Gillespie got a larger share of the vote in Virginia than Trump did in 2016

A potentially significant gloss on Trump’s comment last night that Gillespie went down in flames because he didn’t embrace Trumpism enthusiastically enough. That’s news to me — and to Steve Bannon, who told the NYT this a few days ago:

“He’s closed an enthusiasm gap by rallying around the Trump agenda,” said Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s former strategist. “And I think the big lesson for Tuesday is that, in Gillespie’s case, Trumpism without Trump can show the way forward. If that’s the case, Democrats better be very, very worried.”

“Corey Stewart is the reason Gillespie is going to win,” Bannon told WaPo this past weekend, referring to the ultra-Trumpy populist candidate whom Gillespie narrowly defeated in the GOP primary. Stewart himself agreed, saying, “It feels like my campaign, doesn’t it? I feel vindicated by it.” Fast-forward 48 hours, after Gillespie suffered a nearly nine-point blowout, and Breitbart is calling Gillespie a “Republican swamp thing” while Stewart is insisting that “Ed rejected Trump.” There’s your daily reminder from populists that Trumpism can’t fail, it can only be failed.

When trying to assess how badly Gillespie supposedly underperformed Trump, please note that his vote share was higher than Trump’s was. Gillespie pulled 45.1 percent versus Northam while Trump managed 44.4 percent against Hillary. Granted, Trump was at a disadvantage insofar as he was facing two relatively high-profile right-wing third-party candidates in Gary Johnson and Evan McMullin while Gillespie was facing only a libertarian rando in Clifford Hyra. But that’s a chicken-and-egg point. Did Trump lose a chunk of right-wing votes because Johnson and McMullin were unusually strong candidates or did Johnson and McMullin do comparatively well because Trump was unpopular in Virginia and anti-Trump Republicans wanted to park their votes elsewhere? To put it differently, how would Ed Gillespie have done as nominee against Clinton, Johnson, and McMullin? It’s weird for Trump to blame Gillespie’s loss on failing to embrace him in a state that Trump himself lost with a smaller share of the vote.

The other obvious difference between last year’s election and this one was quality of opponent. Trump had to go up against the Clinton machine while Gillespie faced a generic no-name in Northam. But that risks getting the argument backward: There’s little evidence to believe that Hillary was a stronger opponent than a generic Democrat would have been and considerable evidence after last night to believe that she was a weaker one.

The suburbs are filled with the sort of white college-educated voters who broke heavily for Hillary last year — but they broke even more heavily for Northam, paradoxically against an establishment Republican candidate who’s much less of an authentic fire-breathing populist than Trump is. How to explain that? The most obvious possibility is one we all already accept as true: Hillary Clinton was an extraordinarily weak candidate who performed worse than a replacement-level Democrat would have performed as nominee last year. Yeah, she won Virginia, but a blandly genial Dem with no baggage like Tim Kaine at the top of the ticket probably would have turned Virginia into a landslide against Trump (even if it wasn’t Kaine’s home state) and might well have let Dems hold the Rust Belt states. The most damning verdict on Trump last night wasn’t that Gillespie lost despite trying to run a “Trumpism without Trump” campaign, it’s the possibility that even Trumpism *with* Trump would have failed if not for Democrats having nominated a loser.

But that’s not the only verdict. Ed mentioned it in his post earlier but it bears repeating that the real news out of Virginia isn’t Northam crushing Gillespie, it’s Democrats crushing Republicans en masse in state legislative races. No one saw that coming. Chris Deaton captured the magnitude of the defeat well: “The Democrats began the night just one net loss away from giving Republicans a supermajority. They finished it one seat away from parity.” How many more Gillespie ads about Confederate statutes does Trump think would have changed that dynamic? Obviously for a wave like that to break, Virginians were voting for — or against — something bigger than just Northam vs. Gillespie. The inescapable suspicion is that Dems were out in force in order to rebuke Trump.

Jeff Blehar of Decision Desk HQ, whom I quoted in last night’s election preview, put it starkly:

If you’re a Trumper looking to dismiss the results, you’re better off sticking to fundamentals. Here’s a strange but true fact:

In modern times, as a rule, a new president’s party goes belly up in New Jersey and Virginia. And of course two solidly blue states would bring bad news for a Republican administration! The wrinkle in that spin, though, is that they don’t usually go belly up to the extent the GOP did last night in VA. And presidents presiding over a growing economy, with the stock market hitting record highs, don’t usually have job approval numbers in the high 30s. Commentators are salting their election takes this morning with caveats about how there’s still a full year until the midterms and a lot can happen before then to reverse the GOP’s fortunes. Right, but pessimists like me are always there to say, “What if their fortunes get *worse*?” What if the market tanks, or a new recession hits? What if they can’t pass anything in Congress? The “fundamentals” are no sanctuary for Republicans seeking comfort today.