California, Virginia, and the Lessons of 2021

It is essential that Democrats understand why the California Recall election went so much better than the Virginia and New Jersey elections.

After the very disappointing results in the off-year elections in Virginia, New Jersey, and elsewhere, pundits rightfully pointed out that the results shouldn’t have been so surprising. The history is very clear, the political environment always swings against the president’s party in the first elections after their inauguration.

Nate Cohn of the New York Times explains:

The political winds seem to blow against the president’s party almost as soon as a new party seizes the White House. For decades, political scientists have observed a so-called thermostatic backlash in public opinion, in which voters instinctively move to turn down the temperature when government runs too hot in either party’s favor. The pattern dates back as long as survey research and helps explain why the election of Barack Obama led to the Tea Party, or how Donald Trump’s election led to record support for immigration.

Prior to last week, the only time Democrats lost in New Jersey and Virginia was in 2009. This followed Obama’s election. Democrats won the states in 2017 after Trump’s election.

The same pattern shows up in midterm congressional elections. In the 21st century, the president’s party lost seats in every midterm election except one. And for all the discussion of what Glenn Youngkin did right (lots) and Terry McAuliffe did wrong (also lots), the swing in the Republican direction was relatively consistent throughout the nation and up and down the ballot. Tracing this train of thought, last week’s results were inevitable and there is little we can do to avoid a similar fate in 2022. However, the recent recall election in California bucked this trend. The election result was dismissed by many as evidence of California’s status as the capital of Blue America (sorry New York!). But in light of what happened last Tuesday, it’s worth revisiting the recall to see if there are any lessons worth learning to help make 2022 look more like California and less lime Virginia.

What Happened in California

If there is a “thermostatic” effect to Biden’s election or a backlash to recent news and events, we should see evidence in California as well. However, the recall failed by almost the exact same margin (in this very bad Democratic year) that Governor Gavin Newsom won by in 2018 (a very good Democratic year). Some attributed the results to nothing more than California’s formidable Democratic lean. Others, like myself, thought it exemplified the strength of post-Trump polarization. We seem locked into a sort of political stasis. Blue states become bluer. Red states become redder. And close elections are fought on the margins in the same states that decided the last few presidential elections. If that were the case, Democrats would have been fine in New Jersey, a state Biden won by 16 points, and Virginia, a state Biden won by ten. Obviously, the political stasis theory was debunked.

Clearly, something happened in California and in the campaign that avoided the backlash felt in Virginia and elsewhere. The questions are what was it and can it be replicated

A Question of Political Atmospherics

Biden has been stuck in a bad news vortex for months. It would be hard to have picked a worse time to hold the Virginia and New Jersey elections. Biden’s legislative agenda was stuck, inflation and gas prices were up, and schools are still dealing with messy COVID protocols that interrupt learning and stress out parents. To give an example of how poor the timing was, kids aged five to twelve started getting vaccinated just as the polls closed. There is no question the bad political environment put downward pressure on Democrats on the ballot last week.

While things are bad now, they were not going that great when Californians voted back in September. According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden’s approval rating, which some polls show ticking up, was 43.8 approve/50.8 disapprove on Election Day — suboptimal for sure. But it was only marginally better when Californians were voting on the recall — 45.9/49.2 on September 14th. Economic sentiment is worse now, but according to Navigator Research polling, people are more optimistic about the pandemic now than in September.

The recall also took place in the aftermath of the worst news cycle of Biden’s young presidency. As most Californians were casting the ballot, President Biden was being hammered from all sides about his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. It is fair to say the political atmosphere is worse now than it was in September, but that alone is not enough to explain the differing results. Nor can you attribute the poor performance to frustration with school closures or changes. Like New Jersey and Virginia, California had some of the longest and most troubled school closures in the nation.

Campaign Lessons

It’s important to stipulate that recall elections are different from standard elections. They have different dynamics and voting patterns, but the 2021 California recall functioned more like a standard election than the 2003 election. 2003 saw Democratic Governor Gray Davis recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger elected. For the most part, the recall functioned as both an up or down vote on Democratic leadership and a one-on-one contest between Newsom and Larry Elder, a pro-Trump, conservative radio host. Having said all that, I wanted to examine the messaging and strategies Newsom used to find some actionable guidance for Democrats looking to avoid McAuliffe’s fate next year. While the comparisons are imperfect, I found two lessons from Newsom’s winning strategy:

How You Talk about Trump Matters: McAullife’s relentless focus on trying to tie his opponent to Trump convinced commentators that focusing on Trump when the man is out of the White House, out of the news, and off Twitter is a losing proposition. Yes, McAuliffe talked A LOT about Trump and yes, McAuliffe lost. However, A + B does not always equal C. I don’t think Democrats have the option of ignoring Trump. He is the former president, the leader of the Republican Party, and the overwhelming frontrunner for the GOP nomination. But how we talk about Trump matters. McAuliffe’s message treated the voters like idiots. He called his opponent “Glenn Trumpkin” and talked about Trump so much it was easy to forget who he was running against. Newsom also went out of his way to draw parallels between Larry Elder, the leading Republican candidate, and the former president. But he did so with more nuance and in a more credible way. Compare their messaging from the final rallies. Here’s McAuliffe:

“Donald Trump wants to win here tomorrow night so he can the next day announce [himself] for president of the United States of America, but we’re going to put an end to Donald Trump’s future plans, right here in Virginia.”

And here’s a CNN report from Newsom’s election eve rally with President Biden:

“Does it surprise any of you that we have someone on the other side of this that is to the right of Donald Trump," Newsom said.

Newsom continued, saying that while the 2020 was the "most important election in our lifetime," Elder represented the fact that "Trumpism is still on the ballot in California."We may have defeated Donald Trump, but we have not defeated Trumpism."

Now Elder, a MAGA adherent with a long record of outrageous statements, was a much easier target than Youngkin, a political outsider who deftly navigated the cross-pressures of Trump. But there is a key difference between how the two candidates used Trump in their message. Newsom used Trump to define his opponent as a dangerous extremist. McAuliffe ran against Trump. The former clearly worked better than the latter.

A Focus on Biden Voters: Gavin Newsom’s campaign understood something very important about the race — there were enough voters out there to easily defeat the recall. All they had to do was turn out people who voted for Democrats in 2018 or 2020. Turnout is always the biggest challenge in an off-year election, whether it is a recall or a gubernatorial election. Instead of trying to persuade “swing voters” to vote no on the recall, they focused on simply persuading Democrats to turnout. The Newsom folks presumed, correctly, that the Republicans would be fired up to vote and job one was getting Democrats to vote. In addition to ads defining Elder, the bulk of their paid communications were spent informing Californians that the recall was happening and when and how they could cast their ballot. Because they focused on Democrats, the No on Recall ads featured testimonials from the most popular Democrats including Elizabeth Warren, Barack Obama, and Bernie Sanders. Newsom did not draw the fatally false distinction between persuasion and turnout.

McAuliffe took a more traditional approach and focused his messaging on swing voters. While turnout on both sides was high, it was much higher for Republicans. As the Cook Report’s Amy Walters pointed out on Twitter:

In almost every race that matters in 2022, Democrats do not need to persuade a single person who voted for Trump in order to win. Remember, Biden won Georgia, Arizona, New Hampshire, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. These happen to be the states key to maintaining and/or expanding our majority. Maintaining the Biden coalition without Trump on the ballot won’t be easy, but it will be impossible if we don’t make it our top priority.

Share