This Week’s Elections Don’t Mean the Sky Is Falling

Rachel Maddow is often an oasis of sanity in the barren wasteland of corporate media. Last night, she identified an historical pattern that nobody else seems to have paid much attention to (I recommend watching what she had to say, but I’m writing about it anyway).

Here’s the pattern in pictorial form. The first column is a president’s first year in office. The second column is the winner of the New Jersey governor’s race later that year. The third column is the winner of the Virginia governor’s race held the same day.

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It’s an oddity of the political calendar that New Jersey and Virginia hold their elections for governor one year after presidential elections. That means when a new president is elected, like Reagan in 1980 and Biden in 2020, the governor’s races in New Jersey and Virginia are the first chance voters get to choose their state’s leader but also, less obviously, to react to there being a new person in the White House. This explains why NJ and VA governor’s elections are viewed as a referendum on a president’s first year in office. 

Looking at the chart, you’ll notice that in three of the seven years (1988, 2000 and 2016), when a  Republican won the presidency, his party lost the two governor’s races.

Likewise, in two of the seven years (1992 and 2008), when a Democrat won the presidency, his party also lost the two governor’s races.

It was only in 1981, and again this year, that a new president’s party won even one of the two governor’s races.

In other words, Biden and his party did better this week than any president has done since Ronald Reagan, forty years ago.

As a matter of fact, in 1981, with Reagan now in the White House, the Republican gubernatorial candidate beat the Democrat by fewer than 2,000 votes (an exception that almost proves the rule that the president’s party loses these elections). If the Democrat had done a bit better, Joe Biden would have been the first brand-new president to hold onto the NJ or VA governorship in 44 years. (Winning a second term makes NJ Governor Phil Murphy the first Democrat to win two elections since then. He currently leads his Republican opponent by 44,000 votes).

As Maddow pointed out, the New Jersey and Virginia governor’s races are the first opportunity for voters who opposed the new president to register their anger at the polls, while the voters who helped elect the new president are (less passionately) waiting to see what the new president can deliver. That’s why a new president’s party ordinarily loses both the New Jersey and Virginia governor races.

The fact that a Democrat won New Jersey this year is, therefore, a good sign, not a bad one. You wouldn’t know that from reading a paper or watching TV (maybe that’s because those in the media who comment on elections are surprised that Democrats don’t do even better, given the Republican Party’s descent into fascism).

Finally, Maddow also points out that in two special elections this year, Democrats did quite well. A Democrat was elected to Congress with 60% of the vote in New Mexico, even though Republicans claimed they had a great chance to win. Three months later, California’s Democratic governor won that ridiculous recall election, also with 60% of the vote. The 2022 election will almost certainly be difficult, but the sky is not falling based on this year’s results.

Keeping Yesterday’s Election in Perspective

A recent opinion poll suggested the Democratic governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, would easily win yesterday’s off-year election. But instead of winning 55% to 45%, as the poll indicated, it looks like he’ll win 50% to 49%. Why? Because all kinds of people answer opinion polls, but it’s the angry ones who tend to vote in low turnout elections. And who is angriest today (although their anger isn’t justified)?

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post explains and offers some advice to Biden and congressional Democrats:

One of the most pervasive biases among the political media is the bias toward dramatization, interpreting every event as startling, extraordinary, and signaling a reshaped political landscape.

That is how many are interpreting the results of Tuesday’s elections, especially Glenn Youngkin’s win in the Virginia gubernatorial race. The truth is more mundane — but its implications for how Democrats should think about their future are no less profound.

Let’s begin with the context in which these elections took place. First and most important, there’s a Democrat in the White House. It is impossible to overstate how that one simple fact puts Democrats in a position to lose and lose big, not just in this election but in next year’s midterms as well.

Here’s what happens when a president gets elected: He tries to do a bunch of things, some of them work out and some of them don’t, but nobody’s life is really transformed, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, the opposition party’s voters are utterly enraged by the mere fact that someone they hate is now running the country.

So at the first opportunity (and probably the second and the third), those opposition voters rush to the polls, while voters from the president’s party are not nearly so motivated.

Now add in the fact that we’re still in a pandemic, the delta variant has slowed the recovery, supply chain problems are producing inflation, and President Biden’s approval ratings are in the low 40s.

Given all that, it would have been absolutely stunning if Democrats hadn’t gotten their clocks cleaned in these elections, just as Republicans did in 2017 after D____ T____’s election and Democrats did in 2009 after Barack Obama’s election. The president’s party lost both the Virginia and New Jersey governor’s races in those years as well. Yes, the particulars of a campaign can make a difference at the margins — Republicans certainly waged a skillful if repugnant campaign in Virginia — but the basic pattern will hold.

Plenty of people will now tell you that a different strategy or a clever bit of rhetorical jujitsu could have changed the outcome in these races, and the fact that both were so close makes it at least possible, if unlikely. But here’s the reality for 2022: Only something truly earthshaking will prevent the almost inevitable outcome of Democrats losing the House and probably the Senate as well.

There were only two times in recent decades that the president’s party didn’t suffer significant losses in the midterms. The first was 1998, a year dominated by the Republican impeachment of Bill Clinton, which led to its own backlash against Republicans. Approval of the GOP plunged to depths only matched when they shut down the government five years later.

The second was 2002. Amid the aftermath of Sept. 11 the atmosphere of fear and panic reigned; President Bush’s approval ratings were in the 60s, and Republicans successfully argued that Democrats were terrorist-loving traitors who wanted Americans to die.

Could something that momentous happen in the next twelve months to turn the situation in Democrats’ favor, either defusing Republican anger or elevating Democratic anger to the point where more Democrats turn out than Republicans? It’s always possible.

But ordinary good news — the passage of important bills, the fading of the pandemic, a strong economic rebound — probably won’t be enough. All that would produce a situation in which Democratic voters say, “Things are going pretty well,” and Republican voters say, “I am enraged!”, if only because a Democrat is still president and Democrats still control Congress.

So when Democrats are told that they must pass the Build Back Better bill or some other piece of legislation to have any chance of holding the House and Senate, it isn’t exactly right. If they don’t pass worthwhile bills they’ll certainly lose, since their own supporters will see them as weak and ineffectual. But even if they do pass the bills, it [very likely!] won’t be enough.

So they have to widen their view beyond 2022. Accept that they have one more year to legislate, and ask: What can we accomplish in that time? How many people can we help? How much can we improve the basic conditions in which Americans lead their lives? How much progress can we make on our agenda, not because we think there will be short-term political dividends but because it’s the reason we got into politics in the first place. Or at least it should have been.

It’s not that there will be no political ramifications to what they do and don’t accomplish now. But many of them will take years to play out. For example, passing the Affordable Care Act only exacerbated the struggles they had in the 2010 midterms, since it became a focus of Republican anger and mobilization. But eventually it became a political advantage; eight years later, voters punished Republicans for trying to repeal it.

More importantly, imperfect though it was, the ACA helped enormous numbers of people. It eliminated the nightmare of being denied health coverage because of preexisting conditions, and gave millions of Americans insurance for the first time. It was an extraordinary achievement.

So Democrats should ask themselves: What can we do now that we’ll proudly tell our grandchildren about years from now? If we really only have a year to make a difference, what are we going to do with that time?

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It’s highly likely the Democrats will lose the House of Representatives in 2022, since they have such a small majority today and House races are affected by gerrymandering, which Republicans are real good at. But the outlook for the Senate isn’t so bad. Democrats will be defending 14 seats, while Republicans will be defending 20, and 5 Republican senators have already announced they’re retiring. Democrats could conceivably pick up seats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Wisconsin, even if they’re likely to lose in Georgia. Gaining one seat would make either Manchin or Sinema less important. Gaining two would make both of them less important.