The Special Elections Tell Us Nothing About 2024

The Tuesday night election results supplied more evidence that the United States is not in the middle of a period of general political reaction. Despite President Biden’s deep unpopularity, the Democratic Party is doing just fine, winning off-year races in Virginia, an abortion referendum in Ohio, the governorship in deep-red Kentucky, and several lower-level school-board races that have been drawn into the culture wars.

But the Biden campaign is using the results to make an even broader point: that the election results show President Biden is actually not in trouble at all.

“In hundreds of races since Donald Trump’s conservative Supreme Court appointments overturned Roe v. Wade, we’ve seen Americans overwhelmingly side with President Biden and Democrats’ vision for this country,” Biden campaign manager, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, declared Tuesday night. “That same choice will be before voters again next November and we are confident the American people will send President Biden and Vice-President Harris back to the White House to keep working for them.”

It may well turn out that Biden can beat Donald Trump next year, and I obviously hope he does. But the Democrats’ performance in the off-year elections, and in recent special-election victories, don’t actually tell us that.

The most simplistic account from the Biden campaign is that the election results show the polls are inaccurate. “Voters vote, polls don’t,” claimed Biden-Harris fundraising email last night. Except, the polls predicting last night’s election results were accurate.

The same coping strategy appeared following the 2022 midterm elections. Democratic partisans have repeated their claim that polls showed a “red wave” that didn’t materialize. That’s not true. The polls were fairly good, it’s just that reporters and analysts disregarded the numbers and predicted a red wave would occur anyway. If 2022 tells you anything about polling, it’s that you should take the numbers more seriously, and the vibes less seriously.

Meanwhile, the Democrats’ run of success in non-presidential elections may be less indicative of presidential-election success than their hopeful spin suggests. As the party has grown stronger with college-educated voters and weaker with non-college-educated voters, one effect is that its coalition “is now better in lower-turnout environments,” as political scientist Matt Grossman notes.

Nate Cohn argued that recent polling shows Biden doing well among voters who voted in the 2022 midterms and poorly with those who didn’t. That would help explain why Democrats have been cleaning up in special elections and off-year elections. But presidential elections always have higher turnout than midterms and special elections and will include disproportionate numbers of voters who disapprove of Biden.

The American public isn’t turning right. People specifically blame Biden for the inflation that occurred in the first two years of his presidency (even though very little of it was his fault) and think he’s too old. It follows from this that the Democrats would have a stronger chance of winning if they nominated somebody who isn’t so old (or at least doesn’t look so old) and wasn’t in office during the big inflation surge.

Politico has a story headlined, “Why Democrats’ big Virginia win is also a victory for Biden,” echoing the Biden campaign’s spin. At one point it asserts the result in the state “shows that voters’ broad distaste with Biden’s presidency may not be as much of an electoral drag on Democrats as initially believed.”

Well, maybe the voters’ broad distaste with Biden isn’t a big drag on other Democrats. But it is definitely a big drag on Biden. And since Biden is planning to be the presidential candidate, this shouldn’t make you feel any better about his prospects.

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