For those of you who, like me, just can’t get enough of the November 8 gubernatorial election in Virginia, there’s a significant quantity of sliced and diced analysis piling up, much of it focused on Tim Kaine’s impressive performance in Virginia suburbs and exurbs.The Big Study everyone’s citing comes from Robert Lang and Dawn Dhavale of Virginia Tech, which (1) divides Virginia into four regions, and shows Tim Kaine improving on John Kerry’s 2004 performance across the board; and (2) provides a detailed analysis of the Northern Virginia suburbs, segmenting them into Urban Suburbs (Arlington and Alexandria), Mature Suburbs (gigantic Fairfax), Emerging Suburbs (Loudon and Prince William) and true exurbs (Fauquier and Stafford).Kaine carried three of four of this study’s major regions (Northern Virginia, the Capitol Region and Tidewater) and lost the fourth, sprawling Shenandoah (which includes The Valley, Southwest, Southside, and the central Virginia Piedmont). Within NoVa, he won all but the “true exurb” counties and cities. While the big news was Kaine’s overwhelming victory in NoVa and the Richmond area, the study suggests he ran ahead of Kerry uniformly across the state.The major shortcoming of the Tech study is that it mainly compares Kaine’s performance to Kerry’s, but not to Mark Warner’s in 2001. That comparison would have shown Kaine running far behind Warner in Shenandoah, and a bit ahead in Tidewater, but doing impressively better in the other two urban-suburban regions, and especially in the areas outside the urban cores of Richmond and Arlington-Alexandria.I understand why the Hokie researchers did what they did: Everybody’s interested in Kaine’s win as a possible leading indicator of Democratic gains between 2004 and 2008.But personally, being focused a bit more on Virginia as a leading indicator for 2006, I’m interested in the 2001-2005 trend, and in the ability of Democrats to put together new and different majority coalitions in difficult terrain, just as Mark Warner did in 2001 and Tim Kaine did this year.There’s a Washington Post analysis of the “emerging suburbs” category of voters that includes data from a Greenberg Quinlan Rosner study of Loudon County, interpolated somewhat dubiously with national data on the unhappiness of moderate Republicans.The GQR study showed that Loudoun voters cared a lot more about transportation and education issues than about the death-penalty and immigration topics Jerry Kilgore emphasized down the home stretch. And they preferred Kaine by 23 percentage points on education and by 16 points on transportation.The Post‘s national data on moderate Republicans, while of questionable relevance to the Virginia race, are still striking: between August and November, moderate GOPer approval ratings for Bush’s job performance dropped from 85% to 59%, with the percentage registering strong support being halved, from 60% to 30%. That’s a big and important trend.Ruy Teixeira offers a good general summary of the evidence supplied by Virginia. But it’s important to keep straight the in-state and national trends we are talking about.For a bunch of reasons, Tim Kaine could not replicate Mark Warner’s stunning 2001 coalition of rural, urban and suburban voters. He had to do better in the suburbs, and he did, lifted in part by Warner’s popularity; in part by a national suburban trend against the Bush administration and the GOP generally; and in part by his own suburban-friendly message of smart growth management and educational improvements. Democratic “red state” candidates in 2006 need to look at all aspects of the Kaine victory, and look back, where they can, to Warner’s strategy as well. They may benefit from a national tide against Republicans, and may batten on expanded “blue” areas of the suburbs. But they need to exploit rural and small-town opportunities as well, just as Mark Warner did four years ago.The national GOP meltdown means Democrats can become competitive, or at least more competitive, everywhere, and it’s everywhere that they should look for new votes.
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By Ed Kilgore
Waiting for Joe Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress to begin this week, I observed at New York that Republicans were struggling to define him consistently, which felt like a familiar problem for them:
When Bill Clinton was at the pre-Lewinsky peak of his powers, he drove Republicans nuts. They alternated between accusing him of “stealing our issues” with his triangulating pitches on welfare reform and crime and the size of government, and of being “liberal, liberal, liberal!” — a sort of boomer love child of George McGovern and Janis Joplin in a deceptive deep-fried southern packaging. Eventually the opportunity to depict him as a lying sexual predator solved the conservative dilemma, though you could argue he never stopped throwing them off-balance.
Republicans are similarly having problems getting a clear focus on Joe Biden, as the Los Angeles Times’ Noah Bierman observes:
“Alex Conant, a Republican consultant who has advised Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, [says] that his party’s two main messages about Biden are at odds with each other, blunting their impact. ‘The thing you hear Republicans say most is that he’s too old for the job, which isn’t consistent with saying he’s doing too much,’ Conant said. ‘You can’t effectively argue that he’s incompetent and that he’s too effective.'”
This dual framing of Biden was evident during the 2020 campaign, when Trump called him “Sleepy Joe” and with his usual lack of subtlety suggested his opponent was senile, even as he assailed Biden’s party of radical socialist aims. The 45th president and his surrogates squared the circle by treating Biden as the half-there puppet of the real powers, particularly the “communist” Kamala Harris.
But now, 100 days into the Biden-Harris administration, even though the new president has kept an unusually low profile, there are no signs of Harris or anyone else manipulating him. Indeed, so far his White House has been remarkably free of the factionalism that often undermines clear presidential leadership. With Clinton as president you had a White House staff famously divided (ironically, given the later reputations of the First Lady and the veep) into progressive “Rodhams” and centrist “Gores” who jockeyed for position and placed their varying stamps on administration policies. George W. Bush’s presidency was also marked by competing power centers (e.g., his terrifying vice-president and the “Boy Genius” Karl Rove); to a lesser extent, so was Obama’s. As for Donald Trump, hardly a week passed without someone — particularly his rotating cast of chiefs-of-staff — being described by “insiders” as the real power behind the throne or perhaps as the wild man’s lion-tamer.
Trump, of course, created some of the same problems for Democrats that Clinton — and now Biden — posed for Republicans. Was he the “toddler president” who ran a hollowed-out administration with no real core of convictions or goals? Or was he a putative Il Duce craftily planning an authoritarian takeover of the country? Up until the day he left office there was evidence for both descriptions. Indeed, the coda of his presidency, the January 6 Capitol riot, was variously regarded as a fascist coup attempt and a clown show.
Trump’s successor will have an opportunity in his first address to a joint session of Congress to add to the impression that he is quietly but firmly in charge of the executive branch, and has imposed order on his fractious party as he unveils yet another massive proposal. Kamala Harris will be sitting (and often standing and applauding) behind him, likely looking more like an adoring protégée than any sort of puppet-master. But if he stumbles at all, or looks tired, or says things that supposedly centrist Democrats like him don’t believe, the knees of many elephants will jerk and out will come the mockery of the old man who is a reassuring front for the Marxists actually running the country.
Such confusion if it continues will be of great service to Biden, much like the current Republican tendency to focus on irrelevant culture-war themes while a mostly united Democratic Party enacts legislative initiatives of a magnitude we haven’t seen since Ronald Reagan’s first year in office. For all their political gifts, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — who, lest we forget, both had a much more firmly Democratic Senate and House the first two years of their presidencies — couldn’t come close to the mastery of Congress Biden has exhibited up until now. As Republicans watch Biden’s speech, they should soberly realize that before long it may not matter that much if they bust up the Democratic trifecta in 2022. The damage to GOP policies and priorities wrought by “Uncle Joe” and his “senile socialist regime” could be too large to reverse by then. While Republicans fret about Trump and rage about “cancel culture,” Biden is eating their lunch.