Elections are almost constant in American politics, and preparing for them is one of the least pleasant parts of any elected representative’s role. On the national political stage in the House and Senate, staffers allocate multiple hours per day to fundraising calls with a view to the next electoral cycle, no matter how far away it is. Just over a year to the day since Donald Trump won the presidency, the latest round of elections posed the biggest question yet about where momentum lies in US politics.
Broadly speaking, this set of results showed the opposition Democrats in resurgence and the in-power Republicans stalling. Democrats won two high-profile gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which were presented as referendums on President Trump. In Virginia, challenger Ralph Northam (D) struck an optimistic campaigning tone that promised to build on the legacy of sitting Governor Terry McAuliffe (D). Despite a background in the more establishment wing of the Republican Party, Ed Gillespie (R) channelled President Trump’s strong overtones focussing on law and order, justice and immigration. Gillespie distanced himself from Trump personally, but embraced the spirit of his agenda. Unsurprisingly for the man who loves to win, President Trump disavowed Gillespie immediately after his defeat.
With some notable exceptions, from the top to the bottom of the ballot across the country, Democrats were helped by a combination of an unpopular president and an energised grass roots. This is where the parallels with UK politics can begin to be drawn.
First, the unpopularity of the national leader. President Trump has retained the support of his loyal base, but is fighting a wave of disapproval across the country. His FiveThirtyEight polling average shows a 56.8% disapproval rating. While Theresa May has stayed either in line with or ahead of Jeremy Corbyn in polls asking who would be the best Prime Minister, nationwide her popularity is lagging at 31%. In both countries, the state of the leader makes the party in power easy to campaign against, importing national politics down to the local level. This should be of grave concern to the Conservatives ahead of the local elections in May 2018.
Second, an energised opposition base. The Democrats were guilty of sleep-walking into the 2016 presidential election, understating the lack of enthusiasm for Hillary Clinton while grossly underestimating the grass roots support for Trump. Using frustration at the White House on wedge issues like race, gender and the environment as a catalyst for change, grass roots groups such as Swing Left, Indivisible, Flippable, Run for Something and Crooked Media filled the void left by the Democratic Party institutions by identifying, engaging and training activists and candidates. The Republican base largely stood still, relying on voters who were still fiercely aboard the Trump train to turn out and spread the message on doorsteps.
At home, the Conservatives have failed to energise the party loyalists who remain angry and dejected even after Theresa May’s apology at conference. There is no immediate sign the ‘rusty’ party machine dissected by Mark Wallace of Conservative Home’s election post-mortem is being fixed. Instead, the party appears convinced that Brexit will be enough to energise the base in the local elections, next general election and any by-elections that may stem from imminent sackings or resignations.
The empirical data behind the strategy is presumably based on polling that puts Brexit clearly at the top of the most important issues facing the country, whilst British Election Study data showed Brexit was the stand-out lead issue in the 2017 election.
The Labour party leadership has devolved Brexit in parliament to the Shadow Brexit Secretary, choosing instead to focus on domestic issues like welfare, wages and healthcare. This is an important early insight into the battle lines on which Jeremy Corbyn wants to fight the next election. On the ground, Labour look far better prepared than the Conservatives. Unseat are undertaking weekend campaigning in high-profile target seats like Amber Rudd’s Hastings and Rye, well in advance of any future general election. Whereas Conservatives were either frustrated with the party’s clunky data during the 2017 election or disbelieving of what it told them about streets local activists claimed they knew best, Labour have moved on to embrace a US-style ground game having launched ‘Labour Doorstep’, a community campaigning app with digital training around the country. Meanwhile, the force behind Momentum shows no sign of slowing, having built a genuine movement behind the cult of Jeremy Corbyn. With Theresa May’s popularity flagging, a growing list of Ministers fending off calls to resign and absolutely no sign of the Conservative grass roots being re-energised after a bruising 2017, it is easy to see the parallels between the struggling Conservative/Republican parties and the resurgent opposition Labour/Democrats. Having won power nationwide, both incumbent parties are now at risk of sleepwalking into electoral defeat at the next available opportunity.
Credible leaders, credible messages
Local elections historically lead to punishment for the governing party, both in the US and the UK. In any election, the two determining factors are always a credible leader delivering a credible message. Across the East coast of America, the credibility of the leader and popularity of the message create a ripe campaigning environment for opposition Democrats, turning genuine anger into political wins. On current trends, it is easy to foresee the Conservatives suffering the same fate next year.
Ahead of the May 2018 local elections, Conservatives are already privately expressing angst about retaining flagship councils like Wandsworth and Kensington. The Tories are struggling with an unpopular leader at the top of the ticket, and beyond that a series of muddled messages in their pitch to voters. Delivering Brexit is the only consistent thread running through the party, but on that two thirds of the public disapprove of how the negotiations are being handled and confidence is lagging (46%) in the Prime Minister’s ability to get a good deal. Local issues matter in local elections, and it is important not just to extrapolate a wider meaning on the national scale. They are not explicitly a referendum on national party politics, but they are an opportunity to give the government a bloody nose. This week’s election results sent a warning message to President Trump’s Republican Party ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, which are of far greater nationwide importance. On current trends, we can expect the May 2018 local elections to do the same to the Conservatives.