President Joe Biden’s Monday campaign event with California Gov. Gavin Newsom will be a meeting of two Democrats whose fortunes are careening in opposite directions.
For Newsom, the past six weeks have been a resurgence after finding his political career on the ropes. For Biden, they’ve been a nightmare after a strong start to his presidency.
Just a month ago, FiveThirtyEight’s poll average showed California voters divided evenly on whether to retain Newsom or boot him from office. Meanwhile, Biden’s average approval rating sat at 51 percent, 8 points higher than his 43 percent disapproval.
Yet while Biden’s standing has flipped over the past month-plus — he’s now in negative territory in the FiveThirtyEight average, 45 percent approval to 48 percent disapproval — Newsom has seen crucial improvement, leading the recall by a double-digit margin in the California poll average as of Thursday.
These countervailing trends — Newsom rising even as Biden’s standing crashes nationally — point to an uncomfortable reality for Democrats: Even if Newsom runs up the score next week, the party’s congressional and statewide officials are in peril in next year’s midterm elections. And instead of Biden riding in to help save a member of his party, the president may be latching onto what’s looking increasingly likely to be a strong Democratic political win.
Newsom’s early August crash led to a wave of panic among Democrats from the West Coast to Washington. Numerous polls showed a narrow margin between the percentage of likely voters who wanted to keep Newsom in office, versus those who wanted him out — a problem exacerbated by the gap in interest between eager Republicans and apathetic Democrats.
Since then, the outlook for Newsom — who won with 62 percent of the vote in the 2018 election — has improved markedly. Currently, “keep” leads “recall” in the FiveThirtyEight average, 54 percent to 42 percent. That’s still off his 2018 pace, but it’s far more comfortable than it looked before ballots went out last month.
“The big changes were on the Democratic side,” said Mark Baldassare, the president and CEO of the Public Policy Institute of California, pointing to increased Democratic engagement as the recall drew nearer. “I would probably say that had to do with the recall becoming more real for the Democrats over time and a reflection of the fact that they were paying attention to the recall and its consequences.”
Democrats and many Republicans credit Newsom’s recovery in the face of national Democratic headwinds to his chief GOP antagonist: radio talk-show host Larry Elder, who in polls leads the field of contenders to take over from Newsom in the now-unlikely event the recall succeeds.
Elder’s right-wing views, packaged for decades in a combative, talk-radio environment, are out of step with the increasingly liberal state — and Newsom and his allies have spent the past month warning Democratic base voters about what an Elder governorship would mean for them.
“Larry Elder has been the best thing to happen to Gavin Newsom since they invented hair gel,” quipped Chris Stirewalt, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the former political editor at Fox News Channel.
But while Democrats are poised to head off disaster in California, the unique circumstances of that race mean they may not be safe throughout the rest of the country.
Biden’s falling approval ratings could damage Democrats in state races this November in New Jersey and Virginia — and in the 2022 midterms nationwide if he doesn’t recover. And neither Biden nor most other Democrats have the ready-made foil that Newsom does in Elder, especially with former President Donald Trump sidelined after his defeat last year.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy is well ahead of his GOP challenger this year, but the race appears closer in Virginia, where former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe is seeking his old job. McAuliffe has led in all of the public polls, but Republican Glenn Youngkin’s campaign released an internal survey this week showing him neck-and-neck with the Democrat.
According to Youngkin’s campaign, McAuliffe held a mid- to high single-digit lead in their latest survey, in early August. And they draw a straight line from the White House across the Potomac to Virginia: Biden’s favorable rating among likely November voters had plummeted since early August, from 53 percent then to 43 percent now.
Biden’s struggles could signal trouble for Democrats in upcoming elections, Republicans say.
“Joe Biden’s overall disapproval rating and, more challenging for him, his strong disapproval ratings, are right where Donald Trump’s were just prior to the November 2018 midterm elections when the party in power lost the House and numerous gubernatorial seats,” observed Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster.
California polls also show some slippage for Biden, though his approval rating remains positive. In the Public Policy Institute of California poll, 55 percent of likely voters approved of the way Biden is doing his job at president, down from 60 percent in the spring and 65 percent shortly after he took office in January.
Biden’s “ratings have gone down,” said Baldassare. “They’re still high, and I believe somewhat higher than Newsom’s ratings. But they have gone down.”
But Biden received 63 percent of the vote in California, compared with 54 percent in Virginia, which makes this November’s McAuliffe-Youngkin race a better test of the president’s political standing.
“Where Biden has lost support, where he has seen slackening, has been among those marginally attached voters who I would describe as ‘persuadables,’ and a lot of suburbanites,” said Stirewalt.
“I want to see: Are those folks going to go vote for Glenn Youngkin? Are they going to participate in an off-, off-year election? Are they going to go vote the other way?”
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