Most Politics Is National
Tip O'Neil's famous saying hasn't been true in a long, long time.
Veteran journalist Jeff Greenfield looks at the Virginia governor’s race, which he calls the “starting gun” for the 2022 election cycle, and proclaims, “Virginia Buries an Enduring Political Myth.”
We don’t need to wait until the results are in, however, to draw one clear conclusion from this contest. Itwill or should deal another decisive blow to one of the most enduring, least useful observations about American elections: “All politics is local.”
That piece of political wisdom was popularized by Tip O’Neill, the late speaker of the House. It was the title of the Massachusetts Democrat’s 1995 memoir, and it conveys the sense of folk wisdom rooted in the realities of neighborhoods, grocery stores and churches, far from the ivory towers of academia. Voters make judgments, the adage teaches, on matters rooted in their daily lives — the safety of their streets, the quality of their kids’ schools, the ability of their elected leaders to respond to their needs.
O’Neill himself explained his approach this way: “You can’t assume anything in politics. That’s why every Saturday I walk around my district. I talk to the longshoremen in Charlestown. I listen to the people in East Boston and their concern on the airport noise. I walk down to the Star Market in Porter Square, and people tell me about meat prices.”
As a guide to staying in touch with your constituents, this is wise counsel. Politics is filled with examples of powerful officeholders brought down by their failure to keep in touch with the people who elected them. But as a guide to what motivates voters, it has long since ceased being all that useful.
Take the most-watched race of the fall: Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are in a close contest. (You could almost hear Democrats’ heart palpitations after one Fox News poll showed Youngkin up by 8 points among likely voters, followed soon after by a Washington Post poll with McAuliffe ahead by 1). But to some extent, the candidates are a sideshow: The outcome is far more likely to hinge on Joe Biden and Donald Trump — and whether the president or ex-president proves to be a bigger anchor on his party.
If this “nationalization” seems like something new, it shouldn’t. It’s been a growing fact of our political life for decades.
Presidential elections have almost always been driven by broader factors than local matters: war, inflation, recession, domestic upheaval, corruption. Over the last decade or two, the drift — more like a surge — toward political polarization has seen the steady disappearance of split ticket voting, where a personally admirable candidate of one party could win the votes from those who identify with another party. In 2020, only one Senate candidate, Maine Republican Susan Collins, won in a state carried by the other party’s presidential nominee. A decade ago, 23 senators came from states that had voted for the other party’s presidential candidate. Today, the number is six.
Greenfield is right that our politics have been increasingly nationalized. As I’ve been telling students for decades now, despite the mythology of schoolboy civics—that politics should be conducted at the local level because proximity means familiarity—the fact of the matter is that the media environment has long made the reverse true. Most people can’t name their local councilman or state delegate but everyone not only knows who the President of the United States is and the name of his wife and probably even his pets.
Still, the alignment of Presidential and Senate voting is a function of a near-complete sorting of the parties that has been gradually taking place over four decades. The Susan Collinses and Joe Manchins of the world are simply curiosities at this point whereas they were fairly commonplace twenty, let alone forty, years ago.
But does the pull of national issues really play out in an off-year gubernatorial race? Isn’t education, for example, one of Youngkin’s major themes?
It is, but that only strengthens the case. Virginia’s school boards are political hotbeds this year, but not because of funding arguments or normal education debates: It’s because of a national culture war over how we teach history and social studies, inserting itself angrily into a level of politics that used to be the most local imaginable. The pushback of suburban parents in a Democratic stronghold like Loudoun County, Virginia is itself part of a national revolt over a series of issues that encompass resistance to “top-down” commands: from masks to vaccines to what children should be taught about race.
However, the specter of last year’s presidential campaign is what hangs most heavily over the Old Dominion. Biden’s sagging approval ratings have fueled deep concern among Democrats that their voters, either out of weariness with last year’s battle or disaffection with Biden’s performance, may lack the enthusiasm to vote. The urgency with which Democrats were pushing for passage of Biden’s legislative agenda demonstrates the belief — wholly accurate or not — that the success on Capitol Hill could trigger a late burst of enthusiasm among Virginia Democrats.
And then there’s Trump. All through the campaign, McAuliffe has been making the 45th president his key issue.Ifyou vote Republican, he argues, you will be giving new energy to Trump and Trumpism. Biden and Barack Obama did the same in their campaign swings with McAuliffe. The Democratic Party has done everything to beckon Trump into Virginia except chartering a plane for him. Just as consistently, Youngkin has been saying nothing to alienate Trump’s supporters, while saying nothing to imply he is a full-blown MAGA Republican.
“Trump?” Youngkin has more or less been saying. “The name is vaguely familiar, but…”
It’s a delicate dance for Youngkin, but if he succeeds, it could offer a path for Republicans seeking to win back the independents and suburbanites the party hemorrhaged during the Trump era.
Honestly, I think this assumes that people are paying way more attention to the campaign than they actually are. Youngkin is indeed trying to have it both ways, sending sops to Trumpkins that he sympathizes with their sentiments while also signaling that he’s not a racist troglodyte.
But I think the race is as much a referendum on Biden as it is Trump. McAuliffe, a thoroughly unexciting candidate who won his party’s nomination for another go at the state house by default, is doing everything in his power to paint Youngkin as Trump 2.0 but, because he’s not Trump—and Trump isn’t in the White House anymore—it’s a hard sell. And there’s simply a voter enthusiasm gap, with Democrats neither motivated by ousting Trump nor excited about the seemingly never-ending internecine fight over the budget whereas Republicans still see themselves as put upon.
I don’t have a strong sense of how the race will turn out. The polling is all over the place and, as I’ve noted before, some 900,000 Virginians voted early, so any late swings will be muted. I’ll vote, as is my custom, on Election Day tomorrow and do so, with very little enthusiasm indeed, for McAuliffe.
But I don’t know that it portends much for 2022. Barring major developments, I fully expect Republicans to retake the House and Senate, regardless of whether McAuliffe or Youngkin wins. That’s almost always what happens in midterm elections after a new President comes to office and there’s no reason to think Biden will be an outlier. And, unless the GOP primary electorate comes to its senses and nominates a sensible candidate like Larry Hogan for President—which they almost surely won’t—Biden, Kamala Harris, or some other Democrat will almost surely carry Virginia in 2024..