Democrats crushed Republicans in Tuesday’s California recall election of Gov. Gavin Newsom. Newsom’s overwhelming victory left little doubt that California is a deeply blue state, and a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate like Larry Elder doesn’t come close to fitting the bill for the type of Republican the GOP needs to run in order to win in the Golden State.
But beneath the positive exterior for Democrats, there are some fairly clear warning signs for President Joe Biden and his party ahead of the 2022 elections.
One of the big advantages Newsom had in this race is that Biden is quite popular in California. The current exit poll puts his approval rating at 58% to a disapproval rating of 39%. (The preelection Public Policy Institute of California poll similarly had the split at 58% to 38%.)
This worked well for Newsom, as voters’ feelings of Biden were quite predictive of how they voted on the recall. “No” won 93% of those who approved, while “yes” on the recall won 89% of those who disapproved.
The problem for Biden is that the exit poll indicates clear leakage in his support from a year ago. In the 2020 general election exit poll, his favorable rating stood at 64% to an unfavorable rating of 34%.
Put another way, his net favorability (favorable minus unfavorable) rating of +30 points a year ago became a +19-point net approval rating this year. Similarly, the exit poll itself showed that recall voters said they voted for Biden by a 26-point margin last year, which is 7 points higher than his net approval rating.
This is largely consistent with what we see in national polling. Biden’s net approval rating nationally stands somewhere around -3 points to -4 points. Last year’s national exit poll had Biden’s net favorability rating at +6 points. He beat Trump by 4.5 points in the popular vote.
That is, Biden’s net ratings nationally seem to have taken somewhere in the neighborhood of a high-single digit to a 10-point drop since the election.
Nothing in the California results indicates that the national polls are greatly underestimating Biden’s popularity.
It’s important to keep in mind, too, that the California results mirror what we’ve been seeing in special state legislative and federal elections. Democrats have been underperforming Biden’s baseline, and by more so recently. So this is not a one-off.
To put this in some historical perspective, California and a lot of the special elections this year look somewhat like what we witnessed in 2017 ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, except in reverse. There were a lot of elections that year in which Republicans won, but Democrats kept doing better than Hillary Clinton did in the same places a year earlier. On a national scale, this translated to Democrats easily winning the House in 2018.
More worrisome for Democrats is that the same factor that helped Newsom (Biden’s standing) in California has a pretty good chance of biting them in 2022 if we’re dealing with a similarly feeling electorate a year from now.
Assuming Democrats get about 90% of the pro-Biden vote and lose about 90% of the anti-Biden vote nationwide, it would mean they would very likely lose the national House vote. This would probably mean an easy victory for Republicans in the House.
Again, this general pattern matches with what we saw in 2018. Democrats won back the House because more voters disapproved than approved of Trump’s job as president, and about 90% of voters cast ballots that reflected either their approval or disapproval of him.
Ahead of 2022, Republicans need only a five-seat gain in the House to win control, and they lost the national House vote by 3 points in 2020. Even the slightest movement toward the Republicans from 2020 would likely mean good things for them.
We actually saw how a somewhat-unpopular president could hurt Democrats in swing congressional districts on Tuesday. Yes on the recall was winning in a number of swing congressional districts in Orange County, according to the Cook Political Report’s Dave Wasserman.
Don’t be surprised if that pattern holds up a year from now. If Biden continues to be underperforming his 2020 standing in surveys, Democrats will suffer at the polls.