Discover more from Slow Boring
23 thoughts on the 2023 midterms
A quiet blue wave
Democrats did well last night, continuing a trend from the 2022 midterms and from this year’s special elections. This all indicates a national political climate that is better for them than you’d expect based on Biden’s approval rating or the sour national mood in lots of polling about the economy or whether the country is on the “wrong track.”
Abortion rights, critically, were a potent argument for Democrats in both Kentucky and Virginia, as well as carrying the day in an important referendum in Ohio.
I’ve seen some people doing the “abortion 👏 wins 👏 elections 👏” bit and acting like Democrats have spent years ignoring them for no good reason. It’s important to remember the reality: Before Dobbs, abortion was not winning elections. Mark Udall, infamously, focused really hard in his 2014 campaign on the (correct) assertion that abortion rights were hanging in the balance, and voters didn’t care. It’s not that Democrats didn’t try to make voters care or that supporting Roe wasn’t popular; it just wasn’t something that swung votes until it was gone.
Republicans keep trying and failing to use trans women’s participation in youth sports as their culture war wedge issue to counteract abortion, and they keep failing. There’s a segment of progressive Twitter that insists this shows that the progressive stance on this is popular, which is wrong. It’s just a much less important issue to the vast majority of voters since the number of people involved is tiny.
What’s interesting is that “arguing about trans stuff” takes up so much more space in the discourse than abortion. In part, that’s because it’s a global question, while other OECD political parties don’t generally try to ban abortion. But I think it’s also in part because abortion rights is an almost uniquely uninteresting topic to debate — it’s what most people think versus a religious doctrine that you can’t really disprove or debunk. I’m not going to do a 2,000 word column on “here’s why your raspberry-sized fetus doesn’t have a soul.” But it’s an intensely personal topic that impacts tons of people directly, and voters care about a lot it when they perceive rights to be genuinely at risk.
Unfortunately, while Andy Beshear winning is good for the vibes, the substantive stakes here are pretty low. Governor of Kentucky is a weak office, and his veto can be easily overridden.
The Andy Beshear Phenomenon is very important, though. Swing voters are real, every state has a median voter, politics is mostly about persuasion not base-mobilization, and the old-fashioned Democratic Party pitch about Medicaid, public education, and abortion rights has legs in places where the national party is dead thanks to climate politics and racial issues.
The Virginia state legislature result is kind of boring — state senate in a generally blue state stays in Democratic hands — but in substantive terms, this is pretty important. Glenn Youngkin hasn’t really done much as governor (which is one reason he’s popular), but even a narrow GOP majority could have unleashed a torrent of legislation. Blocking that mattered.
This is me departing a bit from hard data, but my guess is that if voters genuinely felt their economic situation was as bleak as they are telling pollsters, then incumbents would be having a much harder time winning reelection. I think voters are angry at Joe Biden over inflation that happened in the past. They are not destitute, radicalized, or crying out for big new policy ideas. They are bitter, and they don’t want to give Biden credit for bringing down an inflation rate when they think its rise was his fault in the first place.
One take I’ve seen is that these results show that polling is worthless and when votes are cast, Democrat are doing well. But go back and look: polls predicted this outcome! If anything, Democrats’ strong performance in line with the polls should increase our credence in polling that says if the election were held tomorrow, Trump would probably win.
The good news for Joe Biden is that the election is not going to be held tomorrow, and he has a chance to improve his standing.
Straightforwardly, good news is good news, and Democrats doing well should quell panic in Democratic Party ranks and reduce chatter about whether Democrats are messing up by renominating an old guy. And I think the straightforward take is correct. If Republicans had surprised to the upside, Democrats would be losing their shit today and that would be bad for Biden.
That said, the less straightforward read of these results is that Biden’s polling struggles really are about Biden, and some other broadly similar figure could do a lot better.
It’s worth paying attention to the actual abortion messaging that advocates have been using to win these ballot initiatives. Here’s a good one from Ohio, featuring a male speaker talking about his religious upbringing and how he’s a father of three kids, but he thinks Republicans favor an “extreme abortion ban” that doesn’t do enough to protect a mother’s health. One reason abortion has been winning is that the PACs spending in these races have used good, disciplined messages that don’t shy away from respectability politics.
This abortion ad from the Kentucky governor’s race is also tremendous.
Note, though, that these great Democratic messages on abortion don’t actually defend the full Democratic Party position. Dems are winning because people find the Republican position repulsive. If Republicans manage to narrow the conversation to purely late-term abortions, they may regain the upper hand. But despite a great deal of effort, they seem to have failed to achieve this in Virginia.
Democrats won a state Supreme Court special election race in Pennsylvania pretty handily. Control of the court was not at stake, and it was a weird off-cycle election date. I think the size of the margin confirms a general trend we’ve seen in the Trump era, which is that Democrats now benefit from low-salience, low-turnout elections. Or to put it another way, Democrats now dominate among the most civically minded, most conscientious voters. This is a bit of a mindfuck for people who’ve invested heavily in the idea that high turnout benefits them, but I think it’s true.
An initiative to create a new publicly owned utility in Maine got crushed. There is just not a lot of appetite for bold new policy ideas.
A lot of conservatives are embarrassed by the Republican Party’s position on abortion. Sean Hannity complained that “Democrats are trying to scare women into thinking Republicans don't want abortion legal under any circumstances.” That’s because the Republican platform calls for “a human life amendment to the constitution” and “legislation to make clear that the Fourteenth Amendment's protections apply to children before birth.” The lead architect of this legislative strategy was a formerly obscure back-bencher by the name of Mike Johnson. It’s embarrassing not only because it’s unpopular, but because lots of conservative people know this is dumb and don’t believe in it. But it’s the Republican position!
Democrats doing well in New Jersey again tends to suggest some nontrivial wedge between public perceptions of the Democratic Party and public perceptions of Joe Biden.
That’s a potentially very significant change from 2020, when Biden ran distinctly ahead of House Democrats and was seen as more moderate than the national Democratic Party in a way that played to his advantage. Today, Biden is seen as pretty generic ideologically (in part because the party moderated in his image and in part because he governed somewhat to the left of what people were expecting), and age does seem to be hurting him.
I always remind people when they see their party win to remember how good it feels to win. In the abstract, I think highly engaged people tend to underrate winning. They think they want exciting big new ideas or energizing candidates or whatever else. But winning is energizing. And “win the election and stop the bad guys from doing bad things” is a pretty big idea. Almost everyone is less bored than they think they are going to be by kicking ass with boring candidates’ boring messages.
Everyone should look very hard at Andy Beshear 2028.