The California Recall Vote Changes Nothing

Five Reasons Why Democrats’ 2022 Prospects Are Still So Challenging

Democrat Gavin Newsom won big in California against an attempt to recall him from the governor’s office. Since he won big there are naturally vigorous attempts to characterize his campaign as providing a winning strategy for Democrats going forward. That would be nice but in reality it is simply wishful thinking. Here are five reasons why nothing has really changed for the Democrats’ challenges in 2022.

1.  California Is Not the United States. This is thunderously obvious but can’t be repeated enough. California is a Biden +29 state so it shouldn’t be too shocking that a Democratic governor wins big in a situation like this, especially when the perceived alternative to that governor was so toxic (Larry Elder). As Jonathan Martin noted in a piece on the election’s broader implications:

The recall does offer at least one lesson to Democrats in Washington ahead of next year’s midterm elections: The party’s pre-existing blue- and purple-state strategy of portraying Republicans as Trump-loving extremists can still prove effective with the former president out of office, at least when the strategy is executed with unrelenting discipline, an avalanche of money and an opponent who plays to type.

That strategy, plus being implemented in an idiosyncratic election in an overwhelmingly blue state, spelled a big victory. Good luck replicating those conditions in the rest of the country.

2. The Democrats’ Hispanic Challenge Remains. In the recall election exit poll, the “yes” vote against Newsom was 40 percent among Hispanics. That far outdistances the vote for Trump in 2020 among California Hispanics (just 23 percent in the exit poll; 29 percent in the AP/NORC Votecast survey). In other data, Biden’s approval rating seems to be lagging nationwide among Hispanics. In the most recent Quinnipiac survey, Biden has only 38 percent approval vs. 47 percent disapproval among these voters. Other recent polls have been a bit better, but not by much. Hispanics remain a challenge constituency for the Democrats going forward.

3. The Key Problems Remain the Key Problems. The Democrats’ electoral fate remains bound up with, above all, success in containing the coronavirus and, closely related to that, restoring a sense of normality to the country, with attendant boom conditions in the US economy. Controversy around vaccine mandates was used to the Democrats’ advantage in the California recall but ultimately what will really matter is whether the mandates and associated measures actually work to solve the big and obvious problems Americans face. The Democrats will be judged by real world success, which is still far from certain.

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4. Biden’s Declining Approval Ratings Undercut Democratic Chances. One of the most consequential variables for predicting an incumbent political party’s midterm chances is their Presidents’ approval rating. A high rating gives the incumbent party some chance of surviving the historic pattern of midterm losses. A low rating gives the incumbent party little chance at all.

The recent Quinnipiac poll paints a bleak picture, giving Biden a 42 percent overall approval rating (only 28 percent among white noncollege!), with the same low ratting on the economy and climate change. In addition, just 34 percent approval of how he’s handling foreign policy and only 40 percent approve of his conduct as Commander in Chief. Needless to say, all these ratings are net negative.

But perhaps most concerning, Biden is even underwater by a point on handling the coronavirus, 48 percent approval, 49 percent disapproval. That's down from a 53 percent approval, +13 points net rating, in August.

The running 538 approval rating average is a bit better for Biden at 46 percent. But this would still suggest a poor election in 2022. Sean Trende’s analysis of approval ratings and midterm elections indicates:

At 46%...Democrats would lose between four and zero [Senate] seats 95% of the time, with an expected outcome of two seats. They only retain control about 4% of the time….

[T]he decline in President Biden’s job approval from around 52% to 46% is consistent with a loss of an additional 5% of the Democrats’ [House] caucus, or an additional 11 seats.

And this is without taking redistricting into account.

5. The Democrats’ Performance on the Generic House Ballot Has Been Weak. Right now, according to the 538 running average of the generic Congressional ballot, the Democrats have roughly a 3 point lead (44-41) on this measure. The generic ballot is generally viewed as having high predictive value in forecasting Congressional outcomes. And the closer to the election, the more predictive value the generic ballot has. Unfortunately for the Democrats, the historic pattern is that the incumbent party tends to lose strength on this measure, not gain it, as the election gets closer.

Based on the current 3 point lead, Alan Abramowitz’ generic ballot based model predicts a low double digit loss in House seats for the Democrats (though, contrary to Trende’s model, he sees the Democrats holding the Senate and perhaps picking up a seat).

The 2022 election is still 14 months away and there is plenty of time for Democrats to put themselves in a more favorable position. But the idea that the California recall election provides the template for doing so is a chimera.