Virginia victories provided Democrats with a needed psychological shot in the arm.
My firm was particularly thrilled to see our client, Lt. Gov.-elect Justin Fairfax become the second African-American to win statewide office in Virginia, despite being outspent 4-to-1.
But while the depth and breadth of Democratic victories in the Commonwealth was wonderful news, it’s not clear that it necessarily portends equally strong wins in the rest of the country next year.
Virginia represents the culmination of a trend I’ve brought to readers attention a number of times, going back several years — the increasing correlation between votes for president on the one hand and votes for Congress, Senate, governor and state legislature on the other.
Virginia may not yet be a blue state, but it was in 2016, and Gov.-elect Ralph Northam’s share of the two-party vote was just 1.7 points higher than Hillary Clinton’s.
In New Jersey’s less closely watched gubernatorial contest, Gov.-elect Phil Murphy actually ended up with a margin identical to Clinton’s, after outspending his foe by some 5-to-1.
Looked at more precisely, the correlation between the vote for Virginia governor in 2013 and 2017 is an already high .939. But comparing the 2017 gubernatorial vote to the 2016 presidential races raises that coefficient to an astounding .983. Which is to say, the Trump-Clinton presidential race told you more about this year’s gubernatorial results than the most recent contest for governor.
In Virginia’s House of Delegates contests, every Democratic pickup, save one, came in a district Hillary Clinton had won. The one gain in a “Trump” seat was in a district that was essentially tied in both the presidential and legislative races.
If we assume a perfect correlation (a terrible assumption, but just for the sake of argument) between presidential voting and 2018 results, we would expect Democrats to gain a net of 11 House seats (and hold just 205 of the 218 necessary to control that body), while losing a net of nine seats in the Senate, putting us much further behind in the battle for control there.
The wailing of the commentariat notwithstanding, in truth, this year’s special elections hold out even more hope for big Democratic gains in 2018 than Virginia and New Jersey, even though Democrats lost several of the high-profile specials.
The Upshot’s Nate Cohn calculated that Democrats did about 3 points better in the specials than in Virginia and New Jersey, even accounting for incumbency and other factors.
Looking at the specials only, which by definition have no incumbent, Stanford’s Doug Rivers projects a 6-point shift toward Democrats in 2018, albeit only in open seats.
Some oversimplified arithmetic would suggest a 2-point to 3-point movement to Democrats where incumbents are running, and the 6-point shift in open seats. That could be enough to shift control of the House.
In the end though these averages will be just that — averages. The swing will not be uniform across districts, in some it will be higher, in some lower, leaving plenty of room for either party to wake up next November in control.
As I have said repeatedly this cycle — control of the House is most definitely up for grabs in 2018.
At this stage, the macro indicators point to a wave election. Trump’s approval rating is under 40 percent and Democrats lead the generic vote by an average of nearly 10 points.
While the results in 2017 should give us hope, unfortunately, they do not suggest the 2018 outcome is a foregone conclusion.
The winds are blowing strongly toward Democrats, a wave could be building, but incumbency, gerrymandering and the geographic concentration of Democratic voters may conspire to break that wave before it washes away GOP control.
Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years and as President of the American Association of Political Consultants.