Unless you’re running for president, you probably don’t give a hoot about elections held in the year before the actual election.
This year’s statewide elections are limited to a handful of states, all of which have small populations. Virginia and New Jersey are holding elections for their respective legislatures. There are two initiatives up for a vote in Ohio. And mayors will be chosen in a number of different cities.
But before you dismiss Tuesday’s elections out of hand, I want to call your attention to what will be probably the last best test for both parties leading into 2024.
The outcomes of Virginia legislative elections in recent cycles have been demonstrated to predict the outcomes of national elections the following year. Any party that does well on Tuesday stands a better chance of winning the next election.
Think about 2019 and what transpired. The Democrats won control of the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates. Joe Biden, a Democrat, was elected vice president the following year.
Republicans regained control of the Virginia House in 2021. The next year, in 2022, the Republican Party retook control of the House of Representatives in the United States.
State senators in Virginia don’t face voters until every four years, so their seats weren’t up in 2021. Since 1999, every president has come from the party that controlled the Virginia Senate heading into the election. When the state senate was deadlocked between the two parties in 2011, the Republican lieutenant governor was elected to break the deadlock.
This year, both parties are in position to win control of either one or both legislative bodies in Virginia. The state Senate is controlled by Democrats by the narrowest of margins, while the state House is controlled by Republicans.
On a generic ballot for the House of Representatives in Virginia, Democrats held a 2-point lead in an October Washington Post-Schar poll, which was comfortably within the margin of error. (If the elections for the Legislature were held today, would you vote for the Democratic or Republican party?) This question, or a version of it, appears on most generic ballots.
In 2019, Democrats swept to victory in Virginia’s House and Senate elections, by a margin of more than 20,000 votes. It’s still an improvement over the 2021 showing for Democrats in the popular vote for the state house. And this is consistent with data from throughout the country. Biden and former President Trump, the frontrunners for their respective parties’ selections in 2024, are neck and neck in the polls.
Patterns in atypical elections
There looks to be a dramatic shift in the political scene in Virginia compared to the 2023 special elections we’ve witnessed for the state legislature and congress. In those contests, Democratic candidates have performed much better than the Democratic baseline (defined as Biden’s 2020 performance).
The reason why Democrats have fared so well in special elections, which normally have low voter turnout, remains unclear. Is it possible that higher-turnout elections will have a Republican advantage simply because Democrats are more motivated to vote than usual in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision’s overturning?
If that’s the case, we probably shouldn’t read too much into the outcomes of these special elections in terms of next year’s general election. Most of us saw the biggest voter turnout in our lifetimes in the 2020 presidential election, and 2024 is likely to be similar.
It’s unlikely that Virginia’s low voter turnout will be as severe this year as it was in recent special elections. Both parties are investing significantly in the state. On Tuesday, voters in 140 states will cast ballots for their state legislatures. This is significant because it is impossible to predict the outcome of an election with any degree of certainty.
Speaking of cash, much of it is being spent on advertisements that may serve as sneak peeks at the messages each party will try to capitalise on in the upcoming election year. Abortion has been a central issue for Democrats. Will their argument in favour of abortion rights ultimately prevail? Even if Biden is still unpopular and Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin is popular in the state, will it be enough to save them?
Next year, when Biden is officially on the ballot, expect Democrats all throughout the country to strive to recreate the success the party had in Virginia.
However, if the Democrats fail to win in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 points, it raises serious questions about the president’s chances in other, less fertile swing states.