Why Democrats lost

Americans want change. Biden and McAuliffe aren't delivering.
Isaac Saul Nov 3, 2021

The results from Virginia have barely marinated for 12 hours and everyone has their own stories to explain them — few of which I find particularly convincing.

Democrats are rightly horrified and now entering the circular firing squad phase of election post-mortems. If it wasn't clear before, it is crystal clear now: Their odds of holding onto majorities in the House are slim to none when they can barely eke out a victory in a New Jersey governor's race and they lose handily in Virginia. Progressives will blame the loss on a lack of action from moderates and the fact they haven’t yet passed any of Biden's agenda, nor did they "get help" to voters in Virginia who needed it. Moderates will blame the loss on progressives who focus too much on race and too little on issues, pushing Biden's presidency further to the left than many expected. Both will have valid points but neither will be totally right.

Meanwhile, Republicans seem hellbent on telling themselves this race was about education and "critical race theory." Trump supporters will say this race is a sign of the strength he'd have in 2024 even though Youngkin practically stiff-armed him to stay away from the race. Others on the right continue to tell stories out of Virginia that are often centered on furious parents at school board meetings purportedly outraged about what their kids are being taught about race in school. This, apparently, is something the right and left punditocracy agree on: White parents in Virginia are mad about what their kids are being taught. The right just thinks that anger is justified while the left believes it’s a product of white fragility (or a faux issue in the first place).

In reality, white parents saying "education" is a top issue are probably just as pissed off that their kids just spent a year at home in broken remote learning environments and are still jumping through Covid-19 protocols in school as they are angry that their kids are being taught race-centric lessons in school.

Here's what I think: These narratives are all tiny threads in a much broader political environment that was both predictable and obvious. Let's start at 30,000 feet and then focus in:

First, modern American elections are about change. In 2008 we got Barack Obama. In 2010 we got a huge backlash to Obama in the midterms. In 2012 we got backlash to the backlash and Obama won again easily. In 2014, we saw Democrats get creamed again. In 2016, after eight years of Obama, we got the ultimate change: Donald J. Trump. In 2018 we had a midterms backlash to Trump. In 2020 we got a second backlash to Trump with Joe Biden. And so in 2021 and 2022... what would you guess is going to happen?

Many Americans live in a perpetual state of grievance and it makes a lot more sense to blame the people running the country than the ones who aren't. In Virginia's case, the change element is on steroids. Historically speaking, the state hadn't re-elected a Democratic governor in 44 years. Last night just kept that streak alive. More specifically to this race and the theme of change, we had a political newcomer (Youngkin) vs. someone who had literally been governor of Virginia before (McAuliffe). It's no wonder one candidate had more baggage with voters than the other.

Second, the president is underwater in the polls. Any time the party in the White House is underwater, that party is going to struggle in statewide elections. Biden has one of the worst approval ratings of any president on record at this point in his presidency. Read that sentence again if you didn't absorb it the first time. The idea that Terry McAuliffe, who spent most of his campaign talking about Donald Trump, was going to waltz to victory in that environment was always bananas — even a few months ago when he had a 10-point lead in the polls.

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Speaking of the polls, they are still off. Whatever skewing pollsters are doing to account for conservatives seems to once again be failing. In the final days it looked like the Virginia race came into focus (with RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight averages showing a 1-2% advantage for Youngkin), and the energy of his support on the ground compared to McAuliffe’s was obvious. But what about New Jersey? Phil Murphy was supposed to have a 5-10% gap, but at 9 a.m. this morning the race was separated by 69 votes. He won by a fraction of a percentage point.

Here's another fun fact: Youngkin's chief strategist was right when he said candidates matter. McAuliffe was pathological about making this race a referendum on Trump. Watch the debates, their campaign ads, their stump speeches, their social media accounts, whatever you want, and it was clear Youngkin spent more time talking about Virginia issues than McAuliffe did. You can't convince me that didn't matter. Youngkin focused on the economy, inflation, taxes, and on creating a less demanding environment around how people need to act during a pandemic. Newsflash: That's in line with the mood of the country as a whole. And yes, he took advantage of McAuliffe's mistakes on education, but that wasn't the game plan going in.

Just look at the numbers again: 35% of Virginia voters said the economy and jobs were the most important issues facing the state. 17% named Covid-19. 14% chose education.

All Youngkin had to do was make modest gains in the suburbs, among minority voters and among educated white voters to win. He did that. Meanwhile, Democrats have totally abandoned any attempt to appeal to or win over rural voters (besides expanding broadband internet), meaning they have no way to make up for those suburban and minority losses when they come.

If Democrats try to make the results of this race about white grievance they will lose again and they will keep on losing.

The greatest flaw of identity politics is that it obscures the true depth of candidates in favor of defining them broadly by race, gender or sexual orientation. Winsome Sears did become the first Black woman to win statewide office in Virginia last night. She's also a former U.S. Marine, pro-life, a Jamaican immigrant, and ran her own plumbing and electrical repair business. She ran on de-regulation, school choice and lowering taxes. Try to put that background in a box. If you think she won just because she had an R next to her name, or because white parents are upset about critical race theory, or any other number of these kinds of ideas out there — you're wrong. She won because she was a good candidate with a good story who was telling voters what they wanted to hear at the right time. And because she hitched herself to Youngkin, who had the momentum and the energy in this election.

All this leaves an elephant in the room for Biden and Democrats, who are about to eat each other alive with the blame game. What does this mean for Biden's agenda? More specifically, what does it mean for the more than $3 trillion in plans they are trying to get through Congress? Every Democrat is going to twist themselves into knots to try to explain why this loss means their path forward is the best, but from where I sit Biden still has the steering wheel.

Biden’s approval ratings aren't underwater because he has reshaped the country in his first year. His approval ratings are underwater because the country is basically the same as it was a year ago. Thousands of people are still dying from Covid-19 every day, we’re still masked up, still fighting over vaccines, still fighting over race, still bungling wars abroad, still struggling economically, still woefully divided, still talking about Trump, still seeing violent crime spike, still can't pass an infrastructure bill, still haven't improved the immigration system. We’re still without lower prescription drug prices, paid family leave or wages that outpace inflation, the most popular items on Biden’s agenda that somehow could now be missing from his agenda.

The biggest differences between now and then are that we’re navigating a rise in inflation, worker shortages are worse, we’re being rocked by a global supply chain freakout, and we all have to collectively endure hyperbolic outrage over “Critical Race Theory” punditry.

Biden ran on solving all of these things. That was never going to happen in a year, but Democrats’ best shot at regaining popularity won't be reneging on or abandoning his campaign promises — it'll be to better pursue them. Of course, it’s possible whatever they end up passing doesn’t appease American voters and maybe even makes the situation worse. But whatever they’ve got going on now clearly isn’t the answer — the best they can do is change things. Change the country. Move us from where we were a year ago. There's plenty to love and loathe about the twin infrastructure and reconciliation bills, but if Biden doesn't get them through (and then win the narrative on them) before the 2022 midterms his exceedingly slim odds of keeping power in Congress will drop to zero.


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Isaac Saul

I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.

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