Donald Trump Can't Lose

If Ed Gillespie wins tonight, it’s proof that Trumpism is triumphant in the Republican party. Gillespie may have been a longtime establishment party-insider, but he spent most of his campaign fighting on populist cultural issues. If Gillespie wins, so does Trumpism.

Of course, if Gillespie loses it will also mean that Trumpism is triumphant in the Republican party. It will be proof that establishment party insiders can’t hope to win and that the future of the GOP is with candidates like Corey Stewart, the mini-Trump who almost shocked Gillespie in the Republican primary.

Both of these interpretations cannot be true, of course. Yet they’re both certainly plausible. Why is that? In the case of elections, it’s because Trumpism is focused inward at the Republican party rather than outward at the Democratic party. When Chris Christie beat Jon Corzine, Bob McDonnell beat Creigh Deeds and Scott Brown beat Martha Coakley in the span of a few months from late 2009 to early 2010, there was no plausible way for Democrats to interpret those as victories for Obama. A two-party game is, by definition, a zero-sum game.

But Trumpism posits a three-party game where the principal combatants are Trumpkin Nationalists vs. Establishment Republicans vs. whatever Democrat happens to be in the vicinity. And in a three-party game you can rationalize almost any outcome, because there will be, by definition, either multiple losers or multiple winners.

And it’s not just elections that yield this non-falsifiable proposition: It turns out that there are essentially no outcomes that can be interpreted as failures for Trumpism. A $1 trillion infrastructure proposal is floated: It shows how Trumpism defies political conventions. The infrastructure proposal dies on the vine: It shows how reliably conservative Trumpism is. If Obamacare repeal fails: It shows how weak congressional Republicans are. The president negotiates immigration reform with Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer: It shows how strong Trump is.

Trumpism is a personality cult as much as an ideological movement. Consider the following: Even Trump’s stingiest conservative critics will list at least three things the president has done well: He is stocking the judiciary with more and better-quality jurists than any president since Reagan; he has put a halt to the federal government’s regulatory overreach; he has treated North Korea as the serious threat it is. All three of these are unalloyed successes.

Now, ask a Trump partisan to list three of Trump’s failures. Crickets.

Whatever’s wrong is always the fault of the globalists, or the fake news, or the failing New York Times. The president’s response to Charlottesville was distorted by the haters, everyone knows what he meant by “very fine people,” and besides, what about Antifa?

But even that requires Trump’s supporters to admit that something went sideways in the first place, which happens only rarely. As often as not, Trump’s mistakes are regarded as genius in disguise. He says he wants to pull NBC’s broadcast license? You’re taking him literally, not seriously. The wall turns out to be just the renovation of old and existing fences? You’re taking him seriously, not literally. It’s all negotiation. It’s all 4-dimensional chess. Don’t be a cuck.

With all of that in mind, how should we evaluate whether Trumpism "wins" or "loses" in Virginia tonight?

For starters, we ought to stipulate that the answer could be “neither.” David Byler notes poll data showing that the Gillespie-Northam race may have uncoupled itself from national politics. If exit polls show voters saying that Trump didn’t impact their votes, then the election may have very little to say about Trumpism.

Then, look at how Gillespie fares in comparison to how Republicans have done in the following elections:

  • In the 2008 presidential election, John McCain got 46.3 percent of the vote in Virginia.
  • In the 2009 gubernatorial election, Bob McDonnell got 58.6 percent of the vote.
  • In the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney got 47.3 percent of the vote in Virginia.
  • In the 2013 gubernatorial election, Ken Cuccinelli got 45.2 percent of the vote.
  • In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump got 44.4 percent of the vote in Virginia.

There are a couple things going on in these numbers: Republican vote share is trending downward, yes. And the big outlier is McDonnell—you can read his election as part of the national the 2009 backlash against Obama.

Other than that, you have very different candidates grouped in a very narrow band of vote-shares. McCain and Romney are as mainstream-establishment as Republicans get. Ken Cuccinelli was a social-conservative culture-warrior. Donald Trump was Donald Trump. All three of these guys were grouped within 2.9 points of one-another.

In order to believe that Trumpism had any real impact on the race, you’d want to see Gillespie’s numbers falling pretty far outside that band. If he gets to 50 percent, then something was probably going on in the race. Ditto if he falls to 40 percent.

Only after we determine whether any kind of Trump effect exists can we begin to sift through the data to figure out if Trumpism was a help, or a hinderance.

Not that you’ll need to wait that long for the Trump people to weigh in. For them—spoiler alert—Trump wins.

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