It’s Still City Vs. Rural Voters

If gubernatorial election results in Virginia earlier this month are any indication, the 2020 presidential election may be something of a replay of the 2016 version, with rural voters pitted against those from big cities.

But returns from the Old Dominion paint a pretty picture for Democrats — if they can find a candidate without the baggage Hillary Clinton carried into the balloting last fall.

Despite Clinton’s ongoing deceptions on that score, it’s clear she was the Democrats’ problem last time around. A candidate dogged by fewer ethics issues would have triumphed over Donald Trump.

Now, there are perils in equating how people vote in a gubernatorial race to how they’ll behave in a presidential contest. Local considerations are critical in state-level elections.

But interestingly, county-by-county and city-by-city election results this year in Virginia look like carbon copies of November 2016 in some ways. Democrat Ralph Northam won because he had big support in the cities. Republican Ed Gillespie swept the rural areas, but it wasn’t enough.

But Gillespie’s share of the total vote in Virginia, 44.97 percent, was virtually identical to Trump’s 45 percent.

Meanwhile, Northam, at 53.9 percent, did far better than Clinton’s 49.9 percent.

Third-party candidates sucked away far more of the vote in the presidential election. Last fall, had they been absent, there’s reason to believe Clinton and Trump would have been much closer. Green Party hopeful Jill Stein garnered just 0.7 percent of the vote, and that probably would have gone to Clinton. But libertarian Gary Johnson’s 3 percent and Republican establishment candidate Ed McMullin’s 1.4 percent likely would have gone to Trump.

Excitement is a factor, of course. About 3.84 million Virginians voted last fall, compared to about 2.61 million this month. That was despite the fact some observers had termed the gubernatorial election a referendum on Trump. Clearly, lots of Old Dominion voters decided, either because they didn’t care who becomes governor or about registering displeasure or approval with Trump, that getting out to vote wasn’t that important.

At the county and city level, one thing stands out about this year’s balloting. Of the 32 city and county returns I looked at from this year’s election, there were 23 in which the Democrat gubernatorial candidate did much better than last year’s Democrat presidential candidate, while Republicans Trump and Gillespie either maintain about the same percentage of voters — or less.

In other words, Democrats seem to be picking up strength in Virginia, while Republicans are merely treading water.

That’s not a good sign for the GOP in 2020, if, again, the Virginia balloting can be taken as any kind of referendum on Republicans and Democrats in general.

Trump’s margin last year was razor-thin; in fact, Clinton beat him in the popular vote. He won the decisive electoral vote only because she was both a lousy campaigner and someone many Democrats decided they just couldn’t support.

He won because he stirred the passions of many rural voters fed up with “the swamp,” while Clinton wasn’t able to muster the same sort of urban support her former boss, Barack Obama, enjoyed.

Next year, we’ll get more data, in the form of congressional elections. Don’t be surprised if Republicans lose some seats; midterm elections tend to go badly for the president’s party.

What will be most instructive, however, is the rural vs. city dynamic. If Democrat candidates manage to find enough roll-up-your-sleeves types to convince voters outside the cities that they really are the party of “the little guy,” it will spell big trouble for the GOP in 2020.

And here’s the thing: The Democrats may have just such a candidate for president — Joe Biden. Picture a campaign between him and Donald Trump, if you will.

Now, that would be interesting.

Myer can be reached at: