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Elections analysis: Dems’ wins not necessarily ‘harbinger’ for ’18

Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam celebrates his election victory with his wife Pam and daughter Aubrey, right, and Dorothy McAuliffe, wife of Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe at the Northam For Governor election night party at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Across the country on Tuesday, a collection of state, local, and special elections gave way to several headline-worthy results, including a sizeable Democratic win in the Virginia gubernatorial race and several victories for historically underrepresented populations.

Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science at Northeastern and an expert on campaigns and elections, cautioned against holding up the results as a harbinger for 2018, but he emphasized their importance in future elections for higher office.

Are Tuesday’s results any indication of what may happen in the 2018 midterm elections or even the 2020 election?

So much can happen between now and the 2018 election cycle. We have no idea what’s going to be happening politically, but a fairly consistent determinant of election outcomes is the presidential approval rating.

If the president is as unpopular as he is now, that’s going to be a drag on Republicans in 2018. Compounding that, the presidential party historically tends to lose congressional seats in the midterm elections, which could be another challenge for Republicans. On the other hand, if the economy continues to perform strongly, that will help Republicans. It’s just too soon to tell.

I’d caution against using Tuesday’s election results as a harbinger for 2018, but it is safe to say that if things stay more or less the same and Democrats stay engaged, we’re likely to see Democratic gains in 2018.

Local, off-cycle elections tend not to receive the media coverage or garner the turnout that national elections do. How important are these local elections?

Local elections are critical, not only for local issues, but they’re also important determinants to what happens in higher-level office races down the road by establishing a pool of candidates who can go on to run for those higher-level offices.

Candidates who have local wins under their belts are generally more advantaged when they run for higher office. The fact that Democrats made gains in lower-level offices positions them well to leverage that for higher offices. All these victories now are helping to solidify a pool of candidates with elected experience from which the Democrats can draw for higher offices.

Don’t forget too that these lower-level statehouse elections are critical to redistricting decisions. If the Democrats sustain this strength and the seats in these legislatures through 2018, they’ll be well positioned to exert greater control in the next redistricting cycle, after the 2020 census.

How was turnout this year?

Voter turnout was generally up, which is really encouraging for these types of off-cycle elections. What that says is that it’s not the case that all this national anxiety bubbling up for various reasons is keeping people away from the polls. If anything, it’s stimulating greater levels of engagement.

I think this is a sustainable wave, too, though it takes a lot of very hard work to keep people interested and engaged in political affairs.

What broad themes emerged after Tuesday’s elections?

It’s pretty clear that Democrats are motivated to vote and to stand up against a Trump agenda. We saw Democratic gains almost across the board, and that’s a hopeful sign for the Democratic Party moving forward.

The Democrats were caught off guard in 2016 by how under-motivated their base was compared to the Republican base. That turned out to be catastrophic for them, and it’s something the party seems to be determined to avoid in the future. That said, it’s crucial that Democrats give voters a reason to vote for them and not just against Republicans.

A CNN poll released Tuesday showed that favorable views of the Democratic Party have dropped to their lowest point in more than 25 years. How do you compare that against the gains the party made on Tuesday?

A resistance to Trump and to the Trump agenda was certainly motivating quite a bit of the democratic movement, but not exclusively.

The Democratic Party and its candidates learned in 2016 not to take any vote for granted and there was a very incisive Democratic mobilization effort this time around. That, combined with dampened Republican enthusiasm given the president’s sagging popularity produced the outcomes we see today.

The Virginia gubernatorial race—where Democrat Ralph S. Northam bested Republican Ed Gillespie by an eight-point margin—was the most striking example of the Democratic advantage we saw on Tuesday. The margin was so much wider than anticipated that it shows the Democrats are not only very motivated, but also that their mobilization strategy was effective.

We saw several wins by candidates from under-represented groups, including the election of two openly transgender candidates and the first Sikh mayor in New Jersey. Is this representative of larger national trends?

What’s clear is that minorities and those in other under-represented groups in the U.S. may have had a giant wake-up call in the 2016 election about just how much antipathy there is toward certain groups in this country. They were shocked into ensuring it didn’t happen again and made efforts to that end for this election.

There is, of course, always the possibility that these gains by under-represented groups will motivate their opponents as well, and it remains unclear exactly how that will all play out in the next few elections.

The striking message that was sent in many places across the country, though, is that the progress we’ve made as a society is something that people hold onto dearly. They’re going to resist any threat of moving backward on that.