How significantly will Donald Trump’s candidacy for President affect Virginia politics? The closeness of two recent statewide elections provides clues.
Virginia has moved from reliably red to purple. Combining the closeness of these elections with the profiles of the four candidates involved (compared to Trump’s profile), we can get a sense of the likely impact.
Here are the Virginia statewide results from the two elections:
- Attorney General 2013
- Herring (D) 1,103,777
- Obenshain (R) 1,103,612
- U.S. Senate 2014
- Warner (D) 1,073,667
- Gillespie (R) 1,055,940
Democratic and Republican partisans looking at these elections have argued that the opposing party’s candidate was an extremist. We could debate whether such partisan claims are accurate, but I believe a large number of Virginia voters perceived (accurately or not) that all four of these candidates were in the ideological mainstream of their respective parties. That perception was an important factor in the close outcomes.
Inclined to support candidates whom they perceive to be in the ideological mainstream, Virginia voters also have a historic tendency–other things being equal–to support candidates whom they perceive as sensible and pragmatic. Candidates who come across as too brash generally have not fared well. I believe large numbers of Virginia voters–rightly or wrongly– found all four of these recent statewide candidates to be sensible and pragmatic.
The Trump Effect
During the Republican Presidential primary process so far, Trump has been polling at or near the top (10 to 15 percent) nationally and in Virginia. In the most recent Post-ABC poll, his national Republican support spiked to 24 percent. Unlike all of the other Republican and Democratic primary candidates, Trump has the personal wealth to finance his campaign using 100 percent of his own money. He also has a personal brand name that is nationally known. These factors make him much more formidable than 2012 Republican Presidential primary candidates like Michelle Bachman or Herman Cain.
While it is highly unlikely that Trump can win the Republican Presidential nomination, it is very possible that he can stay in the Republican race for many months at or near at least the 10 percent Republican popularity level no matter how offensive his views strike the other 90 percent. Moreover, he has refused to rule out the possibility of running as an independent in the general election assuming he loses the Republican nomination.
The longer Trump stays in the race, the longer his views are publicized and associated with the Republican brand, the more damage he will do to Republican prospects–particularly in a purple state like Virginia. Based on recent statewide election results, only a little damage could be enough to sink the Republican Presidential nominee in Virginia in 2016.