Donald Trump may lose the national popular vote, but he has won a solid Electoral College majority and will be the next President of the United States. Democrats in that instance will have won the national vote in 6 of the last 7 presidential elections, yet will have gone more than two decades without being able to translate a national win into presidential-term-long simultaneous control of the executive and legislative branches.
That will provide food for thought for a great many political scientists. Two simultaneous popular vote wins/Electoral College losses in just the first two decades of the 20th century will again generate discussion about the fairness of the antiquated Electoral College system itself. National popular vote wins with decisive defeats in Congress will also generate discussion again about partisan gerrymandering of Congressional districts. Political scientists will also ruminate on the difficulties of one party controlling the White House for three consecutive terms. The Democrats have not done it since Franklin Roosevelt did it himself and the Republicans have only done it once since that time, with Reagan to Bush.
Those are some of the oddities on the national scene. Both Virginia and Prince William, however, proved perhaps equally odd. First let’s address the oddity of the “right-to-work” amendment to the Virginia Constitution.
This was Referendum Question # 1 on the ballot, which would have basically enshrined in the Virginia Constitution what is currently the law that makes Virginia a non-union, “right-to-work” state (that’s a simplification, but you get the gist). In a state where unions have virtually no power, this referendum was somehow handily defeated, and by a larger margin than Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in the state. It was also handily defeated in Prince William County.
On the surface it seems hard to make sense of this. A couple of things could have happened. Perhaps some blue-collar workers voted for Trump but wanted to retain potential union protections. Perhaps some Democrats voted for Trump but just followed Democratic sample ballots on referendum issues in heavily Democratic areas. Or perhaps – and we hate to say this – some people simply did not understand the amendment. Given how heavily the Virginia House of Delegates is gerrymandered, any pro-Union legislation is extremely unlikely. Regardless, however, the referendum was a resounding defeat for conservative ‘right-to-work” advocates who have long dominated in Virginia.
In the presidential race in Virginia, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by a larger margin than Barack Obama defeated Mitt Romney – by some 30,000 more votes. While that would seem to bode well for Democrats longer-term, any comfort could be misplaced. There were far more third-party votes in 2016 than in 2012. More than 100,000 more, in fact.
The Libertarian ticket garnered more than 115,000 votes in comparison to 31,000 in 2012. Independent candidate Evan McMullin received more than 52,000, and there were more than 29,000 write-ins, which is almost three times the number from 2012. The Green Party candidate received more than 27,000.
It’s an educated guess that a substantial majority of the Libertarian, Independent, and Write-In votes were probably Republican or Republican-leaning independents disenchanted with Trump. Even if Trump had won all of them, as well as the Green Party votes, he would have fallen short of Clinton, but by a margin much more like the 1% that Gillespie fell short of Senator Mark Warner in 2014, than the almost 5% loss he experienced.
So Democrats probably need to recognize that a more palatable Republican candidate in a presidential election may have substantively put Virginia back in play, or even won it.
Corey Stewart’s Race for Governor
One Republican for whom these numbers may not be good is PWC BOCS Chair Corey Stewart. The apparent disenchantment with Donald Trump among the presumed Republican voters who went for the Independent or Libertarian tickets, could spell trouble for Stewart’s gubernatorial ambitions, particularly if Trump’s first 6-9 months in office are rocky and Stewart’s primary opponents are comfortable highlighting some of Stewart’s more controversial statements in support of Trump and/or his firing by the Trump campaign.
Another problem for Stewart may be the depth of the field that remains to challenge him. If Clinton had won, then Senator Tim Kaine would be Vice-President and there would be first a special election in 2017 and then a regular election in 2018 for the same seat. This might have been an attractive option to Ed Gillespie or Congressman Rob Wittman, Stewart’s most prominent challengers for Governor, and would have taken them out of the gubernatorial race. But that option is now off the table. The flip side for Stewart, of course, is that if Gillespie and Wittman split the moderate Republican vote, Stewart could win with a plurality that consists solely of the extreme-right.
What might make this even more interesting is if the Trump administration offers Stewart a position. With his firing, we doubt they will, and we doubt he would take it if offered. He wants to be Governor. The path, however, appears murkier than one might have expected with a Trump win. An additional potential hurdle is that historically the party that does not hold the White House gains the governorship in Virginia the next year in part as a protest against the typical alleged overreach of the new presidential administration (Terry McAuliffe was an outlier). These factors could narrowly tip Stewart toward an offered position in the Trump administration.
Oddly in Prince William, Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump in every single magisterial district, including the overwhelmingly Republican Brentsville district that President Obama lost in 2012. Clinton won 8 of the 12 Brentsville precincts, in fact.
Some Democrats are likely to jump on this as a hopeful sign for local elections. They would likely be wrong to do so — at least at this time — for three reasons. First, it is not at all clear at the moment how absentee ballots will be distributed among the precincts.
Second, we again have the impact of third-party candidates to contend with. It would not surprise us if what we will characterize as the Private-Pete Candland Voter cast a vote for a third-party candidate. Left to his own devices, without the handlers, watchers, and advisers that surround him, we believe Pete Candland has a moral compass. We don’t look at his Facebook pages, blogs he’s associated with, etc., so we don’t know what, if anything, he has said about how he planned to or did vote. But regardless of what he says or doesn’t say online, we can imagine Pete Candland, in the privacy of the voting booth, feeling morally outraged by Trump’s conduct and thus casting a vote for someone else. If he is able to do so, we expect there are other supporters of his throughout the county also capable of doing so.
Third, and most importantly, is that in non-Presidential years, the magisterial districts overwhelmingly are dominated by their consistent turnout partisan make-up. In the absence of a third-party candidate, in other words, those races will almost always be decided by strict partisanship, particularly after the most recent redistricting.
That means Woodbridge and Neabsco will go Democratic and that Occoquan, Coles, Gainesville, and Brentsville will go Republican, as will the county-wide seats. The one district that will go Democratic sooner, rather than later, is the Potomac District, if the widely-respected Maureen Caddigan were to decide to retire, just as the Commonwealth Attorney’s office will likely go Republican when Paul Ebert retires. Vote totals from 2015 show that in the absence of a third-party candidate, John Gray would hold the Occoquan School Board seat and Tim Singstock would be chairman of the School Board, reverting the School Board back to its typical Republican-dominated make-up.
Excluding the changing Potomac District, in other words, each party could almost run an inanimate object or a made-up person and win where they hold the partisan advantage in low-turnout elections. What that means for Prince William County is that if Corey Stewart were to move to another office or retire, and Republicans were to avoid a vote-siphoning third-party entrant to the race, Pete Candland would almost be guaranteed the chairmanship of the BOCS. He would likely be able to exercise de facto control over his Gainesville successor, and coupled with such existing control on important matters over Brentsville Supervisor Jeanine Lawson and Occoquan Supervisor Ruth Anderson, he would always control the four seats on the BOCS necessary to block anything he did not like.
The only realistic challenge to this would be for Coles Supervisor Marty Nohe to beat out Pete Candland for the chairmanship. Nohe would enjoy substantial support in the eastern and middle parts of the county, including among Democrats who might consider crossing over to vote in Republican contests in support of Nohe over Candland. Absent that, the numbers from the Presidential race, coupled with the partisan nature of low-turnout elections, point to a Pete Candland chairmanship not later than 2019.
In other words, despite winning Virginia and Prince William County, the good news for local Democrats at the moment appears fairly limited: (1) For some reason Virginia is not quite as anti-Union as thought; (2) if you don’t like Corey Stewart, his chances of winning the Virginia Republican nomination for Governor may have declined a bit; and (3) Democrat Ralph Northam’s chances of winning the governorship have improved.
It’s not much, but it’s something.