Washington Is Talking to Itself

Political insiders’ off-based predictions about the Virginia governor’s race showed the limits of the D.C. echo chamber. 

By Peter Fenn, Opinion Contributor | Nov. 20, 2017, at 2:00 p.m.

Washington Is Talking to Itself

Another wild and crazy month in our nation’s capital. More Trump tweets to opine about; tax bills flying every which way; sex scandals to titillate; indictments of the rich and famous (or infamous) over the Mueller Russia probe; political books to occupy the cable chattering class and provide more excuses to rehash the 2016 election.

But most important for the political junkies, we had another November election day to dissect.

I won’t rehash all the conclusions and theories from the aftermath but I will just make one central point: The insider, pundit class once again appears to have gotten it wrong. The echo chamber that is Washington talking to itself seems to have missed the basics.

A headline in a Washington Post blog post captured it: “Why Ed Gillespie is Surging in Virginia.” Some polls reported a close race and articles were written about the impact of Gillespie’s negative ads on gangs, sanctuary cities and child molesters. Many in the press talked to themselves and not to those in the campaigns who were knowledgeable.

It all culminated in a MSNBC “Morning Joe” segment the day before the election when the panel was asked whether Democrats would win – New York Times reporter Nicholas Confessore: “I don’t think so. I think it’s Gillespie;” MSNBC host Ari Melber: “It doesn’t look like Northam wins;” host Mike Brzezinski: “You’re losing on the party issue. … The party is weak.”

Another MSNBC pundit, Krystal Ball, who had run a pretty pathetic losing campaign (35 percent) for Congress in Virginia but is supposed to know the state, said on “AM Joy” that the people “don’t know where Northam stands on issues” and there is a “tremendous lack of enthusiasm” for him. She clearly needs a new crystal ball!

It wasn’t just that the so-called insiders called it wrong, it is what they focused on: the gossip in the Donna Brazile book, the focus on Northam as too soft-spoken, the so-called battle between liberal-moderate factions in the Democratic Party. Pardon my language, but this was all crap. The Washington insiders failed to read the impact of the health care issue and the importance voters gave to Northam as a doctor. They failed to understand how strong the anti-Trump sentiment was in Virginia and how motivated Democrats were to vote. They failed to gauge the serious cognitive dissonance between Gillespie’s ads and how he was trying to portray himself as a moderate, independent-from-Trump Republican. That made voters very angry.

I went door-to-door in Northern Virginia before the election and on election day. A couple of things surprised me given the talk I heard for weeks from the echo chamber. Not one person bought up Russia, not one person wanted to discuss Hillary Clinton or Donna Brazile’s book or the so-called warring factions within the Democratic Party. Nearly every identified voter was eager to talk about how horrendous they thought Donald Trump was and how much they liked gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam. If anything, they found Ed Gillespie’s ads not believable and over the top. They found the prospect of a Republican who was adopting Trump’s message becoming governor a great motivator to get out and vote. They were energized. No wonder the turnout was about 2.6 million votes compared to 2.2 million four years ago. And no wonder Ralph Northam won by 9 points and got over 300,000 more votes than Gov. Terry McAuliffe received four years earlier.

If the pundits and prognosticators had talked to my former partner, Tom King, who has been Northam’s lead consultant in his lieutenant governor’s race and this governor’s contest, they would have gotten a realistic and careful analysis, not spin. As he told me, their polling and research confirmed that Northam was viewed as “calm and reassuring” to voters as well as “substantive, experienced” and “especially qualified as a doctor to deal with the health care issue.” He was, and is, “a solid progressive” but not threatening. On the other hand, Gillespie was much more perceived as the “insider’s insider” and a “Washington politician.”

We in the echo chamber get it more wrong than right on most occasions. Many missed Obama’s rise in 2008, the wave of the tea party two years later, the insanity of 2016. I called Trump’s candidacy “a joke” early on and, like many, couldn’t conceive that America would really elect him. In this election, failing to even consider the possibility of Democrats gaining 15 seats in the Republican-gerrymandered Virginia House of Delegates, the election of the first transgender candidate and the sweep of local races from coast to coast showed the isolation of the Washington echo chamber.

Maybe it is time for us to stop talking to ourselves and actually go door to door, to the shopping malls, to the county fairs and maybe, just maybe, talk to people. As political pros we should listen to the focus groups, watch the participants’ body language and listen to the strength of their words. What we talk about is quite often not what they talk about. Virginia was a clear illustration of how badly the echo chamber was seriously out of touch.