Democrats Also Did Poorly in the Elections No One Noticed
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Before Tuesday’s elections I warned against overinterpreting the Virginia gubernatorial election as a national bellwether. I stand by that: Governor’s races are the kind of election that shows the least correlation with national politics, and where candidate attributes and issues make the biggest difference.
But if you’re a Democrat looking for some good news in the wake of Republican Glenn Youngkin’s triumph over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, I have some bad news: Republicans did well in a bunch of other elections, too.
They were successful in state legislative races in both Virginia and New Jersey. In terms of statistical correlations, a state legislative race is the opposite of a gubernatorial election. Almost no voter has any idea who represents them in the state legislature, or pays much attention to what they do. In these “second-order elections,” voting behavior is almost a pure product of sentiment about national politics, leavened by a touch of incumbency advantage.
This is a disaster for American federalism, since governors are generally relatively weak players in state government and control of the legislature is critical for actual policymaking purposes. Given the policy significance of state legislative races, it would be nice if the voters paid more attention to them.
But from the standpoint of prognostication, the vacuity of state legislature races makes them an excellent real-world test of the national political mood. In New Jersey, for example, long-time Senate President Stephen Sweeney is locked in a neck-and-neck battle with a truck driver who only spent $153 on his campaign. This would be basically inexplicable if you view state legislative races as real elections where the voters pay attention to the candidates. But if you view Sweeney’s district as the kind of blue-collar place that’s been trending rightward in recent cycles — and add in the “Joe Biden is unpopular” factor — it’s perfectly comprehensible.
And that’s what was evident in state legislature races across New Jersey and Virginia, plus local races in Nassau County in New York: a broad-based rightward shift across geographic and demographic groups.
This might be boring as political analysis. But it’s fairly typical. The 2020 presidential race, which saw a big rightward swing among Latinos counterbalanced by a smaller (but numerically more significant because there are so many of them) leftward shift of White voters, was very unusual. It’s not surprising that Biden’s unpopularity would generate a broad rightward shift.
None of this is to deny that there are local idiosyncrasies in play. Youngkin does seem to have done disproportionately well in Loudoun County, which was the epicenter of the controversy over school boards, and the neighboring jurisdictions of Fauquier and Manassas. I’ve seen some private Democratic number crunching which suggests that parents of school-age kids swung a bit harder to Youngkin than non-parents. But the issues in New Jersey were different, with much more focus on taxes, and even though Governor Phil Murphy got re-elected the rightward shift of the electorate there was actually larger.
That’s bad news for pundits looking to extract a clear takeaway from these results.
Democrats, meanwhile, ought to remember that Biden’s diminished public standing is of relatively recent vintage. As recently as last summer, his approval rating was well above water, and the sophisticated take was he was doing about as well as one could hope in an era of high polarization. It then collapsed rapidly as oil prices soared, job growth slowed, and the delta wave alarmed Covid hawks even as vaccine mandates annoyed Covid doves. Meanwhile, congressional Democrats have chosen the worst possible option: loudly debating sweeping progressive policies that take some of the moderate sheen off Biden without actually passing progressive policies and making their proponents happy.
The White House and Congress desperately need to figure out what they want to do on the Build Back Better agenda. Then they need to do it and move on to addressing the more pressing concerns of jobs, wages, and quality of life.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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