As voters in Virginia and New Jersey went to the polls on November 2, President Joe Biden was in Scotland at a climate-change conference. Before returning to Washington, he talked to the press. Biden predicted victory for the Democratic candidates in both races and cautioned reporters from drawing connections between his approval ratings, the fate of his agenda, and the electoral strength of his party. “I don’t believe, and I’ve not seen any evidence that whether or not I am doing well or poorly, whether or not I’ve got my agenda passed or not is going to have any real impact on winning or losing,” he said.
The evidence was waiting for him when he returned to the United States early the next morning. Not only did Republican Glenn Youngkin defeat Democrat Terry McAuliffe to become Virginia’s governor elect; Republican candidates for both lieutenant governor and state attorney general won, too, and Republicans flipped the state’s House of Delegates. In New Jersey, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli closed an eight-point gap in the Real Clear Politics average of polls to tie incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy. (The race has yet to be called as I write this.) One anonymous Democratic congressman from the Garden State described the results succinctly in an email to the Politico Playbook: “F—ing disaster down ballot and way too close at the top.”
What explained the disaster? Liberals on CNN and MSNBC were quick to blame McAuliffe’s defeat on gullible voters and a racist backlash. They said that Youngkin bamboozled Virginia parents into thinking that elementary- and secondary-school children were being indoctrinated in far-left “critical race theory,” or “CRT.” They said that Youngkin’s call to ban CRT, and to allow parents to opt their children out of sexually explicit curricular materials, was code for animus toward black people. Their emphasis on education mirrored the culture warriors of the right, who argued that Youngkin’s appeals to parents and opposition to government mask and vaccine mandates put him over the top. Both the woke left and the MAGA right saw Youngkin as a paladin of Donald Trump: a populist outsider who, unlike the 45th president, came with a smile instead of a snarl, and who wore sporty fleeces instead of long red ties.
This was a misreading. Education was high on the list of issues critical to voters in the exit poll, but it was not the most important one. The economy mattered more. Nor was the election a referendum on Trump and Trumpism. Youngkin accepted President Trump’s endorsement, and often pandered to MAGA voters, but he neither campaigned with Trump nor mentioned him on the trail. Indeed, during his closing rally in Loudoun County, the president Youngkin mentioned was not Donald Trump but George W. Bush.
It was McAuliffe who wanted to turn Youngkin into another Don Junior. He failed because the current president weighs more heavily on voters’ minds than the last one. Biden’s denial of culpability for Virginia and New Jersey was, like so many things he says, completely wrong. He is the reason for the shift toward Republicans nationwide. He is behind the reddening of America.
A president’s job-approval rating is a handy indicator of party performance. Biden’s approval has been flashing red for months. The October Gallup poll had him at 42 percent approval, in the danger zone where fellow partisans fear to tread. More noteworthy than the level of Biden’s support has been its sudden decline. Gallup says that the difference between Biden’s first quarter and third-quarter job-approval ratings is the largest on record. This hemorrhaging of goodwill began in the summer when the Delta strain of the coronavirus spread across the country. It accelerated in late August during the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan and America’s botched and dishonorable withdrawal from its 20-year-long war. But the bad feelings did not end there. Even as Delta and Afghanistan faded from the headlines, the public’s sour disposition toward Biden remained.
Why? Because behind the ravages of Delta and the embarrassments in Afghanistan was an equally pressing, longer lasting, and more widely felt crisis. This was inflation. The rise in prices affects every American who buys groceries and gasoline. The supply shortages reach every American who orders goods online, purchases a car, visits a restaurant, or rents an apartment. As Mark Shields likes to say, when the economy is the issue, it is the only issue. And presidents will be held responsible for the economy no matter the true extent of their influence over it. As inflation has eroded purchasing power and wage gains, Biden’s job approval has plummeted. Republicans held a nine-point advantage over Democrats, their largest since 2014, on “keeping America prosperous” in the October Gallup poll. Their advantage on the economy was 18 points in the October NBC poll.
Virginia is not exempt from these trends. Biden’s approval rating was underwater in the commonwealth on Election Day. And voters named the economy, which is a stand-in for inflation, as the top issue in both the CNN exit poll and the Fox News Voter Analysis. Education came in a distant second in the former and third in the latter. And Youngkin won voters who prioritized the economy by double digits.
True, his advantage on education was even greater. But the issue ranked a distant second in importance. And just as the “economy” encompasses inflation, “education” refers to more than CRT. Not every voter may know what critical race theory is. Yet every parent in Virginia had to deal with school closures and remote learning for over a year during the pandemic. And they still have to cope with draconian quarantine policies whenever one of their children comes into close contact with a person who tests positive for COVID.
It was therefore nothing less than political malpractice for McAuliffe to choose teachers’-union boss Randi Weingarten, who did more than anyone to keep kids out of school, to make his closing argument to Democrats in Fairfax County on election eve. One of the central questions of the campaign was the role parents should play in the education of their children. McAuliffe made it clear that he sided with neither parents nor children but with teachers’ unions.
Big mistake. Not as big, though, as portraying Glenn Youngkin as the second coming of Donald Trump. McAuliffe’s campaign was utterly defensive. He had no positive agenda for a second non-consecutive term as governor. His rhetoric was filled with (often dishonest) warnings that Youngkin was a Trump in sheep’s clothing. In his commercials and campaign tactics, McAuliffe aimed at connecting Youngkin to the worst events of the Trump presidency. The strategy reached an absurdist endpoint when the Lincoln Project planted in front of a Youngkin bus a diverse group of activists dressed as white nationalists and carrying tiki torches like those associated with the 2017 Charlottesville riot. The hoax was exposed in minutes. It backfired. As did McAuliffe’s endless evocations of President Trump.
For starters, Trump’s favorable rating in the exit poll was about the same as Biden’s job approval. Youngkin outperformed Trump on favorability, just as he outperformed the former president electorally. Biden’s approval rating loomed larger than Trump’s favorability. Forty-eight percent of voters told the CNN exit poll that Biden was not a factor in their vote for governor. But 28 percent said they voted to oppose Biden. And, unsurprisingly, those voters broke almost unanimously for Youngkin.
The result in Virginia was a 12-point swing toward Republicans since 2020 and an 11-point swing since the last governor’s race in 2017. The election brought home the fact that, for now at least, Trump is receding into the past. Biden dominates the present, for better or, thanks to incompetence and inflation, mostly worse. And Youngkin? He’s the future.
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