Democrats had hoped that former President Donald Trump could serve as a boogeyman. They wanted his continuing unpopularity to serve as a call to action to Democrats, even as President Joe Biden himself is unpopular.
Tuesday night should serve as a warning that such a strategy doesn’t look like it’ll work in elections to come. Biden, not Trump, is the President now, and how voters feel about him is paramount.
You can see this well in the Virginia exit polls. There, Biden had a 45% approval rating to 54% disapproval rating. This mirrors his 43% approval rating nationally.
Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin won those who disapproved of Biden by a 91%-to-9% margin. This is similar to how voters who disapproved of a president’s performance have acted in the past in Virginia. In 2017, Democrat Ralph Norham won among those who disapproved of Trump’s job by an 87%-to-11% margin.
And even in California this year (where far more voters approved of Biden), those who disapproved were in favor of recalling Gov. Gavin Newsom by an 88%-to-12% margin.
Put another way: Views of the sitting president dictate how people vote downballot. This year hasn’t been an exception to that rule.
Of course, Trump himself remains unpopular. He had a 42% favorable to 54% unfavorable rating in Virginia. His standing was, in other words, actually slightly worse than Biden’s in the state. Again, this is what we see nationally, too.
In Virginia, most voters (84%) liked at least either Biden or Trump. Those who approved of Biden and had an unfavorable view of Trump went 96% to 4% to Democrat Terry McAuliffe. Those who held a favorable view of Trump and disapproved of Biden went 98% to 1% for Youngkin.
The key bloc was the significant chunk (16%) who liked neither one. It was this 16% who determined the election.
Youngkin won these voters by a 2-to-1 margin (68% to 32%). Had these voters broken evenly, McAuliffe would have won this race by a small but comfortable margin.
These voters are overwhelmingly independent. Among all Virginia voters, 31% said they were independent or something else. Among the crowd that liked neither Biden nor Trump, 57% were. Independents, overall, swung wildly in Virginia, going from Biden winning them by 19 points to Youngkin winning them by 9.
The dynamic in Virginia this time around was very reminiscent of what happened in the 2016 election. Democrats were counting on the fact that Trump was more disliked than Hillary Clinton to carry them over the finish line. As in this race, there were more voters who held a favorable view of the Democrat (43%) than of Trump (38%).
The key group in 2016 was the 22% who held a favorable view of neither Clinton or Trump. Trump won this group by 15 points and, with them, the presidency.
Lest there be any mistake, Biden is unpopular almost everywhere. Even in New Jersey, where Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy has pulled ahead, Biden’s approval rating was below his disapproval rating in a pre-election Monmouth University poll. This is a state where Biden won by 16 points in 2020.
We’ve seen the result of that unpopularity dominate the map. Last night, Republicans had one of the best nights they’ve had in a long while in local elections in New York. We’ve seen throughout the country Republicans doing considerably better in special elections than they did in the 2020 presidential election.
If Biden remains unpopular through 2022, expect this dynamic to repeat itself.