Case in point: The gubernatorial elections this year in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which will be very high profile contests indicating where the current political environment is headed.
Voters just chose their nominees in both states. In Virginia — which was a swing state just a few years ago but has become solidly blue — Republicans selected former private equity CEO Glenn Youngkin. Political scientist Mark Rozell described him as “largely unknown” with the potential of creating “his own political image as a mainstream conservative unburdened by Trumpism.”
Youngkin has been executing a familiar two-step: Reassure primary voters that he believes in their party’s foundational ideals, then downplay the more controversial ones for the general election. And in his first ad of the fall campaign, he offers what is almost a parody of an empty candidate offering nothing but substance-free bromides and a variety of fleece vests:
In a less polarized time, this would be a good strategy for a Republican running in a Democratic state to employ: Don’t give voters anything that might alienate them, and instead serve them meaningless, folksy, anti-politician rhetoric. “I’m not a politician,” he says. “It’s a new day in Virginia. The future belongs to us.”
People running for office while saying “I’m not a politician” may be my single greatest political pet peeve. If someone offered to rewire your house while saying, “I’m not an electrician, I’m a stockbroker, which is why I can bring fresh thinking to solve this problem,” you’d be a fool to hire him.
Sadly, it sometimes works. But the more polarized the electorate is, the less likely that kind of argument is to find purchase, because voters want to know which team you’re on.
Youngkin wants to create “a rip-roaring economy?” You don’t say! Would he like to do that with tax cuts for the wealthy (a standard Republican idea), programs aimed at low-income people (a Democratic approach), or something in between? He’s not saying yet. So while this kind of drivel may have worked in the past, it’s utterly useless for voters trying to choose, and this time around they probably know it.
Because Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic nominee, knows that the more voters understand the substantive differences between the candidates the better off he’ll be, he won’t let Youngkin get away with downplaying his party identity. Here’s his first general election ad:
The McAuliffe ad is full of party cues: shots of Donald Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Barack Obama, current Virginia governor Ralph Northam, and the assertion that he’s a Democrat who has worked with “reasonable Republicans,” of whom, he says, Youngkin is not one because of his affinity for Trump, whose name is spoken four times in about twelve seconds.
McAuliffe’s ad is hardly policy-heavy, but by focusing on party identity, he’s offering voters a useful heuristic that will tell them most of what they need to know. If what’s foremost in their mind is the fact that McAuliffe is a Democrat and Youngkin is a Republican, they’ll be able to accurately predict most of what either would do on taxes, health care, education, criminal justice, and many other issues.
In other words, in a polarized time, the brand of strategic vagueness Youngkin is offering probably won’t fly with voters. And it shouldn’t.
That’s not to say it’s impossible for any candidate to win an election when most of their electorate identifies with the other party. Even if it happens less often than it used to, it still happens.
There are currently three Democratic governors leading clearly Republican-leaning states (Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana), and three Republicans leading clearly Democratic-leaning states (Maryland, Massachusetts and Vermont). But when you look at figures like Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) or Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D), you see not ideological ciphers who successfully concealed what they were about from the voters, but shrewd politicians who understand how to navigate their state’s ideological currents.
And in 2021, polarization is about more than just policy; it’s also, inevitably, about Trump. Which is why Youngkin makes an interesting contrast with Jack Ciattarelli, who just became the Republican gubernatorial nominee in New Jersey. While Youngkin made pro-Trump statements in the primaries that McAuliffe will now use against him, Ciattarelli won his primary in no small part by being the candidate who rejected Trump.
Nevertheless, Ciattarelli isn’t some kind of liberal; he’s promising tax cuts, harsh immigration policies, and restrictions on abortion, among other things. In other words, he’s a standard-issue Republican — which his opponent, Gov. Phil Murphy, will use against him as well.
Barring some unusual scandal, both these Republicans will probably lose. You can lament that foreordained outcome as a failure, since we should evaluate every candidate by their personal strengths and weaknesses.
But you can also see it as the sign of a responsive system: As Republicans in majority-Democratic states, they’re offering something their voters don’t actually want. If the voters understand that and choose accordingly, it’s hard to see that as a problem.