The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How bad will 2022 be for Democrats? A new party analysis sounds the alarm.

President Biden at the White House on Dec. 21. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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Get ready to hear this phrase in discussions among Democrats about the 2022 midterms: “The Biden-Youngkin voter.”

This category — which refers to voters who picked President Biden in 2020, but then a year later helped elect Glenn Youngkin to be the next GOP governor of Virginia — is central to a new analysis that’s circulating among party officials.

The analysis, which was sent my way and was conducted by the Democratic Governors Association, dives into the Virginia results to extrapolate lessons for Democrats. Its focus is on who these Biden-Youngkin voters are, why they switched and whether this represents a larger category of Biden voters at risk in 2022.

These questions have all kinds of implications for the broader plight faced by Democrats at a moment that feels like a crossroads of sorts for the party’s fortunes.

The analysis’s central finding — one that will worry Democrats — is that a sizable bloc of Biden voters in Virginia cannot be thought of as reliable Democratic voters in any long-term sense. The study, which polled more than 2,400 Virginia voters, found that 9 percent of Biden voters who participated in both the 2020 and 2021 elections switched to Youngkin.

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Who are these Biden-Youngkin voters? More than half — 52 percent — were independents, according to the analysis, which was conducted by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin for help in understanding 2022 gubernatorial and congressional races.

Large majorities of these Biden-Youngkin voters were male, were White or had four-year college diplomas. In a worrisome finding for Democrats, around 15 percent were Black and 8 percent were Latino.

“We need to address the long-term problems that exist for Democrats with Latinos and black men,” the analysis concludes.

Critically, this pool of voters is not part of any permanent realignment driven by Donald Trump. The analysis advises campaigns to take this notion very seriously:

Virginia made clear that not all Biden voters are solid Democratic voters moving forward, and we encourage campaigns to focus on this group of voters.

Indeed, the analysis suggests many moderate, White, educated and/or independent voters were alienated enough by Trump to support Biden, but only temporarily: They can be recaptured by a positive-sounding Republican who keeps Trump at a distance (while surreptitiously communicating in a Trumpist idiom to the base).

Losing Democrat Terry McAuliffe worked hard to tie Youngkin to Trump, which failed. But this wasn’t a uniform failure: The analysis finds that highlighting Trump did help drive Democratic base turnout, which was unexpectedly decent.

So one takeaway is that Democratic campaigns must improve their target messaging to the Democratic base about Trump and his radicalization of the GOP — especially because the former president still looms over our politics — while developing a better appeal to voters who aren’t decisively alienated by him.

Which brings us to education. In another warning, the analysis concludes:

The issue of education stands out as the number one issue motivating Biden/Youngkin voters to switch their votes.

The analysis advises: “We need to retake education as a winning issue for Democrats.”

But how? Here the analysis brings some nuance, challenging the narrative centralizing “critical race theory” to this equation. It finds that CRT itself was not a “driving factor.” Instead, it concludes that “each voter seems to have heard something different when they were thinking about education”:

These Biden/Youngkin voters were focused on the broader issues around school closures and lowering of academic standards.

This, by the way, is what some Republicans also concluded. As one GOP strategist put it: “If they opened up the schools in the fall of 2020, Terry McAuliffe wins."

If this is right, it complicates a ubiquitous hot take. Some analysts seized on Virginia to argue that the Democratic Party is too associated with “social issues” and identity politics via woke activist jargon such as “critical race theory,” “defund the police,” “Latinx” and so on.

But though such analysts can bank on getting media attention with this topic, it simplistically elides the true nature of right-wing propaganda. It doesn’t answer this question: If Democrats widely and adamantly denounce wokeism, and Republicans keep on accusing them of indoctrinating children and teaching “race essentialism” in schools anyway, what should Democrats do then?

You rarely hear that question answered. And those analysts rarely tell us what denouncing those things should actually entail in practice, what policies it means renouncing or what sort of political gestures should — or should not — be considered acceptable while performing this act of distancing.

Another approach might be to take on these debates frontally. This might entail separating the good from the bad in “wokeness,” addressing parental concerns about curriculum without capitulating to right-wing frames and attacking Republicans for unpatriotically whitewashing the American past and fomenting a feral atmosphere of threats and violence in your child’s school.

If it’s true, as this analysis finds, that the Virginia loss was motivated by much broader concerns about education, then we should admit liberals were caught off guard by the backlash to covid-19 lockdowns and other education issues. But, with Republicans recapitulating Youngkin’s strategy, a more multifaceted and less defensive response than blaming “wokeism” will be necessary.

None of this will be easy, and each 2022 campaign will come up with its own answers. But a reckoning with how widespread the “Biden-Youngkin voter” phenomenon truly is might be a good place to start.

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