The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is Trump’s race-baiting a political winner for Republicans? This new data sheds some light.

Republican Ed Gillespie and Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam are running in this year's closely watched race for Virginia governor. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)
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When Virginia voters go to the polls to choose a new governor in less than two weeks, President Trump’s bigotry and race-bating will be very much on the ballot.

Yesterday, Trump himself willed this to be so. The president tweeted that electing Republican Ed Gillespie might “save our great statues” and “heritage.” As an explosion of tweets immediately asked, what heritage, exactly — racism? Whatever Trump meant, there’s no denying that the Virginia contest has become a referendum on how successful Trumpist racial politics will be, now that he’s in the White House.

Trump has repeatedly cast Democrat Ralph Northam as soft on immigration and crime, and Gillespie has heavily trafficked in these same attacks, with dishonest ads featuring scary, tattooed, brown-skinned gang members. In the state that was recently the site of white supremacist violence and murder, Gillespie has said Confederate statues should remain. All this is designed to energize Virginia Trump voters.

I’ve got some fresh data from a new Wason Center for Public Policy poll that sheds light on whether this effort by Gillespie is working, and how.

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The poll’s toplines find that Northam leads Gillespie among likely voters, 50 percent to 43 percent. And Rachel Bitecofer, the assistant director of the Wason Center poll, provided me with additional data from the crosstabs.

First, the data shows the strategy may be working in one sense: It may be driving up energy among Republicans. In September, the Wason Center poll found that only 72 percent of Republicans were likely to vote, vs. 77 percent of Democrats. But in the latest poll, 79 percent of Republicans are likely to vote, vs. 80 percent of Democrats — meaning Gillespie has reached parity by this metric.

“The whole point of Gillespie’s strategy is to get base GOP voters excited by throwing them red meat, and there is some evidence that Republican voters have become more interested in the election,” Bitecofer told me.

Follow Washington Post reporter, Marc Fisher, as he searches for the elusive Republican candidate running for Governor of Virginia, Ed Gillespie. (Video: Dalton Bennett, Marc Fisher/The Washington Post, Photo: Dalton Bennett/The Washington Post)

However, there is also evidence that this strategy may not be doing enough. For one thing, Bitecofer says, right now the enthusiasm gap still favors Democrats. This poll seeks to impose a tight voter screen, based on whether people voted repeatedly in recent elections and are thinking about this one. This matters, because it helps tell us whether turnout will drop off for Democrats in this off-year election or instead will be energized because of Trump — and whether Republican voters will be energized (or not) in the Trump era.

The new Wason Center poll suggests that Democrats may be energized. With this screen, it projects an electorate that is 36 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican and 30 percent independent, Bitecofer tells me. (The 2013 gubernatorial race, which Democrats won, had a very similar electorate.) Another key question is whether nonwhites will be energized. The poll finds that 78 percent of whites are likely to vote, while 76 percent of nonwhites are — no difference. And while 39 percent of whites are thinking about the election a lot, 49 percent of nonwhites are thinking a lot about it.

What’s more, Gillespie is winning only 83 percent of self-described strong conservatives, while 93 percent of strong liberals say they’re going for Northam. “That’s bad news for Gillespie,” says Bitecofer, who also wrote a new book on the 2016 campaign.

Here’s another data point: While the new poll shows Gillespie trouncing Northam, 64-22, among non-college whites, he is barely ahead of Northam among college-educated whites, at 47-44. Gillespie almost certainly has to run up a larger margin among those voters to win, and this suggests the emphasis on immigration, crime and Confederate statues either isn’t winning enough of those white voters or potentially is alienating them.

This could be a key tell. As Ron Brownstein has reported, pollsters on both campaigns see the college-educated white vote as a window into the broader viability of Trumpist campaign appeals. One question for both sides is what impact the racially freighted attacks — which both assume are energizing non-college whites — will have on more educated white suburban and swing voters. Northam’s pollster says the attacks are alienating them. Gillespie’s pollster says the attacks are actually persuading them. Wason Center’s polling supports the former view.

The stakes around these matters are very high. Remember, the above represents only one poll, and the polling averages have the race closer, with Northam leading by around 4 points. Gillespie could certainly win. If he does, Republican candidates around the country may be emboldened to amp up the Trumpist tactics — the racial provocation and deliberate stoking of divisions. If Northam wins, Republicans may begin to wonder whether going full Trumpist carries too many costs, in the form of driving away college-educated and suburban whites, and energizing minorities.

* REPUBLICANS LOOKING TO WIND DOWN RUSSIA PROBES: Politico reports that congressional Democrats involved in the Russia probes expect that Republicans will likely wind them down before a definitive conclusion is reached on whether collusion occurred:

Democrats … seem increasingly resigned to the fact that their probes may end without a conclusion on whether any Americans aided the Russian interference effort. “It’s quite possible that six months from now, there will be unanswered questions that we can’t answer because the people we would need to answer those questions are in Russia,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.). “The probability that we’re going to produce a report that buttons down every question is pretty low.”

Weird. Why wouldn’t Republicans want to take the time to flesh out the full story of this effort to sabotage our democracy?

* DEEP GOP DIVISIONS REMAIN ON TAXES: The Post takes stock of just how deep the divisions run right now over tax “reform”:

Still unresolved were several questions: whether the legislation would moderate the expected benefits for the wealthy … There are deep divisions over which taxes or deductions to eliminate to offset some of the trillions of dollars in revenue lost to proposed steep tax cuts for corporations and some individuals. Options to raise revenue have been met with stiff resistance.

Spoiler alert: The most likely outcome is that they will end up slightly moderating the benefits for the wealthy while doing little to offset the lost revenue — and dissembling madly about both.

* ANOTHER BIG STAND FROM CORKER AND FLAKE? CNN reports that Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, who just earned plaudits for calling out Trump as unfit, could also pose an obstacle on tax cuts:

Corker has said he won’t vote for anything that adds “one penny” to the deficit and Sen. Jeff Flake … told CNN that he too wasn’t going to vote for just any tax bill if he thought it was fiscally irresponsible. There will be dozens more battles in upcoming weeks after the real details emerge.

We’re skeptical. It’s one thing to call out the president of your party for being unfit to serve and a menace to the world. It’s a far taller order to jeopardize your party’s push for tax cuts.

* THE BOGUS ARGUMENT FOR TRUMP’S TAX CUTS: Paul Krugman goes right at the heart of the argument that Republicans make for corporate tax cuts, i.e., that their benefits will flow to workers:

Realistically … the benefits from cutting corporate taxes would overwhelmingly flow into after-tax profits rather than wages … And this in turn means that the main beneficiaries would be stockholders, not workers. … We’re talking mainly about the very affluent. Even if we count indirect holdings in retirement accounts and mutual funds, the richest 10 percent of U.S. residents account for about 80 percent of American-owned stocks, and the richest 1 percent own about 40 percent.

Fortunately, polls suggest that most Americans understand who would really benefit. Unfortunately, Republicans don’t care what most Americans think.

* PRESSURE MAY MOUNT ON REPUBLICANS OVER TRUMP: Michael Gerson says his fellow Republicans have a duty to speak up about the president:

Conscience does not permit the normalization of deception, spite and bigotry. … When congressional leaders try to ignore Trump’s instability and prejudice in order to pass tax reform, they are living within a lie. … When called upon by events — such as the Charlottesville controversy — to speak the truth, a public official has a duty to do so. And future developments — the culmination of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, a serious primary challenge to Trump — may force this soon enough.

Indeed, this is likely to get worse for Republicans — possibly a lot worse.


Steyer is funding a $10 million ad campaign calling for Trump’s impeachment. It was very helpful of Trump to put his mighty Twitter feed to use in drawing media attention to that campaign.