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What the 2023 Elections Tell Us About 2024
Dem victories are not inconsistent with tough polls, but they offer a path victory next year
This past Sunday, The New York Times published a poll that triggered widespread concern within the Democratic Party about President Biden’s chances for re-election. Anonymous party operatives criticized the campaign’s strategy, sparking discussions about the possibility of President Biden stepping down. However, on Tuesday night, Democrats achieved substantial wins in several states. How are both of these things possible? Can Joe Biden really be losing to Trump in the polls while Democrats secure larger-than-anticipated victories in states such as Ohio and Kentucky?
This cognitive dissonance has led to two theories about what the 2023 results may indicate for the 2024 elections. Politico Playbook framed them in the following way:
Time to chill out. Polls are one thing; actual votes are another. These are not election returns consistent with a president whose approval numbers are struggling to break 40% and who is falling badly behind DONALD TRUMP, the most divisive politician of his generation. Beshear won despite tons of GOP money being spent to tie him to Biden, so there’s plenty of room for the incumbent to recover.
Time to freak out. The polls are absolutely right: The problem isn’t the Democratic brand; it’s Joe Biden. The anti-MAGA coalition that showed up in 2018, 2020 and 2022 is still intact, sure, but it’s not going to show up for just anybody. Trump is certain to bring out his own special universe of voters next year, and Americans are giving every possible signal that they won’t be happy if the alternative is an 81-year-old Biden.
Internet-based political analysis tends towards over-torqued false binaries–the results mean everything, or they mean nothing. Most of the punditry is reverse-engineered confirmation bias. If you believed Biden was screwed on Monday, the election results now validate that stance. Conversely, if you held the view that polls were unreliable or insignificant, your Wednesday morning perspective closely aligns with the sentiment expressed by the Biden campaign: “Voters vote. Polls don’t.”
Perhaps, unsurprisingly, the truth is somewhere in between.
The Results and the Polls are Not Inconsistent
There is a lot of understandable focus on the New York Times/Siena College poll. FiveThirtyEight gives the poll an A+ rating and The New York Times is the most influential media organization in the nation. Obsessing over the specifics of any individual poll isn’t particularly constructive. But even if you want to quibble with the results of the methodology employed by The New York Times, their results are directionally consistent with all of the polling from recent months which shows Trump with the slightest of leads in the national popular vote.
Several folks have been tweeting out some recent polls that show Biden up by a couple of points nationally. However, a slight Biden lead nationally is not inconsistent with The New York Times’ poll that shows Biden trailing in the swing states. The six states crucial in determining the election (PA, NV, GA, MI, WI, AZ) lean more Republican than the entire nation, Biden won the national popular vote with a 4.5% margin, while he led those six states with an average advantage of 1.4%. This implies that even a minor Biden lead in national polling could still be in line with the possibility of a Trump victory in the Electoral College.
But if Biden is struggling in the polls, why did Democrats do so damn well? The answer is actually pretty simple. Joe Biden and Democrats are finding their strongest support among the highly engaged voters who consistently participate in off-cycle elections. Prior to the release of the most recent poll, Chief Political Analyst Nate Cohn made this argument based on recent New York Time/Siena College data:
In other words, Democrats outperformed their 2020 results in 2022 due to a more pro-Biden electorate. It's reasonable to assume that a similar trend continued on Tuesday.The voters Biden is struggling with are not the voters that showed up on Tuesday
More than 3.8 million Ohioans voted in this week’s election. This massive turnout speaks to the galvanizing power of abortion as a political issue; still, it’s fewer than two-thirds of the total number of 2020 Ohio voters. Those yawning gaps in turnout are why midterms and other off-cycle elections are generally poor predictors for Presidential races.
The Good News for 2024
While the significant Democratic victories may not forecast next year's outcome, they provide valuable insights into the political landscape. These insights bode well for Democrats and present challenges for Republicans.
1. Abortion Is the Central Issue: Abortion took center stage in this week’s elections, with it being a focal point in Ohio. Had Democrats not prevailed in Virginia and Kentucky, it would have paved the way for the implementation of stringent abortion bans by Republicans in those states. As in 2022, opposition to GOP abortion bans fueled Democratic victories. For decades, abortion was the most polarizing issue in American politics, but since the Dobbs decision, it has almost transcended partisanship. A chart shared on Twitter by former Democratic official Steve Rattner shows how the abortion initiative outperformed President Biden in nearly every county in Ohio.
More than a year and half after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade, the Republicans still have no answer on abortion. In Ohio and Virginia, Republicans tested new messaging around making it an issue of parental rights. In Virginia, the GOP ran on a 15-week ban (as opposed to the complete and 6-week bans in other states). Both failed miserably. Abortion is a particular vulnerability for Trump who has repeatedly bragged about his role in banning it. The Biden-Harris campaign shared this clip on social media yesterday:
The Democratic Campaign Apparatus Is in Excellent Form: The victories this week were not accidental. In terms of strategy and execution, Democratic campaigns are wiping the floor with Republicans. Our field operations, fundraising, data, and ads are all better than the other side. The Biden folks and the DNC deserve an immense amount of credit for not allowing the infrastructure or the grassroots enthusiasm to atrophy during otherwise tough times. Campaign strategy and execution matters on the margins in close races and, no matter what you think of the polls, it's safe to assume 2024 will be a close race.
The GOP Faces Significant Challenges:: The entire narrative of the 2024 campaign has been framed around Biden’s weak poll numbers and divisions within the party. But this week’s results show that Republicans have a lot of problems as well, including:
Trump is less popular than Biden;
The GOP is incredibly divided over abortion, economic policy, social issues, and the results of the 2020 election.
Trump continues to force Republican candidates to echo his lies about the election, which a study showed cost those candidates nearly 3 points in the 2022 election.
And, oh yeah, Trump could be sentenced to prison before the Republican convention next year.The Republican Party keeps losing races they should win, which should be a real warning sign about their prospects in 2024.
What It All Means
While polls and off-year election results can’t foretell the future, they do provide insights into our current position and the path ahead. Collectively, they suggest a closely contested yet attainable race. Panicking or becoming complacent is unwarranted. Trump’s potential victory hinges on our efforts.
The path is evident. An anti-MAGA majority exists in each of the battleground states, and our task is to convince them to once again participate in a crucial election where the future of democracy is at stake.