Democrats yesterday continued to perform better at the polls than in the polls.
Even as many Democrats have been driven to a near panic by a succession of recent polls showing President Joe Biden’s extreme vulnerability, the party in yesterday’s elections swept almost all the most closely watched contests. Democrats won the Kentucky governorship by a comfortable margin, romped to a lopsided victory in an Ohio ballot initiative ensuring abortion rights, and easily captured an open Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat. Most impressive, Democrats held the Virginia state Senate and were projected to regain control of the Virginia state House, despite an all-out campaign from Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin to win both chambers. Among the major contests, Democrats fell short only in the governor’s race in Mississippi.
The results extended the most striking pattern from the 2022 midterm election, when Republicans failed to match the usual gains for the party out of the White House at a time of widespread public dissatisfaction with the president. Democrats, just as they did last November, generated yesterday’s unexpectedly strong results primarily by amassing decisive margins in urban centers and the large inner suburbs around them.
The outcomes suggested that, as in 2022, an unusually broad group of voters who believe that Democrats have not delivered for their interests voted for the party’s candidates anyway because they apparently considered the Republican alternatives a threat to their rights and values on abortion and other cultural issues.
“The driving force of our politics since 2018 has been fear and opposition to MAGA,” the Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg told me. “It was the driving force in 2022 and 2023, and it will be in 2024. The truth is, what we’re facing in our domestic politics is unprecedented. Voters understand it, they are voting against it, and they are fighting very hard to prevent our democracy from slipping away.”
The surprising results yesterday could not have come at a better time for Democratic leaders. Many in the party have been driven to a near frenzy of anxiety by a succession of recent polls showing Biden trailing former President Donald Trump.
Yesterday’s victories have hardly erased all of Biden’s challenges. For months, polls have consistently found that his approval rating remains stuck at about 40 percent, that about two-thirds of voters believe he’s too old to effectively serve as president for another term, and that far more voters express confidence in Trump’s ability to manage the economy than in Biden’s.
But, like the 2022 results in many of the key swing states, the Democrats’ solid showing yesterday demonstrated that the party can often overcome those negative assessments by focusing voters’ attention on their doubts about the Trump-era Republican Party. “Once again, we saw that what voters say in polls can be very different than what they do when faced with the stark choice between Democrats who are fighting for a better life for families and dangerous candidates who are dead set on taking away their rights and freedoms,” Jenifer Fernandez Ancona, the chief strategy officer of Way to Win, a liberal group that focuses on electing candidates of color, told me in an email last night.
Even more than a midterm election, these off-year elections can turn on idiosyncratic local factors. But the common thread through most of the major contests was the Democrats’ continuing strength in racially diverse, well-educated major metropolitan areas, which tend to support liberal positions on cultural issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights. Those large population centers have trended Democratic for much of the 21st century. But that process accelerated after Trump emerged as the GOP’s leader in 2016, and has further intensified since the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion.
Across yesterday’s key contests, Democrats maintained a grip on major population centers. In Kentucky, Democratic Governor Andy Beshear carried the counties centered on Louisville and Lexington by about 40 percentage points each over Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
In Ohio, abortion-rights supporters dominated most of the state’s largest communities. That continued the pattern from the first round of the state’s battle over abortion. In that election, as I wrote, the abortion-rights side, which opposed the change, won 14 of the state’s 17 largest counties, including several that voted for Trump in 2020.
The results were equally emphatic in yesterday’s vote on a ballot initiative to repeal the six-week-abortion ban that the GOP-controlled state legislature passed, and Republican Governor Mike DeWine signed, in 2019. The abortion ban was buried under a mountain of votes for repeal in the state’s biggest places: An overwhelming two-thirds or more of voters backed repeal in the state’s three largest counties (which are centered on Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati), and the repeal side won 17 of the 20 counties that cast the most ballots, according to the tabulations posted in The New York Times.
Democrats held the Virginia state Senate through strong performances in suburban areas as well. Especially key were victories in which Democrats ousted a Republican incumbent in a suburban Richmond district, and took an open seat in Loudoun County, an outer suburb of Washington, D.C.
The race for an open Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat followed similar tracks. Democrat Daniel McCaffery cruised to victory in a race that hinged on debates about abortion and voting rights. Like Democrats in other states, McCaffery amassed insuperable margins in Pennsylvania’s largest population centers: He not only posted big leads in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, but he also built enormous advantages in each of the four large suburban counties outside Philadelphia, according to the latest vote tally.
From a national perspective, the battle for control of the Virginia state legislature probably offered the most important signal. The Virginia race presented the same competing dynamics that are present nationally. Though Biden won the state by 10 percentage points in 2020, recent polls indicate that more voters there now disapprove than approve of his performance. And just as voters in national polls routinely say they trust Trump more than Biden on the economy and several other major issues, polls found that Virginia voters gave Republicans a double-digit advantage on economy and crime. Beyond all that, Youngkin raised enormous sums to support GOP legislative candidates and campaigned tirelessly for them.
Yet even with all those tailwinds, Youngkin still failed to overturn the Democratic majority in the state Senate, and lost the GOP majority in the state House. The principal reason for Youngkin’s failure, analysts in both parties agree, was public resistance to his agenda on abortion. Youngkin had elevated the salience of abortion in the contest by explicitly declaring that if voters gave him unified control of both legislative chambers, the GOP would pass a 15-week ban on the procedure, with exceptions for rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother.
Youngkin and his advisers described that proposal as a “reasonable” compromise, and hoped it would become a model for Republicans beyond the red states that have already almost all imposed more severe restrictions. But the results made clear that most Virginia voters did not want to roll back access to abortion in the commonwealth, where it is now legal through 26 weeks of pregnancy. “What Virginia showed us is that the Glenn Youngkin playbook failed,” Mini Timmaraju, the CEO of Reproductive Freedom for All, an abortion-rights group, told me last night. “We showed that even Republican voters in Virginia weren’t buying it, didn’t go for it, saw right through it.”
Youngkin’s inability to capture the Virginia state legislature, even with all the advantages he enjoyed, will probably make the 2024 GOP presidential contenders even more skittish about openly embracing a national ban on abortion. But Timmaraju argued that yesterday’s results showed that voters remain focused on threats to abortion rights. “Our job is to make sure that the American people don’t forget who overturned Roe v. Wade,” she told me.
None of yesterday’s results guarantees success for Biden or Democrats in congressional races next year. It is still easier for other Democrats to overcome doubts about Biden than it will be for the president himself to do so. In particular, the widespread concern in polls that Biden is too old to serve another term is a problem uniquely personal to him. And few Democrats really want to test whether they can hold the White House in 2024 without improving Biden’s ratings for managing the economy. Trump’s base of white voters without a college degree may be more likely to turn out in a presidential than off-year election as well.
But a clear message from the party’s performance yesterday is that, however disenchanted voters are with the country’s direction under Biden, Democrats can still win elections by running campaigns that prompt voters to consider what Republicans would do with power. “We have an opening here with the effective framing around protecting people’s freedoms,” Fernandez Ancona told me. “Now we can push forward on the economy.”
Yesterday’s results did not sweep away all the obstacles facing Biden. But the outcome, much like most of the key contests in last fall’s midterm, show that the president still has a viable pathway to a second term through the same large metro areas that keyed this unexpectedly strong showing for Democrats.