What Democrats Need to Realize Before 2022

And how the president’s party fell victim to history

Terry McAuliffe
Steve Helber / AP

For Democrats, the clearest message from Tuesday’s bruising election results is that bad things trickle down when a president from your own party confronts as much discontent as President Joe Biden faces now.

The Republican victory in the Virginia gubernatorial race and the unexpectedly close result in New Jersey’s—both states Biden won comfortably last year—don’t guarantee a midterm wipeout for Democrats in 2022. Rather, the sweeping Republican advance in both states more likely previews the problems Democrats will have next November if the political environment doesn’t improve for Biden.

Local conditions influenced both races, and in Virginia the Republican winner, Glenn Youngkin, benefited from a huge gaffe by Democrat Terry McAuliffe that seemed to dismiss the role of parents in shaping their kids’ education. But above all, the results reinforced the conclusion that in modern U.S. politics, it’s becoming almost impossible for candidates to escape the shadow of attitudes about the incumbent president, for good or ill.

“We’ve had increasing nationalization of our politics in an almost straight line for the past 25 years,” Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster based in Virginia, told me. “You used to say all politics is local. That seems like an anachronistic statement today. The polarization and the partisanship is driven down the ballot in a way that you never saw in the 1980s and 1990s. Now you have state legislative races that are being nationalized.”

The results illuminate Democrats’ shared self-interest in helping Biden rebuild his approval ratings, which have fallen to about 42 percent in most national surveys. If by next November Biden’s approval rating hasn’t improved much, “Democrats are going to be in big trouble in the midterm elections,” says Alan Abramowitz, an Emory University political scientist.

Since the Civil War, the president’s party has almost always lost House seats in midterm elections. (The results in Senate races have been less consistent.) Tuesday’s outcome suggests the principal dynamics that have traditionally hurt the party holding the White House in those elections are operating in full force again now.

Historically, the biggest midterm problem for the party in the White House has been that its voters feel less urgency to turn out than voters from the party that isn’t in power. The Democratic targeting firm Catalist, for instance, has calculated that about 40 percent of the voters who turned out in Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 presidential victories did not vote in the 2010 and 2014 midterm elections—and that in each case the voters who stayed home leaned strongly Democratic. One reason Democrats did so well in the 2018 midterm election is that the overall turnout decline was much smaller, and the fall-off voters were more evenly divided between the parties.

“You can go back to 1994, 2006, 2010, 2018—just about every time, the out party has the advantage in terms of enthusiasm and turnout,” Abramowitz says. “What happens in Virginia doesn’t always predict what happens in the subsequent midterm election, but in this case, there are lots of red warning signs flashing for the Democrats.”

Both the county-by-county results and the exit polls conducted in Virginia by Edison Research for a consortium of media organizations signal that the traditional turnout differential is looming ominously over Democrats.

With new laws that expanded access to early and absentee balloting, turnout in Virginia was substantially higher than even the 2017 governor’s election, which was itself enormous. Based on the latest count yesterday morning, despite his defeat, McAuliffe won nearly 200,000 more votes than Governor Ralph Northam captured when winning the 2017 race.

But Democrats simply could not keep pace with a massive surge of Republican-leaning voters. Youngkin captured at least 500,000 more votes than Ed Gillespie, the 2017 GOP nominee.

Compared with the 2017 governor’s race, or the 2020 presidential contest in the state, the electorate Tuesday was older, whiter, less college-educated, and more Republican, the exit polls found. Census figures show that voters of color have increased as a share of the state’s eligible voter population since 2017, but in the exit polls nonwhite voters plummeted from about one-third of the electorate in both 2020 and 2017 to only a little over one-fourth this year. Voters under 30 fell from 20 percent of the vote in 2020 and 14 percent in 2017 to just 10 percent Tuesday. College graduates shrank from nearly three-in-five voters in 2017 to just under half. And although Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 11 percentage points in the 2017 electorate, the exit polls found that GOP voters almost exactly equaled them this year.

Most telling was another exit-poll finding: Though Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points last year, the survey found that voters Tuesday had preferred Biden by only a narrow 47 percent to 45 percent margin. That finding underscored how much the massive turnout of Donald Trump voters, particularly in rural and exurban areas—combined with a lack of enthusiasm among many Democrats amid the party’s struggles in Washington—produced a very different electorate than the one that powered the state’s sharp blue tilt in both 2020 and 2017.

The evidence suggests that this shifting composition of the electorate drove the Virginia outcome more than shifting preferences within the key voter groups. That’s not to say the latter was irrelevant: Compared with Biden’s sweeping 2020 win, the exit polls did show Youngkin gaining ground with independents, college-educated white men, and especially white voters without a college degree, both men and women. All of that testified to Youngkin’s success at walking his tightrope of embracing Trump enough to avoid alienating his core voters, but not so closely as to alienate quite as many suburbanites as the former president did.

But comparing McAuliffe’s loss with Northam’s comfortable 2017 win generally shows much smaller shifts in preferences, whether looking at the exit polls or results in the key Democratic counties. For all Youngkin’s focus on winning back suburban voters, the exit polls showed McAuliffe winning college-educated white women by a larger margin than Northam did and losing college-educated white men by only slightly more (10 percentage points) than Northam did (eight percentage points). Black and Latino voters, the exit polls found, backed Democrats in almost exactly the same elevated numbers as they did in 2017. Even among non-college-educated white men, McAuliffe matched Northam’s support (albeit at an anemic 22 percent).

McAuliffe suffered a bigger decline among non-college-educated white women—a Republican-leaning group that sometimes shows receptivity to Democrats—as well as relatively smaller erosion among moderates and independents. But those changes don’t seem large enough to explain the big shift from 2017, when Northam carried the state by nine points.

Looking at the county-by-county results in Virginia reinforces that conclusion. Youngkin did capture a higher share of the vote than Trump or Gillespie in many of the key suburban counties around Washington, D.C., and Richmond that moved toward Democrats over the past 15 years (especially during the Trump era). But those shifts were generally modest, with McAuliffe’s vote falling in the range of two to three percentage points compared with Northam in the huge D.C. suburbs of Fairfax, Prince William County, and Arlington, or in Henrico and Chesterfield outside Richmond. (Only in Loudoun County, a more distant D.C. suburb at the center of disputes over teaching critical race theory, did Youngkin gain more—about five percentage points.) And because turnout was so high, the latest counts show that McAuliffe, despite that decline in vote share, netted nearly as large a vote margin from those big metro counties as Northam did four years ago: As of this morning’s results, the Democrat, for instance, carried the big five Northern Virginia suburban jurisdictions by about 250,000 votes, compared with 270,000 votes for Northam.

Even with Youngkin’s marginal gains in the center, both the exit polls and actual results suggest instead that McAuliffe’s biggest problems were explosive turnout and huge deficits in the parts of the state most alienated from Biden and the Democrats who now control Washington. Turnout in Republican-leaning places was so strong that the share of the statewide vote cast by the blue-leaning big five Northern Virginia counties declined this year after steadily rising over the past three governor’s races; Richmond city and neighboring Henrico, still solidly Democratic, also cast a smaller percentage of the vote this year than in 2017, based on results as of Wednesday afternoon.

Relative to Northam, McAuliffe’s share of the vote consistently declined more in the southern half of the state, an area with relatively fewer college graduates, than it did in more white-collar Northern Virginia. “An engaged GOP base delivered Republicans even bigger landslides than usual in rural central and western Virginia,” the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics wrote in its analysis of the results yesterday. “In 2013, McAuliffe lost the 9th Congressional District, in the southwestern corner of the state, by about 30 percentage points. Last night … McAuliffe’s deficit there fell to about 50 points.” That erosion was evident not only in the southwestern counties that have become Republican bedrocks but also in southeastern Virginia jurisdictions that are either purple or Democratic-leaning, such as Virginia Beach, Norfolk, and Chesapeake County.

Looming over all of this was Biden’s diminished standing. According to the exit polls, Biden’s approval rating among voters (45 percent positive, 54 percent negative) was significantly down from his share of the Virginia vote last year (54 percent). But Biden’s approval now was not much different from Obama’s (46 positive, 53 percent negative) when McAuliffe was elected in 2013. The big difference in the outcome? In that 2013 race, McAuliffe won about nine in 10 of those who approved of Obama, but running against a more openly ideological opponent in Republican Ken Cuccinelli, he lost only about eight in 10 of those who disapproved of the president. On Tuesday, McAuliffe again won slightly more than nine in 10 of those who approved of Biden, but this time he lost more than nine in 10 of the majority who disapproved. (Especially ominous for Democrats: Though one of Biden’s original selling points as a candidate was his potential to tamp down partisan conflict, Virginia strongly suggests that he has, perhaps inevitably, become a lightning rod. The share of voters there who said they “strongly” disapproved of his performance was about equal to the share who strongly disapproved of Trump in 2017.)

The tightening correlation between attitudes about Biden and the Virginia vote continues one of the decisive dynamics in modern U.S. politics. Through the late 1980s, exit polls found that about three-fourths of voters who disapproved of the president voted against his party’s candidates in House elections. That figure rose to more than 80 percent in the midterm sweeps against George W. Bush in 2006, and Obama in 2010 and 2014. In 2018, 90 percent of voters who disapproved of Trump voted Democratic in House elections, the exit polls found, powering their recapture of the chamber. Given this solidifying relationship, Ayres was likely on solid ground when he told me, “If Biden’s in the same place a year from now that he is today, there’s no question Republicans will take over the House, probably with a substantial majority.”

Even in Senate races, where candidates have the visibility and funding to establish more of an independent identity, attitudes toward the president are casting a lengthening shadow. In 2010, Democrats lost 13 of the 15 states where Obama’s approval rating stood at 47 percent or less. In 2018, Republicans lost 10 of the 11 Senate races in states where Trump’s approval rating fell below 50 percent (while winning six of the 10 where he had majority approval).

To many political operatives, the Democrats’ extremely close call in New Jersey—where Democratic Governor Phil Murphy appears on track for an unexpectedly narrow victory—underscores the impact of the national environment. That race did not draw nearly the same money or attention as Virginia’s and did not feature a single issue as cutting as Youngkin’s hammering on parental rights in education. Yet it also produced a comparable swing away from Democratic margins just two years earlier. Depending on further analysis of the results, it appears possible that Democrats suffered greater suburban erosion in New Jersey (as well as in local races on New York’s Long Island) than they did in Virginia.

For the majority of Democratic elected officials and strategists, the most immediate lesson of Tuesday’s tough night is that the party needs to finally pass Biden’s economic agenda—which they hope will both assuage doubts about the president’s competence and provide them a list of tangible programs they can take to voters next year, including an expanded child tax credit and child-care subsidies and plans to lower prescription-drug prices. One message from last night’s result is that “when you are the party in power, you can’t win only by convincing people to fire the other guys; you have to convince people to rehire you,” says Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic communications strategist based in Virginia. “And that means getting the Biden economic agenda done and then relentlessly talking about how we delivered on it.”

Yet it’s unclear whether that case will prove persuasive to Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, whose intractable resistance has held up the Democrats’ plans for weeks; party insiders say even Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the other major roadblock, now appears more inclined to quickly complete the plan.

Democrats have no easy way out of this stalemate. But after Tuesday, Manchin and all other Democrats can’t say they were not warned about what to expect next year if they remain hamstrung. Even this week’s losses may seem modest if Democrats can’t deliver on more of their 2020 promises or demonstrate more progress against the immediate problems of rising prices, economic uncertainty, and continuing COVID-19 disruptions that have undermined Americans’ confidence in the president’s leadership and the country’s direction.