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Sunday, December 4, 2016

DALE CITY, VA — Bill Clinton, the nation’s politician-in-chief, is on a roll on behalf of his friend Terry McAuliffe, the frontrunner in next week’s election for governor of Virginia.

“If we become ideological, then we’re blind to evidence,” the former president explained to a crowd of loyalists gathered at a VFW hall here last weekend. Previewing a message he is taking across the state in stumping for Democrats facing a Republican ticket led by an unapologetic right-wing ideologue, Ken Cuccinelli, Clinton added that ideology “excites people, but it doesn’t get a darned thing done.”

Yet those inspired by passionate belief — people, Clinton says, with “steam coming out of their ears” — do have one important virtue: “They will show up and vote.” Offering a quick political science lecture about who votes when, Clinton explained that “in the non-presidential years, a whole different America shows up than in the presidential years.” The lesson to moderates and progressives: “You’ve got to care as much about this election as you did about the election in 2012.”

And there, in a few soundbites, is why the elections of 2013 are unlike those of 2009. Four years ago, the three big off-year races — in Virginia, New Jersey and New York City — presaged the Republican sweep of 2010 and, in the case of the first two, the rise of the Tea Party sensibility. This year, all three signal the collapse of the Tea Party and the mobilization of both the political center and the political left.

Take first the matter of who will vote. Four years ago, Democrats were dispirited by the grueling battle over health care and a still-ailing economy. Gov. Bob McDonnell led a Virginia GOP sweep. The progressive turnout was so anemic that exit polls found that only 43 percent of the voters who actually showed up in 2009 had voted for President Obama’s election. This meant that there were a lot of stay-at-home Democrats in a state Obama had carried a year earlier with 53 percent. Professor Clinton had a point about those different Americas.

But this year, it’s those who are riled up against the extreme right who seem ready to vote. The latest Washington Post/Abt-SRBI poll shows McAuliffe ahead of Cuccinelli by 12 percentage points among likely voters, and holding a blowout 24 point lead among women.