Tag Archives: 2022 elections

How Ominous Were Tuesday’s Elections?

https://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/ny-bramhall-editorial-cartoons-2021-jul-20210714-q3ci53xdj5fnlop6bxwz63pbk4-photogallery.html

The Democratic candidates for governor lost in Virginia and barely won in New Jersey, two states that have been reliably blue in recent years. What does that say about 2022 and 2024?


Tuesday, Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin won the governorship of Virginia, a state Joe Biden carried in 2020. Youngkin won by 2%, a 12.1% improvement over Donald Trump’s 10.1% loss. Meanwhile in New Jersey, a state Biden carried by 16.2%, incumbent Democratic Governor Phil Murphy could only manage a 2.6% margin, a 13.6% fall-off from 2020.

Those results, along with a comparable decline in Biden’s approval numbers (currently underwater with 7.5% more people disapproving than approving), have Democrats panicking about their prospects for the 2022 and 2024 elections, and pointing fingers at each other to assign blame. The parallel in everyone’s mind is 2009, President Obama’s first year, when poor performances in the same two governor’s races did indeed predict a massive 2010 loss.

Democrats look at 2009 as the alarm that went unanswered, and are determined not to make the same mistake this time around. That leads to two big questions: What exactly happened in 2009? And what comparable mistakes do we need to fix now? Hence the finger-pointing.

Is it 2009 again? Will next year be 2010? Let’s start by examining the basic premise: How much does the current situation resemble 2009? There are a number of similarities:

  • A Democratic president elected by a wide margin (9.5 million Obama, 7 million Biden) is much less popular a year later. Biden’s approval/disapproval was +17% on Inauguration Day and -7.5% now. Obama’s (by a different measure) was a whopping +54% at inauguration and down to +10% by November, 2009.
  • The president’s ambitious agenda is stuck in Congress. Both Obama and Biden had early legislative victories with a stimulus plan. But ObamaCare wouldn’t pass until March, 2010, and his climate bill never did pass. Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill passed Friday night (too late for the 2021 elections), and his Build Back Better plan is still in limbo.
  • The economy is improving, but still not good. In 2009, GDP bottomed out in the first quarter of 2009, but the improvement still wasn’t showing up in October’s unemployment rate: 10% (the peak), compared to 7.3% the previous December (the numbers available on Inauguration Day). This year, Biden has already seen improvement in both GDP (up 9.2% in the last year) and unemployment (4.6% in October compared to 6.7% last December), but inflation (up 5.4% in the last 12 months) is worrisome and the economy still doesn’t feel normal.

One other similarity is harder to support with hard numbers, and may be in the eye of the beholder: the significance of racism in the Republicans’ winning message. Youngkin made the mythical “critical race theory” a centerpiece of his campaign, and race always lurked in the background of anti-Obama messaging.

While granting the similarities, I want to call your attention to two points against doomsaying:

  • 2009 was worse. Obama won Virginia by 6.3% in 2008, but Republican Bob McDonnell (whose 2014 corruption conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2016; he’s currently a professor at Pat Robertson’s Regents University, where all Republican sins are forgiven) won the governorship by 17.3% in 2009, a 23.6% reversal for the Democrats. Obama won New Jersey by 15.5% in 2008, but Chris Christie was elected to his first term as governor in 2009 by 3.6%, a turnaround of 19.1%.
  • While 2009 did presage a 2010 congressional wipeout, Obama got re-elected in 2012. 2010 really was the “shellacking” Obama said it was. Democrats lost 6 Senate seats, 63 House seats, and 6 governorships. But in 2012 Obama beat Mitt Romney by 3.9% or 5 million votes.

An additional nebulous factor is that the benefits of ObamaCare phased in slowly; you couldn’t get coverage from the ObamaCare exchanges or use a ObamaCare subsidy until 2014. So in 2010, Republicans had free rein to demonize imaginary “death panels” and the “government takeover of health care“. ObamaCare’s favorability rating turned negative in 2010 and didn’t turn positive again until 2017.

Biden’s bills should be much harder to smear with dark fantasies: His infrastructure plan may not have new bridges open by next November, but work will be underway and people will be getting jobs. We still don’t know what (if anything) will be in the BBB bill if and when it eventually passes, but we can hope for immediately popular items like reducing the price of prescription drugs or a child tax credit. Even the bill’s increased taxes are popular, if they really do focus on the wealthy.

In short, there are definite resemblances, but 2021 is not 2009, and 2022 doesn’t have to be 2010 unless we let that happen.

What exactly happened in Virginia? Our political dialog goes wrong when people decide what they want the story to be before they look at the facts. So before we start assessing blame and breaking glass for the emergency, let’s get straight what really happened.

538 does a good job analyzing the polling, and by “good job” I mean that they are appropriately humble about what can and can’t be deduced from what we know. As always, Democrats were strong in Virginia’s cities, and Republicans in the rural areas, while the suburbs were a battleground. The interesting question, though, is not the parties’ absolute strength, but where votes shifted to erode Biden’s 2020 margin. The answer is the suburbs.

According to exit poll data, Youngkin won 53 percent of these voters across the state, which is roughly the opposite of what happened in 2020, when exit polls suggest President Joe Biden carried voters in those areas with a similar share of the vote.

From that data, it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that McAuliffe lost the kind of people we associate with the suburbs: educated professionals. But no. Youngkin’s gains on Trump were mostly among non-college whites.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t look like white college-educated voters, often disproportionately associated with the suburbs, necessarily drove Youngkin’s victory. The polarization of white voters by educational attainment has been a developing trend in recent years, and the Virginia result shows an even more substantial split, thanks mainly to Youngkin gaining among white voters without a college degree. Remember, plenty of white voters without a four-year degree live in suburban places, too.

538 finds it hard to assess the impact of Youngkin’s critical race theory message, for reasons that I’ll illustrate with an example: If I run for office promising to stop the Martian invasion, exit polls will undoubtedly show that I won among voters who were worried about the Martian invasion. But did they vote for me because of that issue, or were they my voters first, and just repeated my anti-Mars rhetoric when a pollster asked? Voters who, say, watch a lot of Fox News, are upset about CRT and voted for Youngkin. But what caused what? As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp put it:

partisans who would have voted for their party anyway often parrot whatever message they heard from the campaign or allied media.

A lot of Youngkin voters said they cared about education, but probably not in the usual sense of wanting better funding and higher test scores. In addition to his race-related issues

Exit polling found that voters who believe parents should have “a lot” of say in what their child’s school teaches overwhelmingly supported Youngkin over McAuliffe (77 percent to 22 percent). … Youngkin also made appeals to parents fed up with more than a year of remote learning and other COVID-19-related school policies, like requiring masks in schools. But all of this falls under the category of “education,” which makes it incredibly hard to disentangle which issue had a bigger impact on voters.

Ordinarily, you would expect an education-focused parents-rights campaign to overperform among parents, but that didn’t happen either. Youngkin won White parents, but not by a margin larger than Republicans typically do.

538 wound up concluding that

disappointment with Biden’s presidency is what ultimately drove support for Youngkin.

Most interestingly, opinions about Biden had more impact than opinions about Trump.

almost twice the share of people who had an unfavorable view of Trump backed Youngkin (17 percent) than the share who disapproved of Biden and backed McAuliffe (10 percent).

Beauchamp agrees:

The election returns from Virginia show a uniform swing against McAuliffe, not an especially strong backlash in areas where CRT was an especially prominent issue. In New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, there was a similarly sized swing against Democrats despite CRT not being a major part of the campaign.

A broader look at election night on November 2 tells a different and more familiar story: McAuliffe lost because of a nationalized backlash against an unpopular incumbent president.

The red and blue theories of government. In general, Democrats and Republicans campaign differently because their voters are looking for different things from the government. Democrats believe that government can improve people’s lives. As Abraham Lincoln (in an era when the Republicans were the activist party) put it:

The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.

So, for example, I can take public transportation, but I can’t build it. I can sign up for broadband internet, if the big internet providers feel like offering it in my community. But if they don’t, I need government to push them. I can hope that new drugs have been tested before the pharmaceutical corporations put them on the market, but I can’t do it myself. I can’t manage the money supply for full employment, or test for lead in my drinking water, or prevent climate change, or do any of a thousand other things government does (or could do) for me.

Republicans, on the other hand, see government more as an obstacle and a source of interference. In their worldview, individuals should mostly fend for themselves, and to the extent they need to organize, the market will organize them. All the things government can usefully do are already being done (and then some), and happen more or less automatically.

So Republican campaigns aren’t about what government can do to improve your life. You don’t vote for a Republican hoping to stop a pandemic or get health insurance or pay for college. Instead, you vote Republican so that someone will use the bully pulpit of government to speak for you. Republican officials don’t do much to help their voters, but they stop other people from doing things their voters disapprove of, like getting abortions or changing their pronouns or kneeling during the national anthem. What Trump voters loved most about him was not any particular government action, but that he forcefully agreed with them and viciously insulted people they resent.

This is also why Republicans can invent issues out of nothing and Democrats can’t. Free community college isn’t an issue unless real people want to attend community college. But critical race theory can be an issue whether it actually exists or not, because it’s about other people, and who knows what devilry they might be up to?

As far back as 1988, Bush the First was making a issue out of the pledge of allegiance. He wasn’t promising to do anything about the pledge of allegiance, but somewhere out there people were refusing to say the pledge, and Mike Dukakis had defended them. After Bush won, the words pledge and allegiance didn’t appear in his 1989 inaugural address, because the pledge had nothing to do with his plans to govern. Nobody had expected that it would.

Thirty-three years later, Democrats still haven’t solved that problem. Terry McAuliffe was flummoxed by critical race theory just as Dukakis was by the pledge issue. Because how do you fight something that isn’t real?

Democrats need results. In short, pretty much every election hinges on whether the public focuses on symbolic issues or real-life issues. Death panels or the War on Christmas presages a Republican victory; the minimum wage or affordable health care a Democratic win.

Real issues tend not to be as click-baity as symbolic issues; wealth inequality is tedious compared to canceling Dr. Seuss. So voters looking for entertainment will trend Republican. (That’s the other thing Trump’s fans love about him: He’s never dull.) But why shouldn’t voters reduce politics to entertainment if it’s all hot air anyway? If neither Medicare for All nor JFK Jr.’s return is ever going to happen, why not choose the more engaging fantasy and follow Q rather than Bernie?

That’s why Democrats need results. People need to see that politics leads to something, and isn’t just an identity or an excuse for tribes to battle each other. Biden was popular those first few months because he seemed to be doing what he had talked about. He said he would beat the pandemic with vaccines, then he signed a bill to fund vaccine distribution, and sure enough: vaccines started rolling out. By June, the pandemic seemed to be over, the economy was coming back, and Biden had moved on to talk about fixing bridges and bringing broadband to rural America.

Politics works! So Biden (and Democrats) are popular.

Then the Delta variant hit, vaccine resistance became a thing, the economic recovery paused, and Biden’s further proposals bogged down in Congress. So politics doesn’t work; it’s just a bunch of people yelling at each other. Suddenly Biden’s popularity crashes and Democrats underperform in elections.

https://nickanderson.substack.com/p/cmon-man

Pointing fingers. Several well-known commentators were quick to assign blame for Tuesday’s disappointing results, and their voices were amplified by the majority of the beltway press, particularly in The New York Times. Probably the voice that got the most attention was James Carville, who denounced “stupid wokeness”. NYT columnist Maureen Dowd quoted Carville, and went on to attack the Biden agenda.

Biden has pursued his two bills with Captain Ahab-like zeal; he pines to be F.D.R. and eclipse Barack Obama, who pushed him aside for Hillary.

Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi hail the bills as transformational. But what are you transforming into? The election cratering showed that such overweening efforts are putting off many voters who are still struggling just to get by, as they move beyond the degradation wrought by Trump and Covid.

Outside the editorial page, The Times’ post-election analysis gave plenty of space to similar complaints.

More pointedly, [Virginia Rep. Abigail] Spanberger said Mr. Biden must not forget that, for many voters, his mandate was quite limited: to remove former President Donald J. Trump from their television screens and to make American life ordinary again.

“Nobody elected him to be F.D.R., they elected him to be normal and stop the chaos,” she said, alluding to the sweeping agenda the president is seeking to enact with the thinnest of legislative majorities.

And the NYT’s editorial board echoed:

Tuesday’s results are a sign that significant parts of the electorate are feeling leery of a sharp leftward push in the party, including on priorities like Build Back Better, which have some strong provisions and some discretionary ones driving up the price tag. The concerns of more centrist Americans about a rush to spend taxpayer money, a rush to grow the government, should not be dismissed.

Again in the NYT, Mark Penn and Andrew Stein made the point even more forcefully:

Swing voters in two blue-leaning states just sent a resounding wake-up call to the Biden administration: If Democrats remain on their current course and keep coddling and catering to progressives, they could lose as many as 50 seats and control of the House in the 2022 midterm elections. There is a way forward now for President Biden and the Democratic Party: Friday’s passage of the bipartisan physical infrastructure bill is a first step, but only a broader course correction to the center will give Democrats a fighting chance in 2022 and to hold on to the presidency in 2024.

This kind of beltway common sense apparently needs no supporting evidence. Only Penn and Stein quote poll results, and they rely exclusively on Penn’s own poll, which is obviously skewed. (Example: Only 62% of the respondents say they have “gotten the vaccine”. But according to the CDC, 70% of Americans over 18 are fully vaccinated, and 80% have gotten at least one dose. Penn and Stein call attention to the 58% who oppose the “$1.5 to $2 trillion dollar social spending bill” if it would be “financed by increasing the deficit and tax increases”, which is phrased to imply that the respondents’ own taxes would go up. But 66% of even Penn’s skewed sample supports a 15% corporate minimum tax and 59% favor a wealth tax on billionaires. Throughout the survey, Penn’s questions frame issues as Republicans frame them. “Do you think the schools should promote the idea that people are victims and oppressors based on their race or should they teach children to ignore race in all decisions to judge people by their character?” But who exactly is teaching students not to judge people by their character? Unsurprisingly, 63% oppose such teaching.)

Let me repeat a point I made above: When pollsters (other than Mark Penn) tell Americans what’s in the two bills, they like it — and that was when the reconciliation bill was $3.5 trillion. When they’re told rich people’s taxes will go up to pay for it, they like it even more.

The problem isn’t that the Biden agenda is too big or too expensive or too left-wing. The problem is that Democrats have been talking about it for a long time and it’s not done. (Or at least it wasn’t done when voters cast their ballots on Tuesday. Jennifer Rubin wonders if we might have seen a different result after all the good news that came out Friday.) As long as it’s just a set of proposals in Congress that change every few days, the American people aren’t going to take it seriously. That’s not action, that’s a bunch of people arguing about stuff that may never happen — precisely what Americans hate most about politics.

So why isn’t it done? The answer to this question is really simple, and it’s the complete opposite of what the beltway-press echo chamber is saying: The bills weren’t done in time to help Terry McAuliffe because Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema slow-rolled them.

I am not saying that there is anything illegitimate about either moderate or progressive Democrats pushing their views and trying to get the best deal they can. Personally, I think the current Manchinized $1.7 trillion reconciliation bill is considerably less good than the original $3.5 trillion proposal. (The Washington Post’s editorial board agrees with me, for reasons that go beyond the spending total.) But that’s not my point. Manchin and Sinema are senators, and the bill can’t pass without them. There’s no reason why they (or anyone else) should have to vote for a bill they don’t believe in.

But let’s assume that some kind of BBB bill is eventually acceptable to both factions of the party — maybe the current $1.7 trillion version, or something with even more concessions to the two rightmost Democrats.

Why couldn’t that same bill have passed in July?

The answer to that question has nothing to do with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the progressive caucus, Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, or Joe Biden. Some version of the reconciliation bill didn’t pass months ago because Manchin and Sinema have stalled and are still stalling. When all the other Democrats were ready to get on with serious negotiating, Manchinema were hard to pin down. They expressed vague qualms without making counter-proposals. That’s what has taken so long.

So if Terry McAuliffe wants to blame somebody, that’s where I’d look.

What’s the real lesson of Tuesday’s elections? Get stuff done, especially popular stuff that people can see happening. Certain phrases, like “defund the police” and “critical race theory” are unpopular, so Democrats shouldn’t run on them — but no major candidate was doing that before Tuesday.

When you do get stuff done, make sure people know about it.

If you can’t get stuff done, make sure the public understands that Republicans are the obstacle, not other Democrats. As much as possible, Democrats should do their within-the-party negotiating behind closed doors. The House should pass some nice, simple, one-popular-issue bills, like resolving the Dreamers’ immigration status or protecting voting rights or eliminating obviously corrupt billionaire tax breaks. And then Chuck Schumer should make as big a show as he can out of Republicans blocking those bills in the Senate. (The 2022 attack ad writes itself: “Billionaire hedge fund managers can thank Ron Johnson for saving their giant tax break. Given how much dark money is pouring into Wisconsin to support Johnson’s re-election effort, maybe they already have.”)

A final note about “wokeness”. Black Americans started telling each other to “stay woke” long before I noticed the phrase. A 1938 Leadbelly song says “I advise everybody, be a little careful when they go along through there – best stay woke, keep their eyes open.” The term showed up in a 1962 NYT article on Black slang. More recently, a 2008 Erykah Badu song and then a Childish Gambino song popularized it. Zaron Burnett III defines its original meaning as “an earnest expression that Black people need to stay conscious of the agendas operating against us”.

Becoming (as opposed to staying) woke was a consciousness-raising experience similar to what feminists used to express with the word “click“. A feminist click-moment was when some switch flipped in your head, and you suddenly saw familiar situations in a new way. For a while, White allies in the anti-racist movement used woke that way.

More recently, though, conservatives have made pejorative term out of woke. In particular, it has become a racist dog whistle: Some person or movement or proposal is “too woke” if it’s too Black. Burnett says:

Woke is now a funhouse mirror version of itself. It no longer refers to being aware of the agendas that operate against Black people, nor does it mean to stay conscious and present, or even skeptical. It’s been mockingly weaponized so that it can be an expression of winking anti-Blackness by someone like [Senator Josh] Hawley. 

… “Wokeness” in this context is also an update of the tired, more obvious dog whistles like “thug,” “inner-city youth” and “urban contemporary.” They’re all just polite ways to say (or whisper) Black. And so, for the modern tech-savvy racist, to be against woke culture is a casual, more acceptable form of anti-Blackness (i.e., no white hood necessary). 

One of the things I thought we had learned from George Lakoff’s framing articles in the early 2000s was not to use opponents’ frames. Using the vocabulary of the Right strengthens the Right, and using the vocabulary of racists strengthens racism.

So Democrats and liberals (especially White Democrats and liberals) should never, ever use the pejorative form of woke. (They should be careful with the positive sense too, because it seems to have timed out.) Whatever you’re trying to say, find some other way to say it. Because when you talk about “stupid wokeness”, you’re telling the White supremacists that you’re on their side.

James Carville should know that. Shame on him.