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Analysis: Why Virginia's 2021 election matters

A big question for national political followers is whether Virginia will continue a trend we saw among voters in the California recall: a decline in President Joe Biden’s standing. History tells us that such a decline can foretell massive midterm problems for the sitting president’s party.
Biden easily won the 2020 presidential race in the Old Dominion. His 10-point victory was the largest for any Democrat there since 1944, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt won his fourth term. Biden’s favorable rating in the exit poll stood at 52% with an unfavorable rating of 47%, which was good enough for a +5 point net favorability rating. An average of pre-election and post-election data put his net favorability rating at closer to +10 points.
The polling today paints a different picture of how voters view the President. Biden sports a -2 points net popularity rating in an average of recent polls in a state he won by 10 points.
The fact that Biden’s numbers are where they are shouldn’t be surprising. This 12-point turnaround mirrors what we’re seeing nationally. His net approval rating (approve – disapprove) among voters is at about -5 points, while he won nationally by 4.5 points.
Additionally, this downward trend is similar to what we saw in California. Yes, Gov. Gavin Newsom easily beat back a recall effort there. At the same time, Biden’s net approval rating in the exit poll was +23 points. This was down from a 29-point victory in 2020, and a +30 point net favorability rating in the exit polls that year.
Still, the Virginia check-in has added importance because it has a fairly good track record of foretelling the national environment a year later.
Look back at the exit polls in the last three governor’s races:
  • In 2009, former President Barack Obama scored a -3 point net approval rating. This came after he won Virginia by 6 points — a swing of 9 points away from him. The following midterms, Democrats got crushed.
  • In 2013, Obama had a -7 point net approval rating after winning in Virginia by 4 points the previous year. His party went on to lose a number of House seats and control of the Senate in 2014.
  • In 2017, former President Donald Trump came in with a very bad -17 point net approval rating. This was after he lost the state by 5 points in 2016. His party, like Obama’s in 2009, went on to lose the House in the next midterm.
While the exact numbers differ from year-to-year, there is a consistent 10-point or so drop from the margin in the presidential race to the president’s net approval rating each cycle. Right now, the pre-election exit polls are suggesting Biden will see an analogous dropoff. That would mean that Democrats likely have a lot of work to do ahead of next year.
If Biden doesn’t see a decline, it could be indicative that the national environment isn’t as bad for Democrats as some of the national polling indicates.
I should note that just because Biden’s popularity in Virginia may have declined from last year it does not mean that Democrats won’t win in Virginia. The correlation between a president’s approval rating and any individual gubernatorial results can be shaky.
In California, Newsom did beat back the recall by 24 points. That was nearly identical to Biden’s net approval rating in the exit polls.
On the other hand, candidates do matter, and Virginia is one race. In 2013, McAuliffe won against an unpopular Republican (Ken Cuccinelli), even as Obama was unpopular. It was Obama’s unpopularity that held through 2014, not Democratic candidates defying political gravity.
There were a number of blue state Republican governors who won easily in 2018, even as the Democrats romped in federal elections.
What we’ll see in 2022 is a lot of elections and ones where the correlation between a president’s approval rating and the results have been considerably higher the last few cycles (i.e. House and Senate races).
This is the reason why it probably doesn’t matter very much who wins in Virginia for national implications. What matters is how voters feel about Biden. Right now, they’re not feeling too great about him relative to 2020.
The good news for Democrats: If Biden’s ratings are bad in Virginia next month, Election Day 2022 is a year away. They’ll have to hope that the recent past is not a precedent, and Biden sees an upswing in his approval rating over the next year.
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