On the long highway of American politics, there are few spans of straight, open road. It is best to heed this warning: sharp curves ahead.
Results such as Tuesday's – where Democrats prevailed in two important gubernatorial races, one in which President Donald Trump worked heartily but unsuccessfully to aid the Republican candidate – offer sweet temptations to political analysts, especially those eager to see caution signs for the Trump bandwagon.
The instant analyses from the mainstream press took the form of five formidable syllables: repudiation. A repudiation of Mr. Trump. A repudiation of the muscular populism of Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump's doppelgänger. A repudiation of the new course in American politics, which seems to endanger all establishment figures and empowers outliers and outlaws.
Not so fast. Local elections are decided locally, on local factors, local issues, local traditions. And just as one sparrow does not make a spring, the appearance of one shorebird and one songbird in their migration south from Canada – both now in their passages over New Jersey and Virginia, the two states that on Tuesday sent Democrats to occupy the governor's chairs in Trenton and Richmond, respectively – do not necessarily make for a fall trend.
There is little evidence to suggest that Mr. Trump has lost his political power, in elections if not on legislation on Capitol Hill. His party won all four special House of Representatives contests this year for seats vacated by Republicans. And in any case, the dynamics heading into next fall's midterm elections are complicated by local economic and employment factors, the quality of candidates recruited for these campaigns, and the availability of funding.
So before you spring to an autumn conclusion, consider this: The percentage of voters who sided with the Republican candidate in both states' gubernatorial contests was almost identical to the percentage who voted for Mr. Trump in the presidential election exactly a year ago this week. In fact, the figures are almost eerie: Mr. Trump took 41 per cent in New Jersey, as compared to the 43 per cent won by Kim Guadagno, the GOP candidate who lost to Philip Murphy. Mr. Trump took 44 per cent in Virginia, as compared to the 45 per cent captured by Ed Gillespie, the Republican who lost to Ralph Northam.
Both figures actually show slight Republican gains, though surely within a pollster's margin of error. But the important fact is that states that were blue last November are blue this November. Both gave Hillary Clinton substantial margins of victory, delivering the Democratic ticket a total of 27 electoral votes, about 12 per cent of its total.
None of this means the Republicans are doomed in next year's midterm congressional elections, just as the Republicans' success in those special House elections didn't signal mortal peril for the Democrats.
Indeed, the effect of these elections may actually be to reinforce the status quo in Washington, for reasons that have nothing to do with the party identity of the governors of New Jersey and Virginia, the latter of which has had a Democratic governor the past four years. For the hidden reason, look north of Virginia and New Jersey and focus on Maine.
No one alive today witnessed "the Maine effect," the remarkable ability of the state's custom of early-autumn voting to predict the later winner of three-quarters of the presidential elections between 1832 and 1932. That produced a sturdy political axiom: As Maine goes, so goes the nation. And Tuesday, Maine voted decisively to expand coverage of Medicaid, the joint state-federal program providing medical care for the poor.
The significance of this cannot be overstated. Five times, Maine's rogue Republican Governor Paul LePage – you might think of him as Mr. Trump's political precursor, another example of how trends are set in the unlikely pines and birches south of Quebec and New Brunswick – vetoed the state legislature's attempts to expand Medicaid. (Three-fifths of states have expanded the program.) But Tuesday, the voters repudiated Mr. LePage, who in any case cannot run for re-election because Maine's Constitution limits chief executives to two terms.
These referendum results will only serve to reinforce the ardour of Maine's Republican senator, Susan Collins, who has repeatedly voted against all the efforts to overturn Obamacare that Mr. Trump and his Republican allies have proposed this year.
Sometimes off-term elections do have significance, to be sure. The difficulty is in identifying which ones do.
One that incontrovertibly served as a predictor was the 1991 Senate contest in Pennsylvania that followed the death of GOP senator John Heinz. The Republicans nominated attorney-general Richard Thornburgh, who had won two statewide elections for governor and had a 40-point lead early in the contest. The Democrats nominated Harris Wofford, a onetime Kennedy hand who had been appointed to fill the vacancy created by the air accident that killed Mr. Heinz.
Mr. Wofford ran largely on the need to create a national health-insurance plan, and his victory prompted governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas to embrace that issue in his presidential campaign a year later.
"Election results are the classic eyes-in-the-beholder situation," Mr. Thornburgh said in an interview Wednesday morning, a quarter-century later. "You can make of them what you wish. They're vulnerable to be interpreted and misinterpreted. The message that comes out of these elections may be that there is no residual support for the Republican Party nationally and that there is no mandate for further expansion of the Trump presidency. That may be subject to great reinterpretation later."
That's because in politics, as in sport, the swift analysis and the easy prediction could well be upended by the swift development and the emergence of unpredictable political trends.