About Last Night
The year after a presidential election year can feel sleepy when it comes to electoral politics. There often are just a couple of governors’ elections, a few hundred state legislative races (out of more than 7,300 seats nationwide), and maybe a handful of ballot initiatives to analyze. Many Americans, we bet, yawn and go to bed much earlier than they did the prior November.
Not last night.
Election 2021 has given Washington a lot to contemplate. More to the point, it definitely has given the White House and Democratic leaders in Congress a jolt as they wrestle with enacting President Biden’s legislative agenda.
If you did not stay up last night, here is what happened and what issues voters indicated they are most passionate about.
New Jersey Closer Than Anticipated
Just 12 months ago, Joe Biden beat incumbent President Donald Trump by nearly 16 points in the Garden State. And, going into yesterday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) was the popular governor of the reliably blue state. There was one survey that had Gov. Murphy’s opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, within striking distance but the final RealClearPolitics average of polls had Gov. Murphy with a comfortable 7.8-point lead heading into Election Day. Additionally, the final Monmouth University survey had the incumbent leading by 11 points.
With 85 percent of the ballots counted by mid-morning Wednesday, though, Gov. Murphy and Ciattarelli were essentially tied.
While exit polls were unavailable, the main issues in the New Jersey race appear to have been taxes and the pandemic economy. Here is how CNN summed up the race: “Ciattarelli — a businessman and former state lawmaker — kept [former President Donald] Trump at arm’s length, instead hammering Murphy over taxes and what he argued were the effects of the Democrat’s pandemic response on businesses.”
Indeed, the Monmouth survey mentioned above indicated taxes were the top issue for voters going into Tuesday’s race. That poll, which was released seven days ago, showed 27 percent of voters identified taxes as their top issue of concern. Jobs and the economy, at 20 percent, was second followed by schools and education (16 percent), the pandemic (15 percent), crime (seven percent), abortion (five percent), and transportation infrastructure (four percent).
And then there was this statistic from Monmouth: Ciattarelli had the advantage over Gov. Murphy regarding who they trusted more to handle taxes. The margin was 39 percent to 29 percent — not even close. While Gov. Murphy led on trust regarding education policy, Monmouth found the two candidates were “about evenly matched on handling jobs and the economy (34 percent for Murphy to 33 percent for Ciattarelli).”
If Republicans pull out a win in New Jersey, they might have worries about higher taxes and inflation to thank.
Tax Rates and the National Debate
Ciattarelli, of course, was aware he had an advantage when it came to voters’ concerns about their tax burdens. On the campaign trail, he frequently mentioned that New Jersey residents pay the highest property taxes in the country, for example. (This is precisely why some of New Jersey’s members of Congress are so adamant about repealing the cap on state and local tax deductions in the Build Back Better Act.)
As National Public Radio (NPR) explained, Gov. Murphy’s response to that fact was … less than empathetic. NPR said, “What is unusual … is that Murphy makes no bones about New Jersey being a high tax state. Instead of promising to cut them, Murphy told member station WNYC that residents get good value for their high taxes.”
That analysis sounds a lot like 1984 when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale was frank with Americans, promising that he would raise taxes to address the deficit and provide for new spending. At that time, Rep. Tony Coelho (D-Calif.), a close friend and adviser of Mondale’s, said, “Basically what you have is a candidate for president who is willing to face the issues.”
Honesty may be a moral virtue, but it’s not always a political one. Mondale lost every state except his own.
For Gov. Murphy, the 1984 knockoff was an especially risky bet when Americans are facing rapidly rising prices and potential new tax burdens from the federal government. While most surveys show that Americans would support tax increases if they hit just corporations or the wealthy, according to Gallup, half of Americans think that, in general, taxes are too high. That number is at its highest level since former President Trump was elected.
While Democrats contemplate what New Jersey means for the future of the Build Back Better Act and its $1.75 trillion in new revenues, they also have Virginia to think about.
Virginia Democrats Lose Governorship, House of Delegates
The Virginia governor’s race between former Democratic National Committee Chair (and former Virginia Gov.) Terry McAuliffe and Glenn Youngkin was looking much different than New Jersey going into Tuesday. Both parties were anticipating a nail-biter.
Instead, the race was easily called for Youngkin just after midnight.
What changed from 2020 when President Biden bested Donald Trump by 10 points in the state? According to Axios, there was a 15-point swing in how white women voted. While President Biden won this voting bloc by one point, Youngkin took 57 percent of the group’s vote to McAuliffe’s 43 percent. Additionally, as The Associated Press explains, in 2020 voters older than 45 were split evenly between Biden and Trump, but Youngkin won that group by 10 points. Youngkin also made gains with suburban voters. The Associated Press said, “Last year, about six in 10 suburbanites in Virginia backed Biden. A year later, Youngkin … was competitive with McAuliffe with those voters, earning the support of 49 percent of them.”
Youngkin also was not the only Republican to win statewide last night. Republican Winsome Sears defeated Haya Ayala and will be the first Black lieutenant governor in Virginia’s history while GOP candidate Jason Miyares defeated two-term Democratic incumbent Mark Herring for attorney general. Republicans also flipped the state House of Delegates. Democrats had a fairly comfortable 55-to-45-seat lead going into Tuesday, but Republicans have picked up at least five seats. They will now have control of the lower house of the state legislature as well as the three highest state-wide elected offices in the commonwealth.
Axios concluded, “Youngkin's win is an upset for Democrats, and a major warning sign for the party heading into the 2022 midterms.” But on what issues is Virginia a warning? How did Youngkin and his fellow Republicans wrest control from Democrats?
Jobs and Economy Top Issue in Virginia
While most commentators have focused on McAuliffe’s gaffe during a debate about how much control parents should have over school curriculum, education as an issue was not voters’ top concern.
According to The Associated Press, 35 percent of Virginia voters said the economy and jobs was the most important issue facing the state. The COVID-19 pandemic, at 17 percent, ranked second while just 14 percent of voters cited education as their chief anxiety. Health care, climate change, racism, immigration, abortion, and law enforcement all came after, The Associated Press said. Jobs and economy was the top issue even though most Virginians said they are happy with the direction of the economy.
Unlike New Jersey, however, voters did say they trusted the Republican candidate more on education. The Associated Press explained, “Voters who ranked the economy and education as the top issues were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe. Voters who identified COVID-19 as the top issue supported McAuliffe over Youngkin.”
While CNN said Youngkin tapped into voter frustration about COVID school shutdowns, the majority of Virginia voters seemed to agree on the COVID vaccine. According to the national cable network, Virginia voters were “overwhelmingly likely to be vaccinated” and about 55 percent even said “they favor employers requiring their employees to get vaccinated.”
According to exit polls, generally, it seems like Virginia voters simply thought Democrats have strayed further from the center than Republicans. Specifically, 52 percent of Virginians think the Democratic party is too liberal while 45 percent said they think the Republican party is too conservative. Perhaps as a result, Youngkin bested McAuliffe when it came to attracting independent voters. Look for this data point to be the focus of significant intraparty Democratic squabbling in the weeks ahead.
The X Factor: Presidential Approval
Ultimately, there is no denying that the results in both New Jersey and Virginia are likely a referendum on what is happening in Washington and in the White House.
Here is how The New York Times reporter Nate Cohn summarized Election 2021 in a post at 12:14 this morning: “As Democrats try and make sense of the wreckage tonight, one fact stands out as one of the easiest explanations: Joe Biden has lower approval ratings at this stage of his presidency than nearly any president in the era of modern polling.”
Bottom line: to attract voters in November 2022, Democrats — and President Biden specifically — will have to do their best to keep more money in most Americans’ pockets (either by curbing inflation or limiting tax hikes) and empathizing with voters’ concerns about costs and public school policy.