the inside game

The Next Democratic Reckoning

Turnout was high across Virginia and New Jersey on Tuesday. But that wasn’t good news for Democrats. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Ten months into Joe Biden’s presidency, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we are living in a new political era — and that we have been for half a decade.

Tuesday’s numbers, especially in Virginia and New Jersey, made the new pattern clear: As far as closely watched races with national implications go, there are no more low-engagement or low-turnout elections between Democrats and Republicans. And the results — a Republican victory in Virginia and a shockingly close finish in New Jersey — should fully put to rest the long-held left-leaning assumption that high turnout in competitive territories is almost always good news for Democrats.

This week’s top headlines will be about Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the former governor, in a liberalizing Virginia that hadn’t elected any member of the GOP statewide in over a decade, and about New Jersey governor Phil Murphy, the Democratic incumbent, possibly only eking out a win over Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli in a race no one pegged as close. (I’m told the White House eye-rolled months’ worth of warnings from Murphy’s advisers, though a Biden aide disputed the notion, saying they fulfilled every request from the Murphy campaign.) But the data behind those results tell the longer-term tale. No one from either inside the campaigns or from the punditocracy entered Election Week expecting historically high turnouts in either race. Yet by Wednesday morning, Virginia’s turnout had broken 3.3 million — compared to 2.6 million in 2017, when Democrat Ralph Northam won an election marked by intense backlash to Donald Trump’s ascent. In New Jersey, more than 2.3 million million had been counted, versus 2017’s 2.1 million, when voters offered a referendum on not just Trump but Chris Christie.

It’s a pattern, though not one with obvious partisan lessons. This fall, against expectations, more Californians voted in their gubernatorial recall election than had in their previous governor’s race. Gavin Newsom, the Democratic incumbent, won by an equally huge margin. Record turnouts also helped explain the story of not just 2020 and 2016’s presidential elections, but 2018’s midterms that gave Democrats control of the House and, before that, 2017’s races, including in New Jersey and Virginia. At the time, many of those were understood to be direct reactions to Trump.

This year’s numbers hardly rule out a Trump effect, since he still loomed large in the races — certainly in right-wing media and Democratic messaging — but point to a broader shift away from traditions of low engagement in off-year elections, and toward an all-in-all-the-time political culture. And after Youngkin’s win and Ciattarelli’s over-performance, a serious reevaluation is in the cards for Democrats in particular, who likely now face an especially daunting midterm season.

“I have been on way too many calls with campaigns who have narrowed their targeting because they were trained to do that in a lower-turnout era,” said longtime Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, a veteran of national and Virginia politics. “For a long time, campaigns specialized in narrowing their audience to the most likely of voters so they could maximize their efficiency. Now that’s one of the biggest mistakes a campaign can make, because they’re leaving lower-propensity, lower-information voters on the cutting-room floor.”

Here’s where caution is warranted: It’s tradition to overreact to the first off-year statewide elections after a new president is elected, especially in Virginia. Still, the truth is that the vote often does indicate something important about the national mood. (As Barack Obama warned in his ad for McAuliffe, the result would make “a statement about what direction we’re headed in as a country.”) And, in some respects, the results are extremely easy to explain. Biden’s approval rating is as low, at this point, as nearly any of his predecessors’, so of course the landscape turned against the Democrats. When McAuliffe won in 2013 he was the only Virginia governor in half a century to take the governor’s mansion with his own party in the White House, whereas Youngkin fits the usual pattern; Murphy has been trying to be the first Democrat reelected in New Jersey in four decades.

Some Democrats, too, are likely to cling to the fact that both races were close, and not 2009- or 2017-style blowouts — Republican Bob McDonnell won by 17 in Virginia a dozen years ago, Murphy won by 14 his first time on the ballot. Yet the swings from Biden’s 16- and ten-point wins just a year ago in New Jersey and Virginia, respectively, do deserve a reckoning. This wasn’t about Democratic apathy — McAuliffe got over 200,000 more votes than Northam did four years earlier.

The short-run fallout is likely to play out on Capitol Hill, where Democrats have been struggling to pass Biden’s big-ticket agenda items, and where a group of House members from New Jersey and Virginia last week met with Nancy Pelosi to urge action and warn that losses or squeakers on Tuesday might cause more Democrats to defect from the pair of Biden-backed bills or to retire altogether, sensing a darkening midterms picture. “I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that the House and Senate majorities and my presidency will be determined by what happens in the next week,” warned Biden himself as he left for Europe last week, when he still had hope the infrastructure and Build Back Better bills would be considered for votes in the ensuing days.

Already, Democrats are realizing they can’t fall back into their usual blame game after losses, and that a longer-term rethink is necessary considering the way Youngkin won. Both sides fully blew out their base turnouts, but the race still appeared to be decided among white suburban voters — many of whom had backed Biden in 2020 — while Democratic numbers reached all-time lows in rural areas, the kinds of spots where they at least need to perform respectably to have a shot statewide.

Within national liberal circles that had been watching the McAuliffe race closely, the results seemed a confirmation that GOP-driven culture wars over education, in particular, are likely here to stay. But they also spent Tuesday night beginning to acknowledge that they could not simply blame McAuliffe’s now-famous statement about not wanting parents to dictate their children’s education. One reason that was especially painful, multiple Democrats said, is that those parents were already frustrated with school programs after the last year-plus of at-home learning thanks to the pandemic. In California, Newsom campaigned by leaning into his vaccine mandates and serious handling of COVID. McAuliffe did not try to explain Northam’s pandemic-era lockdowns or restrictions, but also didn’t break from them.

Newsom was helped by having an unacceptable opponent in most voters’ eyes. But Virginia, a traditional swing state until relatively recently, is no California. McAuliffe spent much of the closing stretch trying to tie Youngkin to Trump in large part because he knew the state had a large population of Youngkin-curious Biden voters who despised the ex-president. The message, however, was nowhere near as potent as many Democrats hoped, and it may have backfired in deep-red areas where McAuliffe needed to keep margins down.

“So much of the Democratic message these days motivates our voters, but it motivates theirs, as well. In 2020 it meant we juiced our turnout in California and New York, and we juiced their turnout in Iowa and Ohio. In Virginia, it means that our turnout broke records, but so did theirs,” said a senior Democratic strategist planning for the midterms.

A similar dynamic appears to have unfolded in the far less rural but more suburban New Jersey, where Murphy spent months tying Ciattarelli to Trump, though he did spend more time explaining his COVID-era work.

“When you make a race about race, or you make a race about Trump, it absolutely engages our voters, but it absolutely energizes theirs, as well,” said the strategist.

No party leader is likely to say it out loud, since they still hope to run on Biden’s record next year, hoping that his popularity rebounds once something — anything — is passed out of Congress. But this finding almost certainly makes the midterms all the more daunting for Democrats. As one party operative close to Biden’s White House told me last night, there was still a quiet but pervasive hope that they could rely largely on Trump’s specter to scare Democrats into voting in droves next November. It’s now clear that’s far from enough.

The Next Democratic Reckoning