Home 2016 elections Is 2016 Clinton vs. Trump a “national, absurdist reboot” of T-Mac vs....

Is 2016 Clinton vs. Trump a “national, absurdist reboot” of T-Mac vs. Cooch vs. Sarvis 2013? Not Really.


This past week, the superb chief political correspondent for Slate, Jamelle Bouie, posted an interesting article, entitled How a 2013 Governor’s Race Explains Clinton–Trump. The thesis?

Right now, we’re living through a national, absurdist reboot of [the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial] election, if not a shot-for-shot remake. Hillary Clinton is playing the part of McAuliffe, with Trump in the role of Cuccinelli. The similarity between the two races is instructive, telling us something about what happens when elections turn into contests over identity. And what the Virginia election augurs for the aftermath of this fall’s vote is not exactly reassuring.

OK, so that had me intrigued, albeit skeptical. In the end, it turns out that I agree in part, disagree in part, and am ambivalent in part.


  • McAuliffe and Cuccinelli represented two distinct paths for Virginia: forward in the direction of its cosmopolitan future—rooted in its long-standing black community and its growing immigrant one—or backward to its white, rural, and conservative (even reactionary) past.” Same thing in the 2016 presidential race, where Donald Trump would take America back…wayyyyy back, to a somewhat-mythical-but-nasty, authoritarian, racist “past” (again, somewhat mythical/somewhat factual) in which white men dominated and everyone else was basically screwed. In stark contrast, Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders, if he were the nominee) would continue moving America forward as a diverse, vibrant, pluralistic, democratic (small “d”) nation.
  • Again, the following paragraph is an excellent description for what was at stake in Virginia 2013, although obviously at a much smaller, less significant level than President and Commander in Chief of the United States. “This election isn’t just a fight over tax plans and health care; it’s a contest—a brawl, even—over questions of national identity. Just who is the United States for? Just whom do we mean when we say ‘Americans?’ On one side, we have immigrants, religious minorities, and the descendants of slaves, some disadvantaged, some on the upswing, but each committed to inclusion. On the other, we have an angry and frustrated white minority that’s perhaps still potent enough to win the White House.”


  • I checked polling for the 2013 Virginia governor’s race, and at this point in the race (May 2013), neither Cooch nor T-Mac were particularly unpopular, nor was either particularly well known (unlike Trump and Clinton currently are). For instance, a May 16 Quinnipiac poll had T-Mac at +5 (22%/17%) favorable and Cooch at +7 (31%-24%). In contrast, a PPP poll on May 29 had Cooch at -12 (32%-44%) and T-Mac at -4 (29%-33%). As the cycle went on, Cooch stayed about the same in terms of approval while T-Mac got worse, at least in the last PPP poll of the cycle, which had Cooch at -13 (39%-52%) and T-Mac at -16 (36%-52%). In constrast, the last Quinnipiac poll of the cycle had T-Mac at -3 (42%-45%) and Cooch at -14 (38%-52%), the latter a 21-point drop from the May 16 Quinnipiac poll. So, bottom line: clearly, neither Cooch nor T-Mac were wildly popular, but not nearly as unpopular as Clinton and Trump are now — nor nearly as well known, which is perhaps the most important difference between the two races (Virginia 2013 and President 2016) at this point in the election cycle.
  • T-Mac is not equivalent in many ways to Clinton. Unlike T-Mac, for instance, Hillary Clinton has been elected to high office — U.S. Senate twice — and was a major policy player (and First Lady, of course) in the Bill Clinton administration, in addition to serving as Secrtary of State, plus a lifetime of substantive work on policy issues. T-Mac, in contrast, was “a party operative who happened to have ambitions beyond fundraising.”
  • Cooch is not equivalent to Trump in many ways. Again, Cooch has been elected numerous times, including to the Virginia State Senate (in 2002, 2003 and 2007), then as Attorney General (2009), before running for governor in 2013. For his part, Trump has never been elected to anything (and hopefully will never be!), but is simply a wealthy (at least we’re pretty sure he is; need to see his tax returns), slimy businessman who is “famous for being famous.” Trump is also starkly different than Cooch in terms of ideological consistency — Trump has had essentially none at all, fairly liberal until a few years ago and now all over the place but leaning sharply right (except that Trump doesn’t talk much about religion or “social issues”); Cooch has been a hard-line right winger and theocratic culture warrior pretty much forever. So again, Trump and Cooch are VERY different people, although both are heinous in their own unique ways of course. Ugh.
  • I also don’t particularly agree with this: “Trump inhabits the same role as Cuccinelli: an outsider, of sorts, with a rocky relationship to his party establishment but one who inspires real devotion from his most serious followers. Trump is defined by his rhetoric as much as anything else…” But again, there are huge differences between Cooch, who was elected to the State Senate three times and AG once and was a hard-core Republican; and Trump, who has never been elected to anything and has certainly not been part of the GOP “establishment.” But yes, they both inspire “real devotion” from their “most serious followers.” Of course, so does Bernie Sanders, so does Hillary Clinton and so did Barack Obama in 2008, so I’m not sure what the exact point is there.
  • The following paragraph is certainly a possible scenario, but whether it comes to pass or not depends upon whether Democrats can take back the Senate (we’ve got a good shot at that) and the House of Representatives (possible, but more of a long shot). If Dems DO hold the White House, but do NOT take back the House, then I think the following scenario is highly plausible, given the extreme nature of today’s Republican Party, as well as gerrymandering, right-wing echo chamber media and other factors which reinforce their unwillingness to compromise. “Far from making progress, the McAuliffe administration has been a rearguard action, a game of defense against highly partisan and organized Virginia Republicans... if the present of American politics looks like Virginia in 2013, then the near-future might be a replay of Virginia, right now: an ugly, ferocious election leading to a stalemate, as President Hillary Clinton attempts to accomplish something against a tough and recalcitrant opposition”


  • I’m not even sure what this means exactly: “If 2016 takes the same path as 2013 did for Virginia, we should expect an election where policy and ideas take a backseat to vicious political combat between two unpopular standard-bearers.” I mean, sure, the 2013 governor’s race was rough and tumble, as most governor’s races are, but I’m not sure it was particularly “vicious,” and I’m also not sure it was particularly devoid of “policy and ideas.” To the contrary, I’d argue that McAuliffe – who ran in 2009 as the candidate of “big ideas” – had plenty of “policy and ideas” (e.g., Medicaid expansion, protecting a woman’s right to choose, defending LGBT Virginians, promoting education and economic development, dealing with climate change, etc.) in 2013 as well. Cooch, of course, had TONS of “policy and ideas,” even if they were all bad ones. Certainly, both campaigns went after the other candidate as “extreme,” “corrupt,” and all that, but that’s pretty standard for political campaigns these days; nothing specific to Virginia 2013, as far as I can determine.
  • Jamelle Bouie notes that McAuliffe had a “larger war chest” than Cooch. That’s undoubtedly true, but is it likely to replicated in 2016, with Clinton outspending Trump by a nearly 2:1 margin? I find that hard to believe.


In the end, there certainly are some parallels between Virginia 2013 and the U.S. 2016 presidential election, but not many that are specific to Virginia 2013, and even fewer that are clear-cut. We’ll see about the result — a narrow win for Trump, a 2-3-point win for Clinton (as in Virginia 2013), or a blowout for Clinton (still the most likely scenario, IMHO, but who the heck knows at this point)? Stay tuned…

  • Esther Ferington

    Totally agree and great comments. It’s fun to make analogies (this is just like that town dogcatcher race in 1876 — no, hear me out –), but when there are too many inconsistencies, I’m not sure there’s much more benefit to it than entertainment.

    The quasi-analogies I have for Donald Trump are nonpolitical celebrities like Jesse Ventura or Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had highly polished “take charge” personas for their entertainment jobs (much like The Apprentice) that voters decided to take a flier on. But that doesn’t seem fair to Ventura or Schwarzenegger.

  • Anonymous Is A Woman

    You all are more charitable than me. I think the comparison between Trump and Cuccinelli and between Clinton and McAuliffe is badly strained. False analogies all around.

    Unlike Trump, Cooch is very ideologically consistent all the way around. Nor is he a GOP outsider. Two wings of the party may be fighting in Virginia and elsewhere, but Cuccinelli was very much an adept insider who knew the rules well enough to out maneuver the so-called establishment wing into a convention, which favored him and the social conservatives. On ideology, Cooch is not a nativist either. For all his crazy ideas I disagree with, he is neither a nativist nor a racist. His very conservative ideas, it can be argued, would hurt immigrants and African Americans, as well as women, But he is not the demagogue Trump is.

    As for Clinton compared to McAuliffe, as Lowell said, Clinton is an experienced, two term senator who went on to serve as Secretary of State. McAuliffe is a longtime political insider by virtue of heading the DNC and his fundraising skills. But he never served in public office before. These differences are too pronounced to make the analogies accurate.

    And the Virginia race was about ideas and policy as well as personal attacks and personalities.

    I also usually like Jamelle Bouie but this column was off-base.

    • Yeah, I was trying to be nice. 🙂 Seriously, though, not sure I understand why that piece was written…

  • Andy Schmookler

    I see the Libertarians have now officially nominated Gary Johnson for president. Which raises the question: if Hillary and Trump are the two major-party nominees, will Johnson siphon off voters from either of them more than from the other?

    • The first question is whether Johnson wins a significant enough # of votes to care who he siphons more from. I’m not convinced he will, but this is a strange year…

      • Andy Schmookler

        I can think of two things here regarding whether Johnson might hurt Hillary as he hurt McAuliffe or might hurt Trump instead. (The hurting Trump part is a reason why he MIGHT win “a significant enough # of votes” to matter.)

        He could draw fewer Republican votes because Trump is more like Johnson than Cuccinelli was like Sarvis in that Trump is –or has been — more socially liberal, while I would have thought that a guy like Cuccinelli, who would have been a natural in the Inquisition, would have driven anyone with libertarian leanings into Sarvis’s arms.

        On the other hand, Trump has been so repulsive to so many decent and principled conservatives that would hate to vote for Trump but would never vote for Hillary either, that Johnson could well get a lot of votes simply as a refuge for such people. (The Never Trump people don’t seem likely to field that third-party candidate for such purposes themselves.)

        I’m guessing that if the Democrats get a good anti-Trump campaign together — one good at exposing what people have found repugnant about Trump — that the Johnson campaign could indeed get a lot of voters that usually vote Republican. People could vote for Johnson who are not particularly libertarian, but just to have someone to vote for that does not repel them.

        However, the one poll I saw that had both a two-way and a three-way race — don’t remember where, or the exact numbers — did not show the libertarians having any clear tendency to take more from Trump than from Hillary.

        So maybe I’m wrong about the idea of Johnson providing refuge for principled Republicans.

        • “so many decent and principled conservatives”

          You keep talking about these people, but given the large % of Republicans who have rallied around Herr Drumpf, not to mention the large % who voted for Cooch/EW Jackson/Obenshain, I’m thinking this is more of a pink unicorn-type myth than reality.

          • Andy Schmookler

            Are you saying you don’t know many pink unicorns?

          • The question is whether there are more “pink unicorns” or “decent and principled conservatives” out there.

          • Andy Schmookler

            On a more serious note.

            One difference between you and me, I expect, is that you live in Arlington and your knowledge of Republican voters is based on what you see from a distance– mostly that they support a terrible party.

            I live in the Shenandoah Valley, did hundreds of radio shows during during the 1990s, talking to conservative callers (before Karl Rove got hold of them), live among them and do business with them. And I see a more whole picture of who they are and what their values are and how much they do and don’t live them.

            When I lived in New Mexico — 2002-2008 — and they fell under the spell of all that Bushite darkness, I felt about them more as you do. I was afraid to come back and live again in their midst. As we contemplated our coming back, I often said it felt like moving to Bavaria in 1935.

            But there is a lot of decency, and even a lot of principle, to be found. And it has not felt as I feared.

            This is part of why I spend a lot of time in WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST exploring how basically decent people can be enlisted behind an indecent force.

            One more thing to add: with Trump, unlike say with Dick Cheney, there is the conduct that is transgressive on the face of it. He behaves badly, behaves in ways that people around here would never find accceptable in their families or communities.

            There is no need to have any understanding of anything that requires any sophisticated analysis, or knowledge of the world, for them to understand that this is not in accordance with their own values.

            So I think the case can be made. Elizabeth Warren has shown it can be done.

          • The bottom line for me is that, in an existentialist sense, I believe we are mostly defined by our actions. So, if people vote for neo-fascism, as in the case of Trump, or just heartless/nasty “I’ve got mine so FU” types, I’m not sure how they can qualify as “decent.”

          • We have plenty of Tea Partiers in Arlington, by the way, I see “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates all the time…

          • Andy Schmookler

            People are not of one piece. Especially people who are the product of cultures that build in a certain amount of brokenness.

            That actually describes pretty much everybody (for reasons given in THE PARABLE OF THE TRIBES.)

            One question regarding people and their political conduct is: which part gets fed by the leaders that people follow? And the answer for people on the right for the past generation is that there has been a lot of feeding of their worst parts — their fears, their resentments, their hatreds.

            Then another question is: what part of them can one reach?

            Trump’s transgressive conduct has opened up an opportunity to reach at least SOME additional people with a message of decency.

            Which is one of the reasons it is such a shame that the moment when Trump was becoming the nominee, despite the fact that a large percentage of Republican voters did not want him, got squandered on the Democratic side by Bernie indulging himself in making himself into a distraction when there was so little left that he could still accomplish to advance his cause.

            But anyway, I believe if you had to deal with these people in your daily life — those whom you say cannot qualify as decent — I expect you would see decency.

            People are not all of a piece.

            Let me say that, when I was a candidate, and would speak to Democratic groups about our neighbors, there was widespread agreement about that decency.

            Doesn’t mean I was able to penetrate their right-wing trance state and move them away from their party loyalty.

            It still remains to be seen whether anything can penetrate that “uncracked nut.”