The Political Winds May Blow Through California and Virginia This Fall

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
September 9, 2021

With our federal races becoming increasingly more parliamentary—9 out of 10 voters simply cast either Democratic or Republican votes up and down the ballot—the direction and velocity of the national political winds are becoming increasingly important. So where do we stand today, on Labor Day, 14 months before the 2022 midterm election?

Some Americans are focused on an evacuation of Afghanistan that more saw as a disaster than as effective.

Others are keying on a resurgence in COVID-19 that’s been filling up hospital intensive-care units. That’s what my colleague Amy Walter found after watching hours of focus groups last month.

Some show increased anxiety over the economy, in large part because of the coronavirus. Others are distressed about the situation along the Mexican border that seems to have worsened over the eight months of the Biden administration.

While it is hard to blame Biden for the Delta variant, much less those who resisted getting vaccines or wearing masks and certain red-state governors who fought mask mandates to the detriment of their constituents, midterm elections are almost always a collective measurement of whether people want to stay the course or change things up. When times are good, a sitting president often gets credit for positive developments whether they deserve such credit or not. When things are not going well, voters can be brutal about casting blame, again whether it is well placed or not. His fault or not, the pandemic’s resurgence will not help Biden or his party.

President Biden’s approval rating had drifted below 50 percent even before the unceremonious Aug. 15 fall of Afghanistan and, as expected, more steeply since then. In polling conducted almost entirely before the fall, Biden’s approval rating in the Gallup poll stood at 49 percent—sandwiched between President Trump’s 36 percent Gallup poll average in August of his first year and President Obama’s 53 percent at that point in his tenure.

Currently, Biden’s approval is 46 percent in both the RealClearPolitics and FiveThirtyEight poll averages, with more polling expected shortly.

Democrats representing competitive states and districts reportedly got an earful from constituents over the August congressional recess. Those who commissioned polls or focus groups reportedly were similarly alarmed at what they saw.

Biden was undoubtedly truthful in saying, “We completed one of the biggest airlifts in history, with more than 120,000 people evacuated to safety. That number is more than double what most experts thought were possible.” Having said that, his argument that it was done as effectively as possible was ringing up “no sale” on most people’s mental cash registers. They weren’t buying it.

In addition to the worrisome jobs report that came out on Friday, two alarming measurements of how Americans felt about current and expected economic conditions were released last week. Richard Curtin, the longtime director of the University of Michigan’s highly regarded Consumer Sentiment Index, reported that, in their national survey covering the second half of the month, “There was no lessening in late August in the extent of the collapse in consumer sentiment recorded in the first half of the month. The Consumer Sentiment Index fell by 13.4% from July, recording the least favorable economic prospects in more than a decade. The Sentiment Index has only recorded larger losses in six other monthly surveys since 1978.”

Lynn Franco of the rival Conference Board's Consumer Confidence Survey wrote, “Consumer confidence retreated in August to its lowest level since February 2021,” primarily over concerns about the Delta variant and rising gas and food prices. Franco went on to say that while “the resurgence of COVID-19 and inflation concerns have dampened confidence, it is too soon to conclude this decline will result in consumers significantly curtailing their spending in the months ahead.” This last part is key, because 69 percent of the U.S. economy is dependent upon consumer spending. When consumers get fearful, many put away their wallets, battening down the hatches in case rough seas are ahead.

One question is whether the end of jobless benefits for many this week will incentivize some to go back to work. The labor-participation rate currently sits at just 61.7 percent, down from a pre-pandemic high of 67 percent. The last time it was this low was in the 1970s, when fewer women participated in the workforce. Does the increased productivity of late stem from technology and automation, less job creation, or simply business learning how to do more with fewer workers? For economic growth, this is key. Are some of these people ever coming back into the workforce?

We will get clues to some of these macro political trends this fall, as residents in two states cast votes for governor.

California

On Sept. 14, Golden State voters will be asked first whether they want to remove Gov. Gavin Newsom from office. They’ll then be asked to choose from among 45 candidates who would replace Newsom if the recall is successful. There are very good reasons to be wary of interpreting a rejection of the recall as a positive sign for Democrats. First, California is hardly a competitive state. No Republican has won statewide office in 15 years, since Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger won reelection, and some might even quibble about his bona fides as a Republican. The last Republican to carry California in a presidential race was George H.W. Bush in 1988. Only 24 percent of voters are registered Republicans, barely half of the 47 percent who are Democrats and barely above the 23 percent who do not specify.

Second, recalls usually fail. Prior to the successful recall of Democratic Gov. Gray Davis in 2003, the last time a statewide official was removed from office by recall was exactly a century ago, when North Dakota voters recalled a governor, attorney general, and state agriculture commissioner. As the ill-fated attempt by Democrats and labor to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2012 showed, voters do not see recall as a legitimate way to remove elected officials except in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Of the mail-in ballots already returned by Labor Day weekend, 53 percent have come from voters registered as Democrats, 24 percent from Republicans, and 22 percent other. While it is certainly true that Republicans have recently become more hesitant about voting by mail, these figures are only a few points less Democratic than in the 2020 presidential general election, when Biden carried the state by 29 points. Basically, California will only tell us something if the recall is successful. If it is beaten back, the expected occurred.

Virginia

A better leading indicator may come from the Nov. 2 Virginia gubernatorial race, which has become very close in recent weeks. While public polling conducted last month showed former Gov. Terry McAuliffe anywhere from 1 to 9 points ahead of Glenn Youngkin, the former co-CEO of the Washington-based Carlyle Group private-equity firm, private polling for Democrats shows the race on the narrower end of that range, with their candidate ahead by 2 to 4 points. Republicans are seeing similar numbers. McAuliffe has not made any serious missteps and his campaign appears to be more than competent, but after a rough start, Youngkin has improved a lot as a candidate. Moreover, the national atmospherics may have started to weigh down Democratic enthusiasm, while Republicans are getting amped up, seeking revenge for Trump’s loss last year.

As the NBC News Political Unit wrote last May, there are two streaks colliding in Virginia this year“Streak No. 1: Of Virginia's 14 major statewide contests since 2004—for president, the Senate and governor—Democrats have won 13. The exception was Republican Bob McDonnell's victory in the 2009 governor's race.

“Streak No 2: Since the 1970s, the party that just won White House has always lost the VA-GOV contest the following year—with just one exception: Terry McAuliffe's narrow victory in 2013.”

There is little question that the once reliably conservative and Republican state has trended away from the GOP. But it’s not yet reliably blue. Further, because sitting governors are not allowed to seek a second, consecutive term, all Virginia gubernatorial contests are open-seat races. No one has the advantage of incumbency. Virginia will be more reflective of the country as a whole and a more sensitive political measurement of the direction and velocity of the political winds. If a new president is not doing well, there is a good chance it is reflected in how that party’s gubernatorial candidate is going to do in an open-seat contest in a state that is not reliably red or blue.

Democrats hope to shift the focus and put Republicans on the defensive on, among other things, Texas’s new law that bans all abortions after six weeks. While it might work to motivate their party base, it is unrealistic to think that this election will become a referendum on the Republican Party. Midterm elections are almost always about the party holding the White House, or occasionally about a party controlling Congress (see the 1998 Republican Congress that impeached President Clinton).

It would be foolish to say that Democrats have no chance of retaining control of the House and Senate. After all, we’ve got nearly 14 months to go before Nov. 2, 2022. But at the same time, there is little reason for any Democrat to feel anything short of terrified.

This article was published for the National Journal on September 7, 2021.