The two candidates in the Virginia governor’s race are talking more about Donald Trump, the former President, than they are about Joe Biden, the White House’s current occupant.
That disparity in the dialogue between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin points toward an unusual, even unprecedented, dynamic looming over this November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and next year’s midterm contests for control of Congress and dozens of governorships.
No defeated president has ever been as visible immediately after his term ended as Trump — nor hinted so quickly that he intends to seek the job again in the next election. That visibility has positioned Trump to become a greater factor in elections under his immediate successor than any former president in modern times — and maybe ever.
Republicans hope Trump’s continued prominence will stir unusually high off-year turnout among his most ardent supporters — a wish that polls suggest is likely to be fulfilled in Virginia. But Democrats believe Trump’s post-presidential prominence may represent the best chance to mobilize their voters as well.
Almost always the president’s party has lost seats in his first midterm election, largely because voters in his party feel less urgency about turning out than those in the party exiled from power. The Virginia governor’s election, coming less than 10 months after a new president’s inaugural, has usually foreshadowed that midterm wave: from 1977 through 2009, the party that lost the White House the year before won the Virginia race every time. (McAuliffe broke that streak when he was elected governor in 2013, the year after Barack Obama’s reelection, but it reasserted itself when Democrats won the governor’s mansion again in 2017.)
Now Democrats are wagering that the prospect of a Trump return in 2024 can help them maintain control in Virginia. McAuliffe has not only linked Youngkin at every opportunity to Trump, but also warned that a victory for the Republican would launch Trump on a path toward seeking the presidency again.
McAuliffe’s piledriver focus on Trump, which echoes themes California Gov. Gavin Newsom stressed to decisively beat the recall attempt against him last month, underscores the stark reality facing Democrats as Biden struggles both against the persistent pandemic and Democratic divisions on Capitol Hill: at this point, Democratic voters appear to feel less urgency about coming out to signal support for Biden than to express continued opposition to Trump.
“The thing that matters more to many Democratic voters is not whether the Democrat supports Joe Biden but whether the Republican supports Donald Trump,” says Geoff Garin, a veteran Democratic pollster working in Virginia.
Why the president’s party struggles in the midterms
Over the past generation, candidates in both parties have grown accustomed to attitudes toward the sitting president exerting a powerful influence over races up and down the ballot. In exit polls from the past four midterm elections since 2006, House candidates from the president’s party have won at least 84% of the voters who approved of his performance each time, and lost at least 82% of those who disapproved. In the 2017 Virginia governor’s race, exit polls found that Republican nominee Ed Gillespie won 91% of voters who approved of Trump’s performance in office and Democrat Ralph Northam won 87% of voters who disapproved.
The problem for Gillespie in that 2017 race was that voters who disapproved of Trump’s performance significantly outnumbered those who approved of him. That’s a common phenomenon in off-year elections, for presidents in both parties. Many fewer Americans vote in those off-year elections than in presidential campaigns and the fall-off is typically greater among voters in the party holding the White House.
The Democratic targeting firm Catalist, using individual voting records, has calculated, for instance, that about 40% of the voters who turned out for the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012 stayed home in the midterm elections two years later — and that those drop-off voters leaned strongly Democratic each time. (That decline heavily contributed to the sweeping Democratic losses in both midterms.) In every Virginia governor’s race since 1969, the candidate from the president’s party won a smaller share of the vote — usually a much smaller share — than the president did in the race for the White House just the year before, according to calculations by Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, published by the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
Most polling through 2021 suggests that this historic pattern has been holding steady, with Democrats showing less inclination to vote while their party controls the White House and Congress than Republicans, who are eager to regain power. A Fox News Virginia survey last week found that while 52% of Trump 2020 voters said they were extremely interested in the governor’s race, only 40% of Biden voters agreed.
Trump’s substantial shadow
The new wrinkle in this traditional dynamic is Trump.
Trump’s continued efforts to assert control over the Republican Party, his endorsement (and criticism) of GOP candidates around the country, his continued flogging of unsubstantiated claims of fraud in 2020, and his broad hints that he will run again in 2024, have all raised the prospect that he could also cast a substantial shadow over the off-year elections under Biden, starting with next month’s Virginia contest. “It’s a unique modern situation that you have a former President being so front and center,” Kondik said. “It is a variable … that we don’t have real past precedent for.”
Youngkin, the Republican nominee, has walked a careful line on Trump. He’s avoided criticizing the former President and taken steps to signal sympathy for his causes, such as appearing on the radio program of Trump ally Sebastian Gorka and stressing “election integrity” in his messaging, particularly while maneuvering for the GOP nomination. But Youngkin also tried to maintain some separation from Trump (for instance, declining to appear at a rally last week hosted by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon). And Youngkin has centered his campaign on economic and educational issues that present some overlap with Trump-style themes (such as criticizing the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools), but mostly sound distinct from the former President. Youngkin only infrequently talks about Biden, who won the state by about 10 percentage points last year but has seen his popularity here, as in most places, sag somewhat in office.
There’s no such nuance in McAuliffe’s approach. He has placed Trump front and center in his messaging. For weeks, he stressed the overlap between Youngkin’s agenda and Trump’s — in particular the GOP nominee’s opposition to vaccine and masking mandates to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. More recently, McAuliffe has bracketed that argument with a new charge: that a Youngkin win would provide momentum for a Trump revival in 2024. “If I were not to win this, this would be … the comeback of Donald Trump,” McAuliffe said recently. “This would lift him off the mat. He would use this as the launchpad to campaign in 2022 and then set him up for 2024.”
Many Democrats see the emphasis on Trump as their best chance to energize their core voters and offset the usual turnout slump for the president’s party in off-year elections. “Democratic voters still have a very powerful antagonism to Trump and what the Republican Party has become under (him),” says Garin. “Whether it’s the attack on science, or voting rights, or January 6, or the big election lie or any of that, people think there’s a serious threat there. And so being able to frame elections around that is very helpful for mobilizing Democratic voters who might not otherwise feel super enthusiastic about turning out.”
Keeping Trump front and center, Garin and other Democrats argue, could also help McAuliffe hold support from traditionally Republican-leaning college-educated Virginia suburban voters who backed Biden last year. Both the Fox survey and another recent poll from CBS News showed McAuliffe leading among college-educated white voters by a larger margin than Northam carried them in 2017.
California recall offers some pointers for Democrats
In their effort to focus attention on Trump, the model for McAuliffe’s team has been California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s successful effort to defeat a Republican-led recall election against him last month. Sean Clegg, a senior strategist for Newsom, notes that when the recall campaign began, polls showed both that Democrats were paying much less attention than Republicans and that Californians split about evenly between positive and negative attitudes toward the governor. Yet Newsom ultimately won decisively, with about 62% of the state voting against the recall and turnout so high, even in the unusual September election, that he actually totaled more votes than he did in his initial 2018 victory.
Clegg says one word, above all, explains how Newsom recovered: Trump. Like McAuliffe, Newsom focused the campaign’s final weeks on linking the principal Republican alternative, talk show host Larry Elder, to Trump, particularly in his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates.
“What we faced was precisely what Democrats face nationally next year — which is going to be a predictable, massive, monumental enthusiasm gap,” Clegg says. “And what was our secret weapon? Donald Trump. That’s precisely what we did in the recall. We made it about Trump and Trumpism. We flipped it from a referendum on Newsom to a referendum on Trump and Trumpism.”
Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from Northern Virginia who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, is dubious that Democrats can make Trump that central to voters’ decisions in next month’s vote there. The usual role of the Virginia governor’s race, he says, has been to “pump the brakes” on the new president — and while the prospect of a Trump restoration will likely motivate some Democratic voters, he says, he doesn’t believe it will be powerful enough to counter that traditional tendency.
“There’s no question that Trump is not popular in Virginia, and you can’t blame them for trying, but I think voters want to turn the page and look ahead and not behind,” Davis said. “Trump is a big card to play, but I’m not sure it’s a winning card.”
But other analysts in both parties say the complication Trump has created for the GOP is that his extensive hinting about 2024 means he’s relevant not only for those looking back, but also to those who want to “look ahead.”
That’s put Trump in a position virtually unprecedented for former presidents, especially defeated ones, few of whom have played a central role in conventional party politics after leaving office-much less maneuvered to recapture their old job again.
Resurfacing ex-presidents in history
In the 20th century, the only former president who sought the office again was Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt stepped down in 1908, but then became disillusioned with his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft; Roosevelt ultimately ran as an independent “bull moose” candidate in 1912 after failing to wrest the GOP nomination from Taft. (Herbert Hoover explored seeking the GOP nomination again in 1936 after facing a landslide defeat in 1932, but ultimately demurred after finding little support.)
Democrat Grover Cleveland, who was elected in 1884 and then defeated by Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1888, became the only losing president to win the job again when he won a rematch with Harrison in 1892. In the years before the Civil War, former presidents Martin Van Buren and Millard Fillmore later ran again as the nominee of third parties (though each of those were more symbolic campaigns to raise the visibility of certain issues than full-fledged bids for the job.)
But even the very few former presidents who ran again did not resurface nearly as quickly or as intrusively as Trump. Roosevelt spent his first 18 months out of office on an extensive safari in Africa (where by some accounts he killed more than 500 animals and birds) and then toured Europe; Cleveland, after his 1888 defeat, moved to New York City where he joined a law firm, “lived quietly and entertained sparingly,” as one biographer put it. Hoover didn’t start seriously exploring another possible run until the year before the 1936 election.
Which means there has probably never been a midterm election when a former president was as much a part of the political dialogue as Trump is now. The Virginia result will offer a first gauge of how much that new factor can change the usual midterm dynamics favoring the party out of the White House.
“We’re going to find out in the Virginia race because McAuliffe has puts an enormous number of chips on the table betting that a focus on tying Youngkin to Trump will motivate Democratic base voters as well as independents,” said Virginia-based Republican pollster Whit Ayres. “We are going to get a test of that very soon.”
‘Trump is not on the ballot for the people he repels’
Sarah Longwell, founder of the Republican Accountability Project, a group of Republicans critical of Trump, says that one lesson she took from recent focus groups she conducted in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is that Democrats can’t assume voters will naturally put Trump front and center in their decisions. She was stunned when Democratic voters in her Pennsylvania focus group never mentioned Trump or Republicans when talking about Biden’s struggles. “Trump is currently on the ballot for all the people he attracts,” she says. “All of my 2020 Trump voter (focus) groups, they are amped to vote, they are ready to go out and avenge Trump. But Trump is not on the ballot for the people he repels right now.”
The lesson may be that if Democrats want voters in their coalition to view the elections before 2024 as a key line of defense against a Trump restoration, they must explicitly make that case in a way that McAuliffe and Newsom have done, but Biden pointedly has not. Clegg believes a straightforward equation will drive the 2022 election: the more it is focused around attitudes toward Trump, the better the Democrats’ chances of minimizing or avoiding the usual losses for the party holding the White House. The consistency of those losses over the decades means Democrats will face a “long night” in the midterm if the race is solely a referendum on Biden, he predicts. The key for Democrats, Clegg argues, “is to nationalize the election around Trump,” particularly by highlighting the threats to democracy that he continues to foment.
Ayres largely agrees.
“The plot line is that if the midterms are about Joe Biden, Republicans are likely to win,” Ayres said. “If the midterm is about Donald Trump, Republicans are likely to lose.”