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Elections are more important than polls
President Biden's numbers aren't great. But he and his party keep winning anyway.
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Some 48 hours ago, pundits were rushing to explain how, why, where, and exactly to what extent the Democratic Party is doomed.
A New York Times/Sienna poll released last weekend showed President Joe Biden catastrophically trailing indicted orange gasbag of hatred former President Donald Trump in virtually every key swing state. According to the poll, Trump leads Biden by five points in Arizona, four in Pennsylvania, six in Georgia, and 11 in Nevada. Analysts like Nate Silver and Matt Yglesias made panicky noises, condemning Dems for not mounting a serious primary challenge to the incumbent. There was weeping, there was gnashing of teeth.
And then, we had an actual election.
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Tuesday night’s results are difficult to square with the “Biden and Democrats are doomed” narrative. In an off-year election, with the incumbent president’s approval rating mired below 40 percent, you would normally expect the president’s party to be stomped, crushed, spindled, and obliterated.
But instead, Democrats did fine. In fact, they did better than fine, and then even better than that. Tuesday looked a lot like a blue wave, with Democrats romping to victory in blue and purple states and overperforming dramatically in red ones.
It’s difficult to predict what this means for 2024. But we know that in 2022 and now in 2023, Biden’s low approval rating appeared to be entirely disconnected from Democratic performance. That should at least give the likes of Silver and Yglesias a moment’s pause in their punditing of apocalypse.
Trump drags Republicans down, and their unpopular policies aren’t helping
The most impressive victory for Democrats on Tuesday was in deep red Kentucky. Democrat Andy Beshear managed to win the governor’s race in 2019, when Donald Trump’s unpopularity helped Democrats to a strong national performance. Beshear’s polling for 2023 showed a close race between him and Trump-endorsed challenger Daniel Cameron; conventional wisdom was that Beshear could win, but would probably have a narrower margin given Biden’s approval numbers.
Instead, Beshear won easily, 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent, far outpacing his narrow .4 percent win in 2019. For the second straight year, Trump’s endorsement backfired in a key race (remember Dr. Oz and Herschel Walker?).
Many analysts attributed Beshear’s win in a Trump +26 state to his personal brand and relentless campaigning. And it’s clear that Beshear is an extremely talented politician. But in general, when your party’s president has an approval rating 17 points underwater, even talented politicians struggle. A five point win for a Democrat in Kentucky cannot be reasonably described as a struggle.
And Beshear was not alone. In red Ohio, a ballot measure guaranteeing abortion rights in the state won passage by a whopping 56 percent to 44 percent (more on that later). Ohio is a Trump +8 state, which means that there was a 20 point Democratic swing. Ohio also approved a measure to legalize cannabis; with about 94 percent of the votes counted, the margin was about the same as the abortion measure.
The results were so decisive that former US Sen. Rick Santorum lamented on Newsmax that when “you put very sexy things like abortion and marijuana on the ballot, a lot of young people come out and vote.”
“I thank goodness that most states in this country don’t allow you to put everything on the ballot, because pure democracies are not the way to run a country,” he added.
RIP, Glenn Youngkin’s presidential hopes
The blue wave also hit purple Virginia. Sweater-vested presidential-wannabe Glenn Youngkin, the state’s much-touted Republican governor, was desperately trying to flip the state Senate to give Republicans a trifecta and pave the way for a 15-week abortion ban (and, perhaps, a last-minute run for the GOP presidential nomination). Polling suggested both the Senate and House of Delegates would be close.
But instead, in a thorough embarrassment for both Youngkin and his vest, Democrats retained the Senate and flipped the House. More, after Youngkin waged a despicable statewide anti-trans campaign, voters overwhelmingly elected Danica Roem, who became the state’s first openly trans state senator.
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It was the same story in less high-profile contests. Democrats were nervous that Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett might face a tough reelection, but he won easily. In Pennsylvania, Democrat Dan McCaffery won an open Supreme Court seat, a key victory for election integrity in the 2024 election. Democrats also won a sweeping victory to seize control of a heavily contested school board in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
In the red wave year of 2021, New Jersey Republican Ed Durr staged a stunning upset, unseating the incumbent Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney. But 2023 was not a red wave year, and Durr was soundly defeated by Democratic challenger John Burzichelli.
Democrats even did well in Mississippi. Democratic challenger Brandon Presley wasn’t quite able to defeat scandal-plagued Republican Gov. Tate Reeves. But he overperformed the 2019 challenger in many counties, boosted by solid Black turnout — directly refuting a growing narrative that Black voters are fleeing to the GOP.
Where did that blue wave come from?
Perhaps the oddest thing about the counterintuitive Democratic success is that it’s starting to be routine. Democrats have been defying the downward pull of Biden’s numbers for years now.
The president’s approval was in the low 40s in November 2022, when Democrats had their best midterm performance in decades. Biden’s approval was also dreadful throughout 2023. Nonetheless Democrats have been overperforming in special elections by an average of 11 points.
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No one is exactly sure why Democrats are doing so well, but there are some theories. In the past, Republicans cleaned up in off-year elections because their voters were more affluent and more likely to vote. But more educated voters during the Trump era fled the GOP. Those voters are more likely to pay close attention to politics, and more likely to vote in non-presidential years. Democrats may now have a built-in off-year advantage which can reap them huge gains downballot.
Another related factor is abortion rights. In 2021, before the Dobbs decision gutted the constitutional right to an abortion, Democrats had the kind of terrible off-year performance you’d expect from historical trends, getting soundly trounced in Virginia and New Jersey. But as soon as the Supreme Court overturned Roe in June 2022, there was a striking turnaround. Red states like Kentucky and Montana delivered stinging rebukes to the GOP on anti-abortion referendums. Democrats began to dominate specials.
These explanations have contradictory implications for 2024. If Democrats are mainly overperforming because of turnout advantage, that suggests that they may fall to Earth in 2024, when the presidency is on the ticket are more casual voters turn out. But if Democrats are winning because GOP abortion policies are so unpopular (even in Montana! even in Ohio!) … well, those abortion policies will still be unpopular in 2024 and an albatross for Republicans.
Tuesday was very good news for Joe Biden
One thing is for sure, though. Electoral overperformance is good news for Democrats. And that means it’s good news for Joe Biden.
Parties are reluctant to primary incumbents for pretty obvious reasons. Sitting presidents basically never lose primaries. When they do face serious challengers, it tends to be catastrophic for the party, as incumbent losers Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, and George HW Bush can all attest. As for incumbent presidents dropping out of the nomination race early — well, Lyndon Johnson was the last one to do that, and everyone knows how that went. (It went badly.)
Given that history, no party wants to try to unseat an incumbent unless they absolutely have to. And no party is going to feel like they absolutely have to unseat their incumbent when they keep crushing the opposition in election after election — especially when the guy he’s likely going up against again can’t and won’t stop losing.
Historically, presidential approval has been closely correlated with election results. The lower the president’s approval, the worse his party does. Biden’s approval seems to have become disconnected from his party’s fortunes, and no one has really figured out why. Is it a risk to run an incumbent with approval ratings under 40? Of course. But it’s also a risk to stage a divisive primary campaign to unseat an incumbent who keeps racking up huge electoral victories.
Biden and the Democratic Party have decided to bet on the electoral successes rather than on the polls. That seems pretty reasonable. Yes, polls can provide valuable information. But, as the 2023 blue wave just reminded us again, elections are the things you actually want to win.
That’s it for today
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