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Joe Biden Is Dragging Democrats Down

Slate logo Slate 11/1/2021 Jim Newell
U.S. President Joe Biden campaigns with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Arlington, Virginia. Uh oh. Win McNamee/Getty Images © Provided by Slate U.S. President Joe Biden campaigns with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe in Arlington, Virginia. Uh oh. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Political pundits have drafted their narrative options for late Tuesday night. All that’s needed is an election result to determine which one to run with.

In one scenario, Virginia elects Democrat Terry McAuliffe to his second, non-consecutive term as governor, defying a late charge from his well-financed opponent, Republican Glenn Youngkin. In this case, McAuliffe’s strategy of yoking Youngkin to Donald Trump will be remembered as a stroke of genius. The midterms will be fine for Democrats.

In the other, Glenn Youngkin rides his late surge across the finish line and bests McAuliffe. McAuliffe goes down as a stupid idiot for focusing so much on has-been Donald Trump. The midterms will be a disaster.

The outcome of the Virginia gubernatorial election is of the utmost importance—for residents of Virginia, and what direction they want to take their state. For the much broader universe of those looking to Virginia for answers to second-order questions, though, those answers are already out there: Democrats have a problem.

If the polling is anywhere close to accurate, no one is going to win the race running away. Either Youngkin or McAuliffe could win by a couple of points. And that’s why, regardless of which side the coin flip lands on, Democrats already have enough information to know they’re in a difficult position heading into midterm season. President Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points in 2020. If Youngkin wins by two points, Democrats would be 12 points off their 2020 pace. If McAuliffe wins by two, Democrats would be eight points off. And while that two-point McAuliffe victory would be useful in the short-term for national Democrats—it would stave off that second, extremely annoying, hair-on-fire narrative from overtaking the news as they’re trying to wrap up their legislative agenda—it would hardly show that the American people are more in love with the Democratic Party than ever. Democrats would be well behind their 2020 pace, one that netted them a majority of only a few seats in the House of Representatives.

The national Democratic party, in damage-control mode, may try to write off the result—speaking anonymously, of course—as an issue of McAuliffe just being a bad apple. And sure, the longtime party operative, insider, and fundraiser organizer is not exactly the heir to Barack Obama. He committed a gaffe in one debate that the Youngkin campaign has successfully hung its hat on for the final month of the campaign.

But while McAuliffe’s approval has been in decline for weeks, it’s still better than Joe Biden’s. In a recent Roanoke poll of the Virginia race that showed McAuliffe leading by 1 point, McAuliffe was +1 in net favorability, while Biden’s net approval rating was -6. A Washington Post poll that similarly showed McAuliffe leading by 1 point pinned Biden’s net approval at -7.

If Biden’s unpopularity is dragging McAuliffe down in a favorable, Democratic-leaning state like Virginia, consider what it would do to Democrats nationally. The FiveThirtyEight average shows Biden’s approval underwater by 8 percentage points, about as bad as it’s ever been. An NBC News poll this weekend, that showed Biden at 42 percent approval to 54 percent disapproval, showed a particularly grim state of affairs under the hood. Despite a waning Delta variant wave and growing economy, a paltry 22 percent of voters said things in the nation were heading in the right direction, compared to 71 percent who said they were on the wrong track.

“The promise of the Biden presidency—knowledge, competence and stability in tough times—have all been called into question,” Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt of Hart Research Associates, which co-conducted the survey, told NBC News.

So, we don’t need a Virginia gubernatorial result to tell us about the political environment. The data about the political environment already tells us about the political environment! And in this one, Democrats would be fortunate to win any competitive race, including Virginia’s gubernatorial one.

But since people will always look for ways to blame the candidate for specific strategic faults, rather than simply acknowledging [gestures broadly] all this, McAuliffe will be hammered for focusing so much on Trump in the event of a loss. It will be the hot question of the week, from one Sunday show to the next: McAuliffe focused on Trump and lost. Shouldn’t Democrats move on?

The answer, George Stephanopoulos, is: No.

First, consider the question of whether McAuliffe focused too much on Trump. Those who say it was the brunt, if not the entirety, of his offensive against the Republican opposition are not exaggerating. But what else was he supposed to run on? The popularity of Joe Biden? The lightning-fast rate of legislative accomplishment in Congress? And while Biden is an anchor on McAuliffe right now—and the more pertinent one, given that he’s presently in charge—it’s not like Trump has suddenly become popular in Virginia, either. The Roanoke poll had Trump’s favorability in the state at 37 percent, compared to 54 percent unfavorable; the Washington Post poll found that Trump’s (repeated) endorsement of Youngkin made 9 percent of voters more likely to support Youngkin, compared to 37 percent who would be less likely. Not a bad, dominant figure in our societal landscape to tie your opponent to. Dislike of Trump is also one of the few, in-your-face items that has near-unanimous support among Virginia Democrats, who otherwise may not all be on the same policy page.

Virginia Democrats “disapprove of Trump at 90 percent,” one Democratic adviser working on the race told me. “The data tells us that we can’t overdo it, at all.” Trump is still the most potent weapon Democrats have. He just may not be potent enough to surmount everything else.

Rather than soothe themselves that everything is fine if McAuliffe pulls off a narrow escape Tuesday, or run around like panicking maniacs if a Republican wins the governor’s seat for the first time since 2009, Democrats in Washington should focus on addressing the same problem they had two months ago or one month ago, and will still have Wednesday: They’re not liked. The Congress they control should pass laws with stuff that people like. Ensure the Delta variant is the last major coronavirus wave. Fix supply chains. Make stuff less expensive. Somebody should do something about all of the problems, and it should be them. Otherwise, no matter what happens in Virginia this week, Democrats aren’t going to have a very good 2022.


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