Democrats’ electoral losses were a referendum on Biden, political experts say

silhouette of joe biden
President Biden won Virginia by 10 points last year, but voters threw their support firmly behind Republican political newcomer Glenn Youngkin for governor in 2021. It was a referendum on Biden’s declining poll numbers, Northeastern faculty say. Photo by Raphael Lafargue via AP Images

The Democratic coalition that fueled President Biden’s rise to the White House―including Black voters and suburban women―has frayed in less than a year, resulting in across-the-board losses in Virginia, says Northeastern political science professor Costas Panagopoulos.

Gubernatorial contests that saw Democrats lose Virginia and locked in a tight race in New Jersey ‘were a statement about Joe Biden,’ says Costas Panagopoulos, professor of political science. Biden comfortably won both states in 2020 over Donald Trump. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

“Last night’s results were a statement about Joe Biden,” Panagopoulos, an expert on political campaigns and elections, says.

The president didn’t seem to think so. Asked during a press briefing at a United Nations climate conference in Europe about the potential impact of his declining approval numbers on Virginia, he responded: “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.”

The president’s comments were made before the results of the Virginia contest were known.

Biden was referring to a nearly $2 trillion social spending plan that moderates and liberals in his party have been struggling to reach an agreement on, as well as a separate $1 trillion transportation measure that remains in limbo.

Panagopoulos thinks both bills will eventually pass, but the time it took to strike a deal among party factions may have lasting implications.

“They had so much infighting that they shot themselves in the foot,” he says. “The question is whether that damage is repairable.”

Adding to the legislative logjam, Biden is facing another problem: the public’s declining faith in Biden’s ability to manage the pandemic.

Northeastern research found that Biden, who campaigned on a promise to do a better job managing the pandemic than former president Donald Trump, has lost support among independents, women, and fellow Democrats for his handling of the coronavirus.

With general disapproval of the Biden presidency on the economy, Afghanistan, and other issues, the Virginia governor’s race was viewed as a political temperature check going into next year’s congressional campaigns.

President Biden may pivot to the political center after Tuesday’s disappointing election results, says Nick Beauchamp, professor of political science. Photo: Matthew Modoono/University Photographer

Historical trends show that the president’s party typically loses seats in Congress when the president’s name isn’t on the ballot. Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell’s victory in Virginia in 2009 foretold a GOP sweep in the 2010 midterms, but it was followed by President Barack Obama’s easy re-election victory, both nationally and in Virginia, two years later.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe would go on to capture the governorship in 2013, but that didn’t stop congressional Democrats from getting wiped out nationally a year later. McAuliffe was defeated in a bid for his old job Tuesday by Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin.

The attorney general race in Virginia is too close to call as of Wednesday, with the GOP candidate, Jason Miyares, slightly ahead. Also undecided was control of the 100-seat House of Delegates. Republicans held 49 seats to 46 for Democrats, with 5 races still to be determined.

Should the GOP scoop up those outstanding races, it would be a clean Republican sweep in a state that Biden won by 10 points just a year ago.

Democrats are also concerned about a closer-than-expected gubernatorial race in New Jersey, which Biden won by an even wider margin. The incumbent Democrat is ahead by a sliver as of Wednesday afternoon.

Political letdowns are not unusual for off-cycle elections in which turnout tends to be lower anyway, Panagopoulos says; but it does point to a more worrisome concern―lack of enthusiasm among Democrats. If a dearth of passion plays out similarly in next year’s congressional midterms, the party will be fighting an uphill battle to maintain its razor-thin majorities in Congress.

“Last night’s results should be a giant wake up call to Democrats going into the 2022 midterms,” Panagopoulos says.

Like other presidents before him who have tacked with the political winds, Biden is going to need to pivot sooner or later, and probably in a more conservative direction, if Republicans capture the House majority, says another Northeastern political science professor, Nick Beauchamp.

“The presumption is if the Republicans take the House, what he can do would be incredibly constrained anyway,” Beauchamp says.

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