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Why the 2021 Virginia election matters

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A big question for supporters of national politics is whether Virginia will continue a trend we saw among voters during the California recall: a decline in the position of President Joe Biden. History tells us that such a decline can portend huge medium-term problems for the party of the incumbent president.
Biden easily won the 2020 presidential race in the Old Dominion. His 10-point victory was the most important for a Democrat there since 1944, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his fourth term. Biden’s favorable rating in the exit poll stood at 52% with an unfavorable rating of 47%, which was good enough for a net preference score of +5 points. An average of pre-election and post-election data put his net favorability rating closer to +10 points.
Today’s poll paints a different picture of how voters view the president. Biden has a net popularity rating of -2 points in a recent poll average in a state he won by 10 points.

The fact that Biden’s numbers are where they are shouldn’t be surprising. This 12-point recovery reflects what we are seeing nationally. His net approval rate (approve – disapprove) among voters is around -5 points, while he has won nationally by 4.5 points.

Additionally, this downward trend is similar to what we have seen in California. Yes, Governor Gavin Newsom easily repelled a recall effort there. At the same time, Biden’s net approval rating in the exit poll was +23 points. This is a drop from a 29-point victory in 2020 and a net preference score of +30 points in exit polls that year.

Still, the Virginia recording added importance as it has a fairly good track record in predicting the national environment a year later.

Feedback on the exit polls during the governor’s last three races:

  • In 2009, former President Barack Obama achieved a net approval rating of -3 points. This happened after he won Virginia by 6 points – a 9-point swing from him. In the following mid-terms, the Democrats were crushed.
  • In 2013, Obama had a net approval rating of -7 points after winning in Virginia by 4 points the year before. His party lost a number of House seats and control of the Senate in 2014.
  • In 2017, former President Donald Trump arrived with a very poor net approval rating of -17 points. This was after losing the state by 5 points in 2016. His party, like Obama’s in 2009, then lost the House midway through.

Although the exact numbers differ from year to year, there is a steady decline of about 10 points between the presidential race margin and the president’s net approval rating in each cycle. Right now, pre-election exit polls suggest Biden will experience a similar drop. That would mean Democrats probably have a lot of work to do before next year.

If Biden doesn’t see a drop, it could indicate that the national environment is not as bad for Democrats as some national polls indicate.

I should note that just because Biden’s popularity in Virginia has waned from last year doesn’t mean Democrats won’t win in Virginia. The correlation between a president’s approval rating and a governor’s individual performance can be fragile.

In California, Newsom beat the recall by 24 points. It was almost identical to Biden’s net approval rating in exit polls.

On the other hand, candidates matter and Virginia is a breed. In 2013, McAuliffe won against an unpopular Republican (Ken Cuccinelli), even as Obama was unpopular. It was the unpopularity of Obama that lasted until 2014, not the Democratic candidates defying political gravity.

There have been a number of Republican Blue State Governors who won easily in 2018, even as Democrats fought in the federal election.

What we will see in 2022 are many elections and ones where the correlation between a president’s approval rating and results has been considerably higher in recent cycles (i.e. races in the House and the Senate).

This is the reason why it probably doesn’t matter much who wins in Virginia for the national implications. What matters is what voters think of Biden. At the moment, they don’t feel too good for him compared to 2020.

The good news for Democrats: If Biden’s grades are bad in Virginia next month, Election Day 2022 is a year away. They’ll have to hope that the recent past isn’t a precedent, and Biden sees an increase in his approval rating over the next year or so.

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