It's official: Biden's performance is hurting Democrats' electoral prospects

It's official: Biden's performance is hurting Democrats' electoral prospects
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The recent drop in support for President Biden and his administration has imperiled Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey, according to recent polling conducted by our firm, Schoen-Cooperman Research.

We find that, in Virginia, Democrat Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeNortham announces final steps in clearing, ceding area where Lee monument stood Judges uphold GOP win for Virginia state House seat, cementing party control of chamber To empower parents, reinvent schools MORE leads by four points, 47 percent to 43 percent, and in New Jersey, Democrat and incumbent Gov. Phil MurphyPhil MurphySununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire House Democrats planning 1,000 events to tout accomplishments Ciattarelli formally concedes in New Jersey to Phil Murphy MORE leads by nine points, 50 percent to 41 percent.

Though Biden won both states by double-digits in 2020, our data indicates that the president’s declining ratings — brought on by his stalled domestic agenda, the botched Afghanistan withdrawal, the southern border crisis and the unchecked surge of progressivism — have demonstrably weakened Democrats in both races.

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To that end, our poll found that two key likely voter subgroups — those who say they are absolutely certain to vote in November and those who say they vote in all gubernatorial elections — are less likely to support their respective Democratic gubernatorial candidate. This signals that both Democrats may be in an even more fragile position than most overall voter polls make it seem.

To be sure, these trends are more pronounced in Virginia, where a direct line can be drawn from Biden’s declining ratings to McAuliffe’s tenuous lead.

McAuliffe leads Republican Glenn Youngkin by just four points among likely voters, according to our poll — compared to early August, when public polls at the time showed McAuliffe leading by eight or nine points.

For comparison, Biden beat Donald TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE by 10 points in Virginia in 2020, though we found that the majority of likely voters now disapprove (51 percent) rather than approve (47 percent) of Biden’s job performance. 

While McAuliffe has worked to distance himself from the president — by calling on Democrats and Biden to “get their act together” on infrastructure and criticizing the progressives’ reconciliation bill — political polarization and the nationalization of state races can make it difficult for individual Democrats to fare better than their party.

Furthermore, our poll found that, among those who say they are absolutely certain to vote, McAuliffe’s lead completely dissipates, and the race is tied at 47 percent. Notably, these voters disapprove of President Biden by an 11 point margin.

And in the horserace among those who vote in all gubernatorial elections, Youngkin leads, garnering 49 percent of the vote compared to McAuliffe’s 45 percent. President Biden’s approval rating is also underwater with these voters, who disapprove of him by a 14 point margin.

Our subgroup analysis might beg the question: Why would data among those absolutely certain to vote and those who habitually vote in gubernatorial elections be especially predictive in this election? 

Winning off-election year contests is largely a matter of excitement and intensity. Given the national Democratic infighting, Biden’s lagging ratings, and the absence of Donald Trump or a true Trump-like foe, there is no indication that fair-weather Virginia Democratic voters who are currently on the fence about voting will be motivated to turn out like they were in the 2020 and 2016 presidential elections and in the 2017 gubernatorial election.

On the other hand, Youngkin’s approach is clearly motivating Republicans and conservatives. Youngkin’s strategy has been to attack Biden’s failures and stoke cultural anxieties about the rise of progressivism — especially as it relates to education and critical race theory in schools, which has become a divisive issue in the race — without directly tying himself to Donald Trump.

As Washington Post’s James Homann observed this week, “railing about [critical race theory] lets Youngkin appeal to his coalition of Never Trumpers and Forever Trumpers without talking about Donald Trump.”

“Republicans are in striking distance of winning statewide in Virginia for the first time since 2009, and Democrats seem to be sleepwalking into disaster,” Homann added.

In the New Jersey gubernatorial race, Murphy is in a decidedly stronger overall position than McAuliffe in Virginia. Not only is New Jersey reliably more Democratic than Virginia, but Murphy is also a decently popular incumbent.

That being said, Murphy’s lead has markedly shrunk since earlier this summer, which occurred contemporaneously with the drop in President Biden’s ratings. 

In early August, a Monmouth University survey had Murphy leading by 16 points. In September, the same pollster recorded Murphy’s lead at 13-points. In SCR’s most recent poll, Murphy leads Republican Jack Ciattarelli by nine points. 

Likewise, President Biden’s overall job approval rating, according to Gallup, dropped six points over the past month to 43 percent, and has steadily declined over the course of the summer — it stood at 49 percent in August and 56 percent in June.

Additionally, Murphy’s current nine point lead — notably, the same margin as President Biden’s approval rating in the state — is much narrower than Biden’s 16 point margin of victory in New Jersey in 2020. 

We also found that a similar trend exists in New Jersey as in Virginia in terms of those absolutely certain to vote and those who habitually vote in gubernatorial elections being more likely to vote Republican in the governor’s race. 

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Among those who say they vote in all gubernatorial elections, Murphy’s lead shrinks to four points, 49 percent to 45 percent, and among those who are absolutely certain to vote, Murphy leads by just two points, 48 percent to 46 percent.

While Murphy may be better-positioned for an eventual win than McAuliffe, these trends are significant, and cannot be ignored by Democrats.

To counter these trends in the short-term, the party needs to focus on turning out their base in each race. And in the long-term, as Ezra Klein summarized from his interview with David Shor, Democrats need to understand that the broader electorate, and especially swing-state voters “are not liberals, are not woke and do not see the world in the way that the people who staff and donate to Democratic campaigns do.”

In other words, Democrats need to find a way to come together on a moderate and inclusive agenda that centers on unity, greater fiscal responsibility, responsible tax policies, and growing the economy for all.

Douglas E. Schoen and Carly Cooperman are pollsters and partners with the public opinion company Schoen Cooperman Research based in New York. They are co-authors of a forthcoming book, entitled “America: Unite or Die.”