory.

To understand that, it’s important to drill down on an important swing group in American politics — a group that Reagan, and then Trump, cultivated.

A common and defensible way to measure political ideology is to think of it as a single scale on a straight line, with “liberal” on the left and “conservative” on the right. But reality is a little more complicated than this. Even though the two parties are increasingly ideologically cohesive, with Democrats generally representing the liberal, left-wing position on most issues and Republicans generally holding conservative, right-wing positions, that does not necessarily mean that voters themselves always fall neatly into these consistent ideological boxes.

Perhaps a more complete way to measure the actual ideology of voters, to the extent that voters do hold ideologies as opposed to just taking on the identity/beliefs of their preferred party, is to try to place them within a more complex but still easy-to-understand framework. This is what Lee Drutman does in a recent report for the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group (Olsen is also involved in this project). Drutman, a senior fellow at New America, uses data from the Views of the Electorate Research (VOTER) Survey to plot its respondents based on their responses to questions measuring their economic and social attitudes. Drutman sums up these dimensions by noting that the poll is basically measuring respondents’ answers to two overarching questions: “how much should government redistribute wealth, and what does it mean to be an American?”

The results appear in Figure 1, which is reprinted from Drutman’s recent piece:

Figure 1: The 2016 electorate’s views on economic and social/identity issues

Source: Democracy Fund Voter Study Group

The lower left corner represents liberals — people who are left of center on both economic and social issues — while the upper right corner represents conservatives — people who are right of center on both economic and social issues. But then there are two other groups. The sparsely-populated lower right-hand corner is for libertarians, who are economically conservative, socially liberal. Notice how few dots land in that quadrant, which puts a cap on the Libertarian Party’s potential base of support. The much more densely-packed upper left corner is for voters who are economically liberal and socially conservative.

These “populist” voters, Drutman finds, were already likelier to be Republicans than Democrats: Mitt Romney won these voters in 2012. But they shifted even further toward Republicans in 2016, backing Trump over Hillary Clinton by a three-to-one margin. Clinton only held onto six of 10 populists who voted for Barack Obama in 2012.

In a different era, these kinds of voters were known by the term “Reagan Democrats.” Reagan’s victories in 1980 were fueled by victories in white, working-class areas like Macomb County, Michigan, the place Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg associated with the Reagan Democrats in the 1980s. Trump did well in many white, working-class areas across the Midwest, allowing him to narrowly carry a few key states that hadn’t gone Republican since they supported Reagan’s heir, George H.W. Bush, in 1988 or, in the case of Wisconsin, hadn’t voted Republican since Reagan’s 1984 reelection.

Note that while there’s a similar distribution of voters both above and below the horizontal line representing views on social/identity issues, the center of gravity on the economic questions is to the left. This is yet another confirmation of an oft-made observation about the American electorate: While voters are “symbolically conservative” (and thus there are more self-identified conservatives in the electorate than self-identified liberals) they are “operationally liberal,” meaning that the public’s actual positions on individual issues, particularly as they pertain to the size of government and government intervention in the economy, tend to skew to the left.

The ideological challenge for both parties, then, is for a culturally liberal Democratic Party to secure enough of these voters to win nationally by appealing to their economic sentiments, while the economically conservative Republican Party needs to sway them by appealing to their cultural conservatism. It can be easier to do this with a GOP candidate who is perceived as being not as far to the right on preserving popular government services. Reagan sloughed off so many attacks on him by Democrats that he was a heartless government cutter that some nicknamed him “the Teflon president.” Trump had a little Teflon on him, too, given his ability to win the presidency despite monumental personal baggage, but he also did himself a favor, in Olsen’s reckoning, by defending Social Security and Medicare on the campaign trail and campaigning on an anti-trade message that in some ways made him sound like a Democrat. Not being maximally conservative on economic issues gave both Reagan and Trump the opening to make their pitch to voters, and both emphasized a nationalistic cultural conservatism that played to populist voters. Reagan expressed this through a dual opposition to the post-FDR Democratic Party and the communist Soviet Union, Trump through attacks on elites and immigrants.

Once in office, Reagan’s domestic-issue record was ideologically mixed. He presided over big reductions in the top tax bracket, but also signed several tax increases and expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, which helps lower-income voters. He did not conduct a full-on assault on social safety net programs. Today, Reagan is remembered as one of the great presidents of the last century: A recent University of Virginia Center for Politics poll conducted by Reuters/Ipsos found that respondents generally rated Reagan (and John F. Kennedy) as the top presidents of the post-World War II era.

Trump, too, is facing cross-pressure from his specific voter base, which is reliant on economically liberal, socially conservative “populists,” and Republican Party stalwarts, who are more uniformly economically conservative (in fact, it seems clear that the GOP is more ideologically to the right now than it was during the Reagan years — for more on that, see the book Asymmetric Politics by Matt Grossmann and David Hopkins). While Trump can get by on being more conservative than his campaign persona on many issues, health care looms large as a key issue for him and Republicans in general. The American Health Care Act, the bill passed by the House that is now being considered by the Senate, is very unpopular: Its popularity is likely underwater in every state, and deeply so in most, according to a New York Times Upshot analysis.

Writing in American Greatness, a new journal that defends Trumpish conservatism, Olsen argues that the GOP is falling into an old, familiar trap in how it is approaching health care, echoing sentiments he expressed in The Working Class Republican. Olsen notes how more Americans have identified as Democrats than Republicans ever since the New Deal. “It’s not hard to figure out why Democrats have out-polled Republicans for that length of time,” Olsen wrote. “For years the polls have also shown that the GOP is viewed as the ‘party of the rich’ and the Democrats as the party that will give the working person a hand up.” He adds: “Democrats often like to charge that Republicans cut programs that benefit the average person to finance tax cuts for the rich: the AHCA lets them do that with impunity.” The bill, in other words, fails Olsen’s “truckers and cashiers” test.

Olsen ended with a plea to Trump: “make sure that the Obamacare replacement bill that finally passes values a person’s life more than it values a billionaire’s dollar.”

Trump has largely outsourced the creation of the AHCA to the House and Senate, leaving House Speaker Paul Ryan (R, WI-1) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to craft the bill. Say what you will about the House and Senate leaders, but they are more ideologically conservative on economic matters than candidate Trump was — and probably Reagan, too.

In his conclusion to the book, Olsen speculates about how Reagan might have dealt with the Affordable Care Act. He argues that Reagan would have wanted to repeal it because of its rules and regulations, but he also would have wanted to preserve the ACA’s expansion of health insurance coverage. “I can’t imagine Reagan would be more concerned about money than about life,” Olsen writes.

Trump seemed to be channeling Olsen’s Reagan last week when he reportedly told Senate Republicans that the House version of the AHCA was “mean,” even though Trump publicly celebrated when the bill passed the House. Trump said he wants the bill to be “generous, kind (and) with heart.” Whether the bill that eventually emerges and/or passes is that, or whether Republicans can persuade the public that it is, remains to be seen. If Trump and the GOP cannot, though, they may find that Reagan’s “Teflon” does not cover them.

2006 Shows Why Democratic Loss in Ga-6 Stings

Robert Wheel, Guest Columnist June 22nd, 2017


Editor’s Note: As we telegraphed last week, we are moving GA-6 from Toss-up to Leans Republican and installing Rep.-elect Karen Handel (R) as a favorite for the 2018 midterm after her victory over former congressional aide Jon Ossoff (D). Additionally, we are moving SC-5 to Safe Republican after Rep.-elect Ralph Norman (R) won, though his three-point margin of victory was not nearly as strong as Donald Trump’s 18-point win there last November. Reacting to the GA-6 results this week is guest columnist Robert Wheel, who argues that the Democrats missed out on a golden opportunity by failing to capture GA-6.

— The Editors


Demoralized and out of power but able to run against an unpopular president who is proving to be a poor manager, Democrats might be forgiven if there’s a tinge of déjà vu about the 2018 midterm elections. They faced a similar landscape back in 2006 — even down to the playing field tilted against them.

In 2006, Democrats needed to net 16 seats for a majority, but there were only 18 Republican-held seats that John Kerry won in the 2004 presidential election. In 2018, Democrats will need 24 seats to win a majority, but there are only 23 Republican-held seats that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential election.

In 2006, Democrats won 10 of the 18 Republican-held Kerry seats, about two-thirds of their way to the majority. Notably, the eight seats that Republicans retained were all manned by incumbents. Of those eight, three were won by Democrats the next time they opened up (DE-AL in 2010, NM-1 in 2008, and NY-25 in 2008), one Republican incumbent lost in 2008 (CT-4), and the remaining four were held by the GOP through when the districts changed in the next round of redistricting. Of those, two (WA-8 and PA-15) are still occupied by the same incumbent who survived the 2006 wave.

Overall, GOP-held open seats provided eight Democratic pickups in 2006, half of the total that Democrats needed for a one-seat majority (additionally, they won independent Bernie Sanders’ open seat — he won his U.S. Senate seat that year — and Democrats won 31 net House seats in total). A major reason why Democrats had a successful 2006 cycle was their overperformance in districts relative to Kerry’s vote share in 2004. If we look at all 21 open-seat contests that took place in Republican-held House districts in the 2006 cycle, a pattern emerges:

Table 1: 2006 Democratic House performance versus 2004 Democratic presidential margin in Republican-held open seats

Note: *TX-22 featured a write-in candidate for the Republican Party following the exit of former Rep. Tom DeLay (R) from the race. ^Tim Walberg (R) defeated incumbent Rep. Joe Schwarz (R) in the MI-7 GOP primary, so MI-7 is included as an open seat.

Democratic nominees ran a median of 11 points better than John Kerry in these 21 races, winning eight of them (FL-13 was a narrow Republican victory — fewer than 400 votes). Only in CA-22, won by now-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R), did the Democratic House nominee not run ahead of Kerry.

In other words, in their quest for a majority in 2018, Democrats may be able to afford to lose a few of the 23 districts that voted for Hillary Clinton. Some GOP incumbents like Reps. Dave Reichert (R, WA-8), Mike Coffman (R, CO-6), and Jeff Denham (R, CA-10), among others, are proven political survivors, just like Rep. Charlie Dent (R, PA-15) was in 2006 when he won by 10 points in a seat that Kerry narrowly carried. But Democrats don’t have that excuse for an open seat, even if it’s one that leans Republican.

Which brings us to GA-6, and the Democratic disappointment it represents. This is a seat that Trump won by a point and a half but Romney won by 23 points. The electoral shifts between 2000 and 2004 were smaller than those of 2012 to 2016, so 2006 results are not all that instructive for a seat that changed to the degree GA-6 did. FiveThirtyEight’s weighted district average — three-fourths of the 2016 presidential result and one-fourth of the 2012 result — would posit that the baseline performance of a Republican presidential candidate is 9.5 points better than the 2016 national popular vote in this district, so about a seven point advantage for the Republican House candidate. Handel won by a little less than four points, so by that measure Ossoff did run ahead of the district’s presidential lean. Nonetheless, if Ossoff had run 11 points better (the aforementioned 2006 median) than the 2012-2016 weighted average, he would have won. That suggests that GA-6 is still the type of district that Democrats should flip even when using the weighted average.

Looking at the 2006 open seats, the only one held by Republicans despite a Bush margin of seven points or fewer was IL-6. Then, Rep. Pete Roskam (R) was an established local politician and his opponent, now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), was an outsider (literally living a few miles outside the district) with an attractive backstory. So there were some parallels between Handel and Democratic nominee Jon Ossoff, who also did not live in his district.

Roskam is still in Congress, representing a district (IL-6) that was won by the Democratic presidential nominee in two of the last three elections. Further, while the FiveThirtyEight weighted average takes past Republican performance into account, it’s unlikely that Bush was as unpopular in IL-6 in 2006 as Trump is in GA-6 today (nationally Trump’s approval rating right now is comparable to Bush’s in November 2006, but GA-6 is less Republican now than IL-6 was then).

And there’s a good reason to discount the weighted average versus the actual 2016 numbers: Ossoff’s performance in the primary and the runoff, where he received 48% of the vote in both. If 2016 were some type of psychic break from reality (many people on both sides of the aisle wish it were), then the district would have returned to its 2012 voting pattern, when Democrats would not have taken 48% in an open-seat race. But Democratic strength in the district currently seems to reflect the 2016 presidential race, making the weighted average less instructive for the special election.

The long and short of it is that an open-seat contest in GA-6 is exactly the sort of race the Democrats need to win in order to take back the House in 2018. So Handel’s victory should offer at least a little comfort to the GOP, though we are a long way from the midterm election. If Ossoff, an extremely well-funded and capable candidate, can’t improve on Democratic presidential performance in this district, then it shows that the Republican base can still put its candidates over the top in close races. Democrats have moral victories to point to, such as the closer-than-expected races in special elections in very red districts in Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina, but few actual wins of any sort — and none in House specials — to point to during the first five months of the Trump administration. As former coach/political expert Bill Parcells said, you are what your record says you are.

The only way Democrats can spin a result like this as positive is by claiming that in traditionally Republican districts like this one Trump’s 2016 performance is also a GOP floor where the voters that flipped toward Clinton in 2016 will stay with the party, whereas Obama voters who voted for Trump are switching back to voting Democratic. One can argue that this dynamic can be seen in races like MT-AL, where the Democrat put up numbers similar to Obama in 2008. Perhaps there’s something to this in districts that didn’t swing toward the Democrats in 2016. Trump is obviously unpopular and GOP candidates are doing worse than they did prior to his election. And while it could mean reclaiming districts like ME-2, NY-21, IA-1, and IL-12 (blue-collar, rural, Republican-held seats that supported Obama twice and then Trump) is more likely, expanding the map to other seats that Romney won by 20+ like UT-4, TX-7, and GA-7 may be too difficult for Democrats to pull off.

Ossoff’s loss is unquestionably demoralizing for Democrats. Enthused as they are, they still were unable to win the type of race they need to retake the House. But in politics a lot can change in 17 days, let alone 17 months. The GA-06 runoff is a snapshot of the national mood as of June 20, 2017, not Nov. 6, 2018.

Table 2: Crystal Ball House ratings changes

Robert Wheel (a pseudonym) is an attorney and University of Virginia graduate who lives in New York. He tweets at @BobbyBigWheel.

Democrats Start With Edge in Virginia Gubernatorial Race

Setting the scene after Northam, Gillespie capture nominations

Kyle Kondik and Geoffrey Skelley, Sabato's Crystal Ball June 15th, 2017


There was one close race and one not-so close race in the gubernatorial primaries in Virginia on Tuesday, but the margins were the opposite of what most expected: Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) beat former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello (D) by about a dozen points in the closely-watched Democratic primary. Meanwhile, 2014 Senate nominee and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (R) just squeaked by Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart (R) in the not-as-closely watched GOP primary.

As the general election period begins, we’re moving the race from Toss-up to Leans Democratic. This is an election that Democrats should be able to nationalize with President Donald Trump in the White House in a state where Trump’s approval is low. Almost all state-level elected Democrats believed that Northam was a better fit for this statewide race than Perriello. That’s both because Northam’s low-key style is more in keeping with the model of previously successful statewide Democrats (as opposed to the more fiery and populist Perriello) and because they believed Northam’s background in state government was a better fit for the job than Perriello’s background, which is in federal government and advocacy. National Republicans strongly preferred Gillespie to Stewart, but Gillespie’s narrow escape must concern them.

The stakes for Democrats are high: Losing would be a bitter disappointment for them as they seek to chip away at the Republicans’ hefty 33-16 majority in overall control of state governorships (there is one independent, Gov. Bill Walker of Alaska). The Democrats start the race with significant advantages, but Republicans have time and opportunity to whittle them down, given enough breaks.

But before we look ahead, let’s look back at the primaries, both of which featured noteworthy results.

The Northam-Perriello battle was a regional one, with Perriello dominating the middle and western parts of the state, a chunk of which he used to represent in Congress, and Northam winning the eastern half, which is far more populated.

Northam won almost every county and independent city in the Urban Crescent, which comprises the state’s three eastern urban areas (Northam’s Hampton Roads home base along with Northern Virginia and Greater Richmond). Northern Virginia in particular seemed like a battlefield throughout the race, but Northam narrowly won the sometimes-bellwethers of Loudoun and Prince William counties and rolled up big, 60%+ vote shares closer to Washington D.C. in densely-populated Arlington and Fairfax counties, as well as the city of Alexandria.

The Washington Post’s endorsement of Northam helped him in the DC area, and he is not the first Democrat to benefit from the liberal editorial page’s blessing. Eight years ago, the Post’s endorsement helped propel state Sen. Creigh Deeds (D) to a surprisingly strong win in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. While it’s hard to know the precise effect of the Post’s support for Northam, it gave him an extra boost in the vote-rich area (Northern Virginia as a whole made up 39% of the primary vote). Indeed, top reporters noted that Perriello’s internal polling found that his support eroded precipitously after the Post endorsement. Northam’s overwhelming support from state elected officials also assuredly helped: Primaries are often powered by disciplined party regulars who take their cues from governors, members of Congress, and state legislators, nearly all of whom backed Northam over Perriello. The insurgent Perriello garnered an impressive amount of free, positive, “earned” media from many national publications, but Northam’s richer coffers allowed him to run more paid media, which ultimately can be more helpful in getting votes.

Pre-election surveys showing that Perriello was leading among black voters were very likely wrong, although without exit polls it’s hard to know what the overall breakdown was. Still, we feel confident saying that Northam won black voters, and not just by a tiny margin: Northam rolled in his home base of Hampton Roads, where a sizable share of the state’s African Americans live, and he also won more than 70% in a number of majority-black localities, including the city of Petersburg (south of Richmond), which is 77% black — the highest concentration of African Americans in any of the commonwealth’s counties or independent cities. Perriello did do very well in his geographic base of Central Virginia, including getting 80%+ in Danville and Martinsville, two small cities that are about half African American, and he also won a number of sparsely-populated counties in “Southside” (South-Central) Virginia with substantial African-American populations. So the black vote does not seem to have been uniform throughout the state, even though Northam did defeat Perriello handily in precincts that were 95%+ plus African American, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

The Democratic race drew comparisons to the 2016 Democratic presidential contest between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, but the contest may have been better viewed through a national-state lens — Northam had the backing of almost all Democratic elected officials in Virginia while Perriello had support from Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D), and many staffers in former President Barack Obama’s orbit. But in a bid to help further assess the Perriello-Sanders connection, we have put together Map 1, a precinct map comparing Sanders’ performance in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary to Perriello’s showing in the 2017 gubernatorial primary.

Map 1: Perriello’s performance in the 2017 Democratic gubernatorial primary compared to Sanders’ performance in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, by precinct (showing how much better or worse Perriello did compared to Sanders)

Notes: 2017 results are unofficial. Click to enlarge.

The map shows that, at least at a precinct level, Sanders and Perriello differed a great deal in many parts of the commonwealth. In fact, the correlation between their precinct-level results was just .304, a moderate-to-weak relationship. The two most notable geographical differences between Perriello and Sanders were Perriello’s better performance throughout Central Virginia and Southside, and Perriello’s worse performance in parts of Hampton Roads and the Tidewater. What that suggests is a phenomenon that is an important part of all elections, but particularly primary contests: the “friends and neighbors” effect, i.e. the boost in voting that a politician gets from his or her home base. Perriello represented VA-5 in the U.S. House for one term, and the dark swath of blue that covers the middle of the map — indicating he did more than 30 points better than Sanders in those precincts — covers most of the district. Meanwhile, Northam overwhelmingly won the Eastern Shore and much of Norfolk, which form his home base, thus leaving many parts of that area red on the map. Overall, Northam won Hampton Roads (which doesn’t include the Eastern Shore) by almost exactly the same margin, 40 points, as Clinton did in 2016. Because Perriello performed better than Sanders in all three metropolitan areas and the rest of the state as a whole — Sanders lost by 29 points, Perriello by 12 — there is understandably a lot more blue on the map than red.

Gillespie, who won by a little more than a point, was probably hurt by the candidacy of state Sen. Frank Wagner (R), who ran as a moderate. Wagner ran a distant third, garnering about 14%, but his share of the vote was generally higher in places where Gillespie did well, namely in Hampton Roads, Wagner’s home base. In terms of ideology and temperament, Gillespie found himself as the man in the middle compared to his rivals, squeezed on the left (if there is one in today’s GOP) by Wagner and on the right by Stewart, who ran a campaign of cultural revanchism aimed at defending the Commonwealth’s Confederate war memorials. In the 2016 presidential primary, Marco Rubio probably would have won the state had he not also been squeezed to his left by John Kasich, which gave Donald Trump a path to a small plurality in that important Super Tuesday primary. The same dynamic harmed Gillespie but didn’t prevent him from prevailing.

Importantly, Northern Virginia made up a notably smaller share of the overall GOP primary vote than it did in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Table 1 presents regional data from Tuesday’s primary and the 2016 presidential edition. The rest of the state outside of the Urban Crescent made up almost exactly the same share as it did in 2016, but because of Northern Virginia’s decrease, that meant many of the most culturally conservative parts of the state outside the major metropolitan areas held increased sway in the Republican primary.

Table 1: Regional voting in Virginia’s Urban Crescent and the rest of the state

Note: 2017 results are unofficial.

The reduction in the Northern Virginia share also corresponds with a theory that many moderate, white-collar voters in the region may have opted to vote in the seemingly more competitive Democratic primary — Virginia is an open primary state with no party registration — perhaps boosting Northam and robbing Gillespie of some potential votes. However, as some analysts suggested on Tuesday night, many of those voters may simply just be Democrats now, likely having voted for Clinton last November and maintaining negative views of President Trump. While some primary voting patterns are not useful for discussing the ensuing general election, this potential shift, which has been happening for a while now in Northern Virginia but really zoomed ahead in 2016, could be very problematic for the GOP in November. One of the reasons Gillespie nearly upset Sen. Mark Warner (D) in Virginia’s 2014 U.S. Senate race was his relative strength in Northern Virginia compared to other recent statewide Republican candidates. If he can’t replicate that feat in 2017, it will be difficult for him to win the general election.

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by a populist Republican primary jolt in the state that delivered the Tea Party’s highest-profile defeat of any congressional incumbent: Rep. Dave Brat’s triumph over former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor three years ago. But the voting patterns defy easy categorization: for instance, Brat’s VA-7 delivered the establishment-favored Gillespie his second-biggest win among the state’s 11 congressional districts, according to data compiled by J. Miles Coleman for the excellent elections site Decision Desk HQ. The larger vote share from the Richmond area compared to the 2016 presidential primary proved pivotal for Gillespie — it was his best region and he won the state by fewer than 5,000 votes. Hampton Roads saw the largest growth in vote share relative to 2016, surely because of Wagner’s candidacy (“friends and neighbors,” again).

There was some logic, albeit perverse to most, in Stewart’s embrace of Virginia’s Confederate past. As one of us argued in the Washington Post in early May, Stewart’s strategy gave him an opportunity to generate free name ID in a race in which he was outmanned by the better-funded Gillespie campaign, and making enemies on the left probably helped endear him to very conservative primary voters. While Stewart’s rallies in defense of the monuments did not draw many attendees, let’s remember that the ballot box is private while a rally is public. It stands to reason that Stewart’s crusade drew more support than most polls could measure — a dynamic that is somewhat reminiscent of Stewart’s role model, President Trump.

Speaking of polls, accurate ones were few and far between, although primaries are notoriously hard to survey. The only pollsters that seemed to have a handle on the Democratic race were the few showing Northam ahead. Northam’s internals consistently showed him leading by at least high single digits. Public pollsters, such as the Washington Post/Schar School and others, generally indicated a tie or a small lead for Perriello. The Northam campaign’s polling simply did a better job of drilling down on exactly who was likely to vote in a primary. Meanwhile, polls of the GOP race often showed Gillespie with a big lead, although one late poll by a new firm, Change Research, showed Stewart up 42%-41% on Gillespie, which came very close to nailing Gillespie’s eventual one-point victory (Change missed badly on the Democratic race, though, showing Perriello up by 8% when Northam won by 12%, an error of 20%). So, taken in total, the public primary polls were nothing to write home about.

In terms of turnout, both the Democratic and Republican races featured higher-than-expected raw vote totals. Echoing the half-million voters who showed up for New Jersey’s uncompetitive Democratic gubernatorial primary on June 6, more than 540,000 Virginians cast a ballot in the Northam-Perriello race. That mark is a record for a non-presidential statewide primary in Virginia, surpassing the 493,000 or so that voted in the 1977 Democratic primary for governor and the 1996 Republican primary for U.S. Senate. Raw turnout also vastly exceeded the 320,000 votes in the 2009 Democratic primary for governor, the most recent gubernatorial primary. The conventional wisdom was that higher turnout would be good for Perriello because it might mean a greater number of lower-propensity primary voters were showing up, including younger voters who were more inclined to back him. In the end, Northam still won by 12 points despite, or perhaps even because of, that higher turnout. Meanwhile, around 365,000 votes were cast in the GOP primary, the second-most in a Virginia Republican gubernatorial primary (though there have only been four, and just three were actually contested). The 2017 edition fell short of the 400,000 or so who voted in the 1989 GOP gubernatorial primary. But much like the 1989 contest, the 2017 race wound up being very close, with a margin of less than two points in both elections; unlike the 1989 contest, though, the 2017 race wasn’t expected to be this competitive.

All in all, about 60% of the total votes were cast in the Democratic primary while 40% were cast in the Republican primary. It’s not that GOP turnout was low — rather, it’s that Democratic turnout was high. Perhaps this, like some of the special election results around the nation that we’ve been monitoring lately, is another sign of increased Democratic engagement in the Trump era.

Now let’s look ahead to November, where there are a number of factors working in favor of the Democrats, enough that Northam starts as the favorite, though not necessarily an overwhelming one.

A major reason is that Virginia is trending Democratic. Democrats won the governorship in 2013 and reelected Warner in 2014. Both races were closer than polls predicted — and Gillespie only lost to Warner by a point — but Democrats didn’t win all that many big gubernatorial or Senate races in purple states during the latter years of the Obama era. Virginia was among the exceptions, and then in 2016, Hillary Clinton actually slightly improved on Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential margin, carrying Virginia by more than five points. In 2016, the Old Dominion was more Democratic relative to the national presidential result than it had been since World War II, which represented the beginning of the end of the old Democratic “Solid South.”

Democrats grew their support in Virginia despite the baggage of the Obama years, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) broke a three-decade trend of the presidential “out” party winning the Virginia governorship.

The Virginia gubernatorial race, which is one of the first significant statewide races conducted after any presidential election, is sometimes a harbinger of what is to come. The victories of now-Sen. Tim Kaine (D) in the competitive 2005 race and former Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in a 2009 landslide presaged good performances for their respective parties in the following year’s midterm. McAuliffe’s win did not, but just the presence of a Republican in the White House probably helps the Democrats in this race because of the usual boost the “out-party” typically gets in non-presidential races. That Trump did so poorly in Virginia for a Republican last year, and that Trump’s popularity is deeply underwater both nationally and even more so in Virginia, is a drag on Gillespie’s candidacy.

Fatigue probably has not set in with Democrats in Virginia because Northam is going for just a second consecutive Democratic gubernatorial term and outgoing Gov. McAuliffe’s approval numbers are sound (Virginia is the only state that does not permit one-term incumbents to seek reelection). If Northam wins, it’ll be four wins in five cycles for the Democrats, and seven of the last 10, dating back to Chuck Robb in 1981. Northam, an unassuming candidate who ran a campaign that was less moderate and more liberal than his reputation — particularly on social issues — stylistically still is more in the mold of a Chuck Robb, Mark Warner, or Tim Kaine than Tom Perriello.

Still, Northam has some work to do. Youth turnout can always be a challenge for Democrats, and Perriello — like Bernie Sanders, his prime endorser — was a candidate of the young, as exemplified by both of their impressive college-town performances. Getting good youth turnout is not an absolute necessity for Northam, but it would certainly help. Opposition to Trump will assist the party in papering over wounds from the primary, but the Northam campaign cannot take such unity for granted, particularly because Perriello’s younger backers may be the kinds of voters who skip the general. Perriello did immediately endorse Northam, and the party seems committed to coming back together (a unity rally scheduled for Wednesday was canceled because of the horrifying shooting in Alexandria at the Republican Congressional baseball team’s practice).

Solid African-American turnout is also a Northam priority, and his apparently robust performance with that bloc of voters is helpful. His new running mate might help in that regard, too. Attorney Justin Fairfax (D), an African-American lawyer, won the lieutenant gubernatorial primary after he narrowly lost a 2013 primary for attorney general. There’s some evidence that having a black candidate on the statewide ticket can help with black turnout. Rounding out the Democratic statewide ticket is Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who deferred to Northam in the gubernatorial race and is seeking reelection to an office he only won by a minuscule margin in 2013.

If Northam performs well, a second consecutive Democratic sweep of Virginia’s three statewide executive offices is in reach. In addition, Democrats will try to make gains in Virginia House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the state’s General Assembly, where all 100 seats are up in November. Republicans currently hold a dominant 66-34 majority, so Democrats would need to net 17 seats to take control, the exact number of Republicans who hold districts Hillary Clinton carried in the presidential race last year, according to calculations by Daily Kos Elections. Democrats, meanwhile, do not hold any seats Donald Trump won, and they shouldn’t have much trouble defending the districts they already control. Winning a majority in the chamber does not seem realistic for Democrats at this point, but if the statewide races break their way, solid coattails could make significant gains possible. The race that seems likeliest to get the most attention features an immense culture clash: anti-gay rights social conservative Del. Bob Marshall (R, HD-13) versus his transgender opponent, journalist Danica Roem (D), in a Northern Virginia seat Clinton carried by 15 points.

In the aftermath of his narrow loss, Stewart remained defiant, refusing to concede and saying “There is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity.’” Gillespie should be able to rely on reasonably strong GOP base support, but if Stewart’s backers don’t show up in full force, Gillespie will be in trouble. The GOP statewide primary also featured a nasty, close race for lieutenant governor, with state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel winning the nod. Attorney John Adams (R), unopposed for the attorney general nomination and virtually unknown, rounds out the ticket.

Gillespie’s greatest ally — and Northam’s richest nemesis — is the Republican Governors Association, which of all the big-spending partisan third-party groups has probably been the most consistently successful over the past many cycles. The RGA should be all-in on behalf of Gillespie, who is a favorite of national GOP leaders, and the committee could make the difference in a close race. McAuliffe benefited from a big resource advantage over 2013 GOP nominee Ken Cuccinelli (R) in part because Cuccinelli turned off some of the party’s largest funders. Gillespie faces no such perception problem among big-time Republicans, many of whom probably regret not helping him more in his closer-than-expected 2014 Senate loss. Republicans hope that Perriello pushed Northam to the left in this campaign and that Gillespie can seize the middle ground.

For 2017 to be a success for Democrats, they need to capture both open gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia. Phil Murphy (D) appears to be a strong favorite in the Garden State after winning his primary last week, and Northam starts as a smaller favorite in the more competitive Old Dominion. State party leaders in both New Jersey and Virginia — the so-called establishment in both states — got the candidates they overwhelmingly preferred through their respective primaries. Now, will those candidates deliver?

We shall see. As one senior Democrat told us after Northam clinched the nomination and we announced our ratings change on Tuesday night, “Good thing you only went to Leans D and no further. Hell, we’re Democrats, and we’ve got plenty of time to [expletive deleted] this up!”

In other words, despite their recent good fortune in Virginia, Democrats should not take anything for granted.

Table 2: Crystal Ball gubernatorial ratings change