The vast majority of voters in our country are frustrated with the status quo, desire candidates with common sense and integrity, want leaders to put country over party and are tired of the two major parties. But the recent election results in Virginia, and now Alabama, show the voters in America are especially upset at one political party (the GOP) and one leader (President Donald Trump).
Too often in politics myths develop in the immediate aftermath of elections and then are propagated for years without anyone looking to see if there is truth to them. We have seen this happen after numerous elections as I have written of before, and 2016 was no exception. As I said at the time, when I pushed back against the myth that voters wanted someone like Trump, he won in spite of himself– not because of himself. And that election was as much about perceptions of Hillary Clinton as it was about how folks saw Trump. And In the aftermath of the Alabama special election, we are learning that those perceptions of the president are becoming a huge weight on the feet of the GOP.
Here are my five takeaways in the aftermath of the Senate election in Alabama (in order to try to stop myths from rising again that lead us away from the truth) and what it might portend for 2018:
1. The biggest determinant of the election results and turnout in Alabama was not the views of Roy Moore, or the sexual allegations that surfaced and he denied, or the perception of either major party (which voters both don’t like), but the views of Donald Trump.
In 2016 Trump carried deep red Alabama by about 28 points, but on Tuesday exit polls showed 48 percent of voters disapproved of him and 47 percent approved of him (a Gallup poll done last week shows nationally 36% approval, 59 percent disapproval). And digging deeper in Alabama, 40 percent of voters strongly disapproved of the president, while 33 percent strongly approved. While the president’s numbers were worse in Virginia and New Jersey, the biggest determinant of those results were perceptions of him as well.
2. It was a coalition of Democrats and independents that brought Democratic candidates to victory in Virginia and Alabama, not Republicans abandoning candidates out of the mainstream. Roy Moore got 91 percent of the Republican vote, so GOP voters stayed solidly behind the Republican candidate as they did in Virginia as well. And the vast majority of folks who wrote in an alternative choice in Alabama were independent voters, not Republicans, and these independent voters overall voted for the Democrat by a margin of 8 points (a huge turnaround from previous election years).
3. The GOP did not have a turnout problem in Alabama or Virginia. In fact, in normal election year turnouts (like in midterms), enough GOP voters turned out to carry Roy Moore and Ed Gillespie to victory. In 2014, if Roy Moore had gotten the 650,000 votes he got Tuesday night in a race for governor he would have beaten the Democratic candidate overwhelmingly. (The Democrat in 2014 got approximately 427,000 votes). The problem for Moore was that Democrats and independents were much more enthusiastic to vote (especially anti-Trump voters) and they turned out in record numbers. This same thing happened in Virginia, so we are seeing a pattern here. Normal GOP turnout, but huge turnout increases for the Democrats running.
4. In looking at polling data for the last month, and in looking at election returns, it seems the president’s engagement in this race made things worse for the Republican Moore in a general election setting. While the president is still very popular among Republicans, he is extremely unpopular among independents and Democratic voters. As Trump backed Moore more and more fully, it hurt Moore by increasing turnout for the Democrat. In fact, Trump’s late appearance in Pensacola across the state line from Alabama, may have inspired more Democrats to vote when you look at election returns.
5. The Democrats already at this moment had become likely to take the House of Representatives back because of this building wave of anti-Trump and anti-GOP sentiment, but as of Tuesday night the odds of Republicans losing the Senate just went way up. They now have only 51 seats in the Senate, and because of what happened in Alabama, the field of possible pickups for Democrats just expanded. Democrats already had a realistic shot at picking up Senate seats in Nevada, Arizona, and Tennessee, but now you can possibly add Nebraska and Texas to the list of potential pickups. An amazing turnaround in a single day.
Obviously, all of this is a snapshot in time, but as each day moves forward Trump increasingly becomes a problem for Republicans in general elections. He is still incredibly powerful in a GOP primary because he retains a small but strong die-hard support among Republicans, but in any electorate beyond Republican voters President Trump is a tremendous liability. One piece of advice to Republican elected officials: you might consider taking on the president in a much stronger way if you want to retain your jobs. And a piece of advice to Democrats or independents running in 2018: don’t worry about converting die-hard Trump voters, aim your campaign’s persuasion and motivation efforts at the rising group of independents in America and the passion Democrats now have in this environment. And if you want to lead in America today offer a message of integrity and country over party. It is a winner.
Matthew Dowd is an ABC News analyst and special correspondent. Opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of ABC News.