Tuesday’s election did not go well for Democrats. Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost the marquee governor’s race in heavily blue-trending Virginia, where Biden beat Trump by 10 points. And in dark blue New Jersey, where Biden won by 16 points, incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy just squeaked by GOP challenger Jack Ciatterelli. Dems did poorly in many other races, too.
Progressives blamed the Democratic Party’s failure to move further left, which they say would’ve triggered a tsunami of turnout from the progressive base.
“I think that the [Virginia] results show the limits of trying to run a fully 100 percent super-moderated campaign that does not excite, speak to or energize a progressive base,” argued Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
Indeed, no myth is stronger in progressive circles than the magical, wonder-working powers of voter turnout. Just one problem: Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial contest was actually a very high-turnout election.
Under the state’s newly liberalized voting laws, the number of votes cast in this race was 25 percent higher than in any previous governor’s race. Turnout was strong everywhere, including in important Democratic areas like northern Virginia, black precincts and college towns. It also surged in redder areas of the state.
This reveals the logical flaw in progressive Democrats’ high-turnout strategy. The assumption is that if they highlight progressive issues, “their” nonvoters will show up at the polls, but none of the nonvoters from the other side will. It’s obviously magical thinking.
It also leaves out the role of persuasion. A significant number of voters really do switch from election to election, and we saw that in Virginia. You simply cannot explain how Virginia voters went from +10 for Joe Biden in 2020 to +2 for Glenn Youngkin this year without many voters switching parties — in this case independents, soft Democratic partisans, moderates and so on.
These shifts among persuadable voters manifested themselves within many areas and groups. Loudoun County, where the struggle was particularly fierce around education issues, saw the Democratic advantage drop from +25 in the 2020 presidential race to +11 in this year’s race for governor. According to the AP-NORC VoteCast survey (which is more reliable than the highly flawed exit polls), McAuliffe may actually have lost the Latino vote and also lost ground among blacks and voters of other races (chiefly Asians). This deterioration of nonwhite support also can be seen in precinct-level results.
The VoteCast survey also indicates an 11-point shift away from Democrats among white college-graduate voters, the prototypical suburban demographic among whom Democrats have made tremendous progress in recent years. Precinct-level analysis indicates that McAuliffe may have underperformed even more in areas dominated by these voters than in white working-class areas.
One wonders how AOC’s more-progressive-than-thou approach would have reversed these trends. On education, after all, McAuliffe did attack Youngkin for objecting to race-essentialist and anti-meritocratic ideology (i.e., “critical race theory”) in schools. McAuliffe repeated the progressive talking point that CRT in a narrow technical sense (it was originally an obscure legal doctrine) is not actually taught in Virginia schools and therefore any reference to it was simply a “racist dog whistle” by Youngkin to racist voters who don’t want their kids to learn about slavery and the dark side of American history.
Voters didn’t buy it. But they did embrace Youngkin’s point: “We will teach all history, the good and the bad. America has fabulous chapters, and it’s the greatest country in the world, but we also have some abhorrent chapters in our history, we must teach them. We can’t know where we are going if we don’t know where we came from,” he said.
“What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race, where we divide them into buckets: One group’s an oppressor, and another group is the victim — and we pitch them against each other. . . . We’re trying so hard to live up to those immortal words of Martin Luther King Jr., who implored us . . . to judge one another based on the content of our character and not the color of our skin.”
This sounds like vintage Barack Obama, not David Duke. Would AOC have had McAuliffe attack this Obama-style rhetoric even more harshly than he did? And if he had, would it have been effective? The question answers itself.
Ruy Teixeira is co-editor of the Substack newsletter The Liberal Patriot.