The Media Today

Glenn Youngkin and America’s permanent election

November 3, 2021
Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin arrives to speak at an election night party in Chantilly, Va., early Wednesday, Nov. 3. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

“KEY RACE ALERT.” It was 7:13pm on the East Coast, thirteen minutes after polls closed in Virginia’s gubernatorial election, and CNN was telling us that the first votes were in: Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, was leading Glenn Youngkin, the Republican, by a margin of two hundred votes—1,126 to 910—in Chesterfield County, near Richmond. “Obviously, that is just a very, very small percentage of votes that are in,” Jake Tapper said, before throwing to John King at the Magic Wall. Around the same time, MSNBC showed those vote counts on a full-screen graphic, with the percentages they represented in much bigger font; as more tallies started to trickle in, they flashed up on Steve Kornacki’s Big Board. At 7:37, Nate Cohn, the data whizz at the New York Times, said on Twitter that the paper’s election-night “needle” for Virginia “would be tilting right,” if it existed. (Electoral trypanophobes were glad that it didn’t.) At 8:13, thirteen minutes after polls closed in New Jersey’s gubernatorial election, CNN gave us another “KEY RACE ALERT.” Phil Murphy, the Democratic incumbent in that state, had “a big lead,” Tapper told us, “but still 99 percent of the vote to go.”

As things stand this morning, all but around ten percent of the votes have been reported in New Jersey and the race there remains too close to call. (Some observers are saying that Murphy, who trails the Republican Jack Ciattarelli by 0.05 percent in the current tally, needs to “come from behind” to win. We went through this last year.) Virginia was not as close: by 8:30pm, Dave Wasserman, an elections maven at the Cook Political Report, had “seen enough” to call the race for Youngkin; a few hours later, the Associated Press did likewise, sealing his “come-from-behind” victory following his early deficit in Chesterfield County. The minute the result was confirmed, the takes began to flow in earnest. On CNN, Dana Bash said that while McAuliffe had tried to nationalize the race by making it about Trump, Youngkin’s campaign had been “incredibly Virginia-focused.” On MSNBC, Brian Williams echoed that point, and said that “something like student and parent rights at school” allowed Youngkin to win. (Something like that, yes.)

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The result itself was quickly nationalized. Politicians and pundits variously pinned McAuliffe’s defeat on Biden failing to pass his ambitious progressive agenda through Congress, on Biden trying to pass an ambitious progressive agenda through Congress, and on neither of the above; it also spurred predictions of near-term Democratic Disarray in Congress (“Tonight really empowers Manchin and Sinema”), a Democratic wipeout in midterm elections a year from now (“they have misjudged the nation’s mood as their window closes”), and the “all but inevitable” 2024 candidacy of Donald Trump. Youngkin’s political future got talked up, too. A report in the Times suggested that it “may hardly be limited to four years in the cream-colored Executive Mansion in Richmond.” Ross Douthat, a columnist at the same paper, said that Youngkin “should seriously consider running for president in 2024.” He has not yet served a day in elected office, ever.

The most common topline takeaway, perhaps, was that Youngkin had successfully trodden the “Trump tightrope”: the Washington Post reported that Youngkin “navigated the trickiest path in politics, appealing to moderate voters while still bringing out the most enthusiastic followers of Trump”; at the top of its top story on the race, the Times concluded that Youngkin had provided Republicans “with a formula for how to exploit President Biden’s vulnerabilities and evade the shadow of Trump in Democratic-leaning states.” There may very well be truth to this. But Virginia is not the country (nor, for that matter, is New Jersey), and off-year elections are not the midterms are not the presidential election. They tell us something, but far from everything, however desperate pundits may be to use them as grist for a national political narrative shift.

Such takes are also of a piece with the way the Virginia election was covered throughout by much of the national political media: Youngkin was too often characterized as a passive actor who deftly rode abstract culture-war forces rather than driving them himself, and hailed for his political savviness more than scrutinized for the substance of his message. As many media watchers have argued, that lens has failed much coverage of racial issues, in particular. Journalists often pointed out that “critical race theory,” which Youngkin cast as a woke specter in Virginia’s schools, isn’t actually taught in Virginia’s schools; some went on to note extra crucial context—that right-wingers, not least in the media, have stripped the phrase of its academic meaning and deputized it to oppose any discussion of race that makes white parents uncomfortable—but others retreated to shallow political framing. “It’s dishonest,” Jonathan Lemire said on MSNBC yesterday, but Republicans are “talented at branding. They’re talented at making elections about certain issues even if they don’t have any basis in reality.”

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The media has a say in what elections are about, as well, but too often lets Republicans dictate the agenda. We also have a say in what leads the news when elections aren’t going on, yet we choose to fill much of that airtime with, erm, elections. The all-too-common genre of political commentary that structures a given presidency around a series of electoral tests—Virginia and New Jersey, the midterms, the primaries, the presidential election—contributes to narrowing the window in which politicians and the public can focus on governing, and warps their incentives when they do. The ridiculous notion that Biden’s window for legislating is closing less than ten months into his four-year presidency is primarily, of course, a reflection of America’s ridiculous political system, but it’s surely the press’s job now to push back on those dynamics and keep the focus on policies that matter in the lives of the American people, rather than gleefully leaping into a year of speculation about what Youngkin’s win means for 2022 and what 2022 means for 2024. To borrow the title of Lemire’s new show on MSNBC, it’s way too early for that.

In some ways, cable news’s breathless focus on early vote tallies on election night is a microcosm of the way much of the political media covers the early part of a presidency—it’s not all totally lacking in insight, and it’s usually liberally sprinkled with reminders that things can change, but much of it is pointless, confusing noise concerning stuff that we simply don’t know yet, when our focus could more usefully be directed elsewhere. One area that has often been neglected in the Virginia coverage that I’ve seen is the Republican Party’s wider war on democracy, which ended up being the biggest story to come out of the last election; when I did see it discussed, it was often in the context of Youngkin distancing himself from Trump, even though Youngkin centered his early campaign around “election integrity” and refused to say if Biden was the legitimate president until after he won the nomination. The Republican campaign to undermine elections won’t end because one of their own just won one. The press may permanently be in election mode, but elections aren’t necessarily permanent.

Below, more on Virginia and election night:

A programming note, and an invitation:
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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.