Virginia Democrats Spooked by Fears of a Non-Presidential Falloff in Turnout

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Photo: Ralph Northam/Facebook; J. Lawler Duggan/Washington Post/Getty Images

Last week I wrote a column suggesting that the palpable anxiety Democrats were exhibiting about the Virginia governor’s race might reflect PTSD — Post-Trump Stress Disorder — based on the unexpected GOP performance in last year’s presidential contest.

Since then, one poll (from Monmouth) has shown Republican Ed Gillespie actually leading Democrat Ralph Northam by a point, making Democratic fears more rational, even though other polls have actually lifted Northam’s lead in the RealClearPolitics average to 5.8 percent.

It has occurred to me, though, that nasty surprises which predate Trump ’16 have given the Old Dominion’s Democrats good reason to be jumpy in ways that could be relevant to Democrats’ prospects in the broader landscape of 2018.

Four years ago, Democrat Terry McAuliffe beat Republican Ken Cuccinelli by 2.5 percent, a margin that significantly undershot T-Mac’s 6.7 percent margin in the RCP polling average (the final Washington Post poll showed McAuliffe up by 12 points). And perhaps even more to the point, three years ago, Ed Gillespie came very close to upsetting Democratic senator Mark Warner, whose final RCP polling margin was nearly 10 percent.

The idea that Virginia Republican candidates might over-perform their polling numbers in 2013, 2014, and perhaps 2017 is based on a very real phenomenon: Democrats do not tend to turn out like Republicans do in non-presidential elections, mostly because the two parties are now polarized between demographic groups that do (old white folks) and don’t (minority voters and millennials) proportionately participate in down-ballot contests. It has been generally assumed that in Virginia, as in this year’s special elections, Democratic horror about Trump and his agenda would reverse the pro-GOP turnout patterns. But we haven’t had sufficient 2017 elections to resolve that question. Virginia will be a large data point. And if Gillespie wins, it will be time to express some doubts about all those generic congressional polls showing Democrats with an abundant 2018 advantage.

If you don’t vote, your hostility to Trump — or to Republicans — doesn’t much matter electorally. And to be frank about it, if you are a progressive voter who doesn’t consider President Trump to be a sufficient motivator to show up, whether he’s on the ballot or not, then Democrats do have a big challenge next year.

Virginia Democrats Spooked by Fears of a Falloff in Turnout