Media too thirsty for a narrative shift on Trump

November 9, 2017
Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Much of the mainstream press hailed Tuesday’s Democratic wins in Virginia, New Jersey, and beyond as an explicit biteback at Donald Trump. In a cycle flush with stories about the anniversary of Trump’s election win, parts of the press seemed intent on casting Republican setbacks as a narrative shift.

Ralph Northam’s comfortable win in the Virginia governor’s race was the crest of a progressive wave, they said—The New York Times heralded a “first, forceful rebuke of Trump and his party,” The Washington Post called it “nothing less than a stinging repudiation of Trump,” and The New Yorker described it as “a turn in national politics.”

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But sweeping conclusions about the frailty of Trump and the resurgence of the Democratic Party are premature. These were local elections settled by local dynamics—and while Trump was a factor, it’s impossible to divine a uniform “Trump effect” across states. Editors and observers interviewed by CJR paint a more complex picture than a Trump slump: The president was one consideration in elections that hinged on state-specific issues and personalities, filtered through particular demographics that don’t perfectly reflect the country as a whole.

“If you watched some of the national punditry on the eve of the election, there were some folks who thought it likely that Republican Ed Gillespie was going to win” the Virginia governor’s race, says Andrew Cain, politics editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. “Those of us who watch the numbers year after year in statewide elections knew that while it was possible for Gillespie to prevail, it was going to be a challenge given the pace of demographic change in the state and the fact Democrats seem to have something of a hold on the state’s population centers.”

While the mainstream media touted Virginia as the strongest evidence of voter backlash against Trump, some headlines mentioned Phil Murphy’s win in the New Jersey governor’s race. Jeff Edelstein, a columnist with The Trentonian, says that’s also a mistake. “We were going to get a Democrat governor no matter who was president this time around—we had eight years of a Republican, and Chris Christie’s popularity just sunk,” he says. Incumbent Christie’s approval rating has hovered just above single digits for months, dragged down by scandals like “Bridgegate” and a decision to sun himself on a beach the state government had closed to the public over the July 4 holiday.

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That’s not to say Trump’s unpopularity didn’t have an impact in these states; it almost certainly did. The clear margin of Northam’s victory and rampant, unexpected gains for the Democrats in the Virginia state legislature—where a transgender woman, Danica Roem, unseated a sponsor of an anti-transgender bathroom bill—likely had something to do with Trump’s low approval rating. Edelstein reckons Democrats similarly profited in down-ballot races in New Jersey—even though they escaped the national attention afforded their Virginia counterparts. Further afield, the party picked up the mayoralty of Manchester, New Hampshire, for the first time in 14 years, and took control of the Washington state legislature.

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The problem is more that mainstream news outlets have extrapolated national significance from states that don’t reflect the full complexity of an increasingly divided country. New Jersey has a long record of electing gubernatorial candidates from the opposite party to the president. Virginia, meanwhile, has been leaning blue for some time and was the only Southern state not to vote for Trump last year. It’s highly questionable it can still be classed as a “swing state,” and it’s certainly not a “bellwether” of the national political picture, as The Guardian suggested.

Ever since Trump was elected, sections of the media have drawn tenuous, big-picture stories from small-picture races and states, drawing contradictory conclusions as a result. Karen Handel’s win over Jon Ossoff in a Georgia Congressional special election in June was hailed in some parts as a body-blow for Democrats—even though she only won narrowly in a solidly Republican district. And Roy Moore’s victory over Luther Strange in Alabama’s GOP Senate primary last month was called a victory for exactly the sort of flame-throwing Trumpism that yesterday’s elections supposedly repudiated.

“To try to extrapolate too much from Virginia and Alabama, in particular, sort of misses the point. Those couldn’t be two more different states. Virginia went blue in the last election, Alabama has been a red stronghold for well over two decades now. And crazy events have happened in both states, [like] Charlottesville,” says Elaina Plott, an Alabama native who writes for Washingtonian magazine. “I’m gonna be much more interested in understanding what happens in a state like Pennsylvania when it comes to predicting what we might see in 2018 and beyond.”

Outlets like CNN and FiveThirtyEight have already cast yesterday’s victories for Democrats as a huge boost to their 2018 midterm prospects, albeit with some caveats. The analysis might end up being right. But if the media’s failure to predict Trump’s win last year was attributable, in part, to treating states in isolation and not as movable parts in a dynamic country, then it should be extra careful to avoid the same mistakes going forward.

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A widely echoed New York Times analysis about this week’s elections declared “Trumpism without Trump” to be “a losing formula.” Even leaving aside the fact Moore won on a Trumpian platform in Alabama without the president’s personal endorsement, this sort of take is flawed. The media can’t conclude, in the same breath, that the results in Virginia and New Jersey were both a direct rebuke to Trump and a reflection of his absence from those races. As CNBC senior columnist Jake Novak says in an interview with CJR, “It’s time for everyone to understand that Trump and the Republican Party are two different things.”

Parts of the media, especially left-leaning outlets like Vice, framed the run-up to Tuesday’s elections as a first test for the anti-Trump “resistance,” gambling that this had the makings of what Cain at the Richmond Times-Dispatch calls a “Beach Boys election—catch a wave and you’re sitting on top of the world.” The results seemed to confirm that preordained narrative, giving it extra potency.

It’s okay for journalists to synthesize linked local events into a broader national pattern, and it’s okay for them to invoke Trump when doing so. But the instinct to confirm a presupposed trend is dangerous—and this week’s elections did not make for conclusive evidence. “Going into it, if I was king of all media, I’d wanna see Trump get trounced, because that’s a better story,” says Edelstein at The Trentonian. “In that regard the media kinda got what it was looking for.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.