In the days after the Democratic Party’s collapse in the Virginia governor’s race, party strategists descended on the commonwealth to figure out what went wrong and understand just how bad the national outlook might be next year.
What they discovered, largely through focus groups and polling, was even worse than expected. The problems cut far deeper than the failings of their gubernatorial nominee, Terry McAuliffe, or President Joe Biden’s flagging approval ratings. Rather, the Democratic Party’s entire brand was a wreck.
“Voters couldn’t name anything that Democrats had done, except a few who said we passed the infrastructure bill,” the center-left group Third Way and its pollsters said in a report, obtained first by POLITICO, on focus groups they ran in Virginia.
Most of the voters Third Way spoke with in suburban Virginia focus groups, according to the report, “could not articulate what Democrats stand for. They could also not say what they are doing in Washington, besides fighting.”
And those were just the people who voted for Biden.
Less than a year ahead of midterm elections, in which even Democrats widely expect they will lose the House and, possibly, the Senate, the party is confronting an identity crisis. It isn’t just Biden’s cratering public approval ratings, inflation, or the precedent that the party in power typically loses seats in a president’s first midterm.
Just one year after Democrats kicked Donald Trump from the White House, it’s not obvious to many voters what Democrats are doing now that they’re in charge — despite the enactment of major legislation, including a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill earlier this year and an infrastructure bill last week.
Following the House’s passage of the social spending package on Friday, one Democratic strategist who advises major donors said, “Too late. We’re f—ed.”
The findings in Virginia fall in line with public and private polling nationally in recent weeks. Biden’s approval rating, a measure closely tied to a party’s performance in the midterms, has fallen to below 43 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight polling average. That’s far worse than Barack Obama’s was at this point in his presidency, prior to the Democrats’ midterm wipe-out in 2010.
Generic ballot tests, pitting unnamed Republican candidates against unnamed Democrats, are also shifting in the GOP’s favor. More than 6 in 10 Americans say things generally are off on the wrong track, and similar majorities rate the state of the economy as bad.
That’s a poisonous environment for Democrats, and the remedy — if one even exists — isn’t clear.
“Voters believe the economy is bad, and no amount of stats can change their mind (at least in the short term),” the Third Way report said. “Jobs numbers, wage numbers, and the number of people we’ve put back to work don’t move them. We should still talk about these (more the wage and back-to-work numbers), but we should realize that they will have limited impact when people are seeing help wanted signs all over main street, restaurant sections closed for lack of workers, rising prices, and supply disruptions. Even where things are getting better, Biden doesn’t get credit.”
As Third Way’s Matt Bennett put it, “It’s not great news. Any [focus group] report that starts out, ‘Our weak national brand left us vulnerable’ is not great news.”
The White House is putting on a brave face. Biden is coming off one of the best weeks of his presidency, which saw the enactment of his infrastructure bill and the House’s passage last week of a sprawling social spending package. And Democrats are moving quickly to sell infrastructure to the American people.
Biden traveled to New Hampshire and Michigan last week to promote the bill, while members of his administration are fanning out across the country to sell its significance. State Democratic parties last week held bill touting events in North Carolina, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, among other states.
In Wisconsin, Ben Wikler, the state Democratic Party chair, said Democrats running next year will be able to point to “genuine progress” made on roadwork, water quality issues and broadband — things that touch “people’s everyday lives.” In neighboring Minnesota, Ken Martin, chair of the state’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, said, “We’ve got a lot of time to really change the narrative.”
“We have policies to run on now, and that’s a good thing,” said Aliza Astrow, a political analyst at Third Way.
But the ominous development for Democrats is that the infrastructure and social spending policies they’re preparing to run on, despite generally polling favorably, show few signs of helping them at the ballot box. Fifty-seven percent of Americans support the infrastructure bill, according to a Quinnipiac University poll last week. And a similar majority supports Biden’s social spending plan. But Biden’s job approval rating in the same poll was a dismal 36 percent. The disconnect shows up in almost every poll. In an ABC News/Washington Post survey, 63 percent of voters support Biden’s infrastructure bill, yet only 35 percent of voters say he’s accomplished much.
People may support roads and bridges in the abstract. But infrastructure doesn’t exactly have them dancing in the streets.
“It’s an issue that people support, but it’s not a life raft,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. “Clearly, there’s a perception that things are still not working well in Washington, and that is a broader and even harder problem to solve.”
By most objective measures, Biden and Democrats in Washington are doing a lot — with pandemic relief and infrastructure bills passed, and social spending on the horizon. Vaccines are widely available, including for children. Businesses are reopening and kids are back in school. But none of that appears to have helped Biden or the down-ticket Democrats who will be fighting for their political lives next year.
In the Third Way focus groups, pollsters found voters who backed Biden last year “do not necessarily blame him for ongoing problems with the delta variant, inflation, or supply chain bottlenecks. But at the same time, these 2020 Biden voters had little positive to say about him right now, and many described disappointment or a sense that he is not doing well. They were reluctant to say he’s not up to the job, but they don’t feel like he’s getting it done right now.”
Megan Jones, a former Harry Reid adviser and Nevada-based Democratic consultant, said Democrats are “doing a ton of stuff, but we’re not communicating it well.”
Jones said her brother recently told her that “Build Back Better,” Biden’s legislative framework, “sounds like a f—ing fitness plan.” She said, “Nobody knows what it is.”
If Biden can get his $1.7 trillion social spending bill passed, Democrats running in House and Senate races next year will be able to point not only to Covid relief and infrastructure, but to expanded health care, an extended child tax credit and other measures as evidence of governing success.
Infrastructure and spending on social programs, Bennett said, could improve the party’s prospects next year “in concert with other things, like inflation coming under control, supply chain problems easing, and worker shortages easing.”
But in a sign of how precarious the foundation is for even that optimistic outlook, Bennett added, “Some of those are things the president and others can control, and some are not.”