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Illustration Courtesy of Luna Lopez.

Virginia and New Jersey Gubernatorial Elections: The Power of Messaging and Memory

The U.S. gubernatorial and special elections in recent months have hurt the Democratic Party. They must rethink their messaging and policy goals to ensure future wins and claim a larger majority.

Nov 28, 2021

It has been accepted wisdom within U.S. politics and the strict confines of its two-party system, that the party out of power benefits the most from off-year and midterm elections. Energized by the perception that everything going wrong is the governing party’s fault, voters aligning with the opposition party turn out in droves to show their disillusionment.
But there was reason to think things might be different in the lead-up to the 2022 midterm elections. With the memory of the attempted coup of Jan. 6 fresh in their minds, voters might not have supported a party still inextricably tied to Donald Trump. The messaging between Terry McAuliffe, an establishment Democrat, and Glenn Youngkin, the Republican challenger in the Virginia gubernatorial election, reflected a focus on what Trump did in the past. “On Monday, Donald Trump is coming up to support Glenn Youngkin,” tweeted McAuliffe. When visiting the campaign trail for Terry McAuliffe, Joe Biden mentioned Donald Trump 24 times in a 17 minute speech.
For better or worse, however, Biden himself has faced a steep decline in public opinion. Despite falling unemployment, rising savings and high availability of jobs, public sentiment matches that at the peak of the 2009 financial crisis. Biden also faces criticism over immigration, the continued omnipresence of Covid-19 and other issues. His approval rating, averaged from polls between Nov. 1 and Nov. 16, is down by 12 percent.
Democrats currently hold razor-thin majorities in both the House and the Senate which slows down their legislative efforts — a situation bound to worsen once Republicans secure an obstructionist majority. Republicans also hold a redistricting edge that they are using to shore up their majorities in many states. This phenomenon, known as gerrymandering, will enable the Republican Party to win a majority even in neutral political environments. Democrats are far from innocent of this practice, with the proposed Illinois congressional map being a particularly egregious example, but Republicans hold gerrymandering power in most “neutral” states, heightening the impact of their redistricting.
A Democratic loss of Senate control in 2022 would also mean that the party is unlikely to regain control until at least 2026. No vulnerable Republican seats will be up in 2024, but vulnerable Democratic seats that year include Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Jon Tester of Montana. The seats that Democrats need to win are also in much less “friendly” territory than Virginia, which Terry McAuliffe lost by 1.9 points in the 2021 gubernatorial election but Joe Biden won in the presidential election in 2020 by 10.1 points. This was despite the election having the highest gubernatorial turnout in Virginia history, which should favor a Democratic victory according to past political wisdom. New Jersey’s race drew less national attention, but incumbent Democratic governor Phil Murphy eked out a narrow 3.2-point victory in a state Joe Biden won by 15.8 points — a similar swing to the right.
The decoupling of what people are experiencing financially with what their news media sources are telling them about the economy shows the power of coherent political messaging. There is a legitimate psychological impact of inflation on the psyche of the voter which should not be ignored. Voters’ perceptions of the economy appear to be tied to gasoline prices, which seem arbitrary when they are not at their highest level and are certainly not within the control of the presidential party in power.
When one party’s message fires up a base of passionate and fearful voters, while the other’s is just “I’ve given you all these things, aren’t I wonderful?”, it should not be a mystery who turns up to vote. Without a major reimagining of core messaging and policy goals by the DNC, the U.S. will return to Republican rule — with the House and the Senate and perhaps the presidency in 2024 in Republican hands. It remains an open question how Democrats can generate enthusiasm with any candidate. 61 percent of likely voters want Joe Biden to step aside for another candidate and current Vice President Kamala Harris faces even lower approval ratings. Nominating another candidate in an incumbent Democratic year could create a leadership vacuum.
Amidst this partisan bickering and gridlock, where the football of political blame is constantly passed back and forth in the U.S. politics, it can be difficult to imagine any substantive progress being made by the U.S. domestically or on the world stage.The options seem to be either stagnation or a further erosion of institutional norms — the U.S. was already downgraded to a ‘backsliding democracy’ by IDEA, an international think tank, this year. It may end up being, as always, the rest of the world’s responsibility to find innovative solutions to global issues while the United States of America further falls into infighting and populism.
Ethan Fulton is Columns Editor and Satire Columnist. Email him at
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