What the elections in Virginia and New Jersey won’t tell us

Gubernatorial results won’t necessarily be predictive of 2022

Municipal workers rally in New York City on Oct. 25 against vaccination mandates. The state of the mask and vaccine wars next year would be a better midterm predictor than 2021 election results, Shapiro writes.  (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Municipal workers rally in New York City on Oct. 25 against vaccination mandates. The state of the mask and vaccine wars next year would be a better midterm predictor than 2021 election results, Shapiro writes. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Posted November 2, 2021 at 6:00am

A thought experiment: Would the two gubernatorial races during the first year of a president’s term take on nearly as much symbolic importance if they were held, say, in Wisconsin and Oregon? 

A strong case can be made that the outsize importance of Virginia and, in prior years, New Jersey reflects East Coast bias and the politics of convenience. 

The obsession with odd-year elections also speaks to the hunger of political junkies for numbers — even flawed and misleading numbers. 

For those making the inevitable leap to the 2022 congressional elections, let me offer two other numbers and a bit of a storyline to go with them:

According to the polling averages at FiveThirtyEight, President Joe Biden’s approval rating dropped below the 50 percent mark on Aug. 17 on its descent into the low 40s. That week, based on New York Times figures, new COVID-19 cases began averaging more than 150,000 per week as the delta variant roared out of control.

That week, of course, also marked the humiliating end to America’s two decades of folly in Afghanistan. The tear-stained imagery from the last frenzied days at the Kabul airport helped undermine the illusion of Biden administration competence. 

But so much of the sour mood of the country is directly tied to the inexorable realities of the pandemic. With the unemployment rate down to 4.8 percent, COVID-19 is the obvious explanation for why only 22 percent of Americans believe the nation is on the right track, according to a new NBC News poll.

Pandemic pessimism was the theme of a recent national Quinnipiac University survey. A whopping 81 percent of Americans believed that it will be, at least, a year before life returns to normal. And more than a quarter feared that the normality of 2019 is gone forever. 

Political journalism has an inherent and understandable tendency to overreact to new information. But 20 months after most Americans realized that an obscure disease from Wuhan, China, would upend their lives, COVID-19 represents the epitome of old news. 

Easy targets

That is why it is so tempting to focus on Democratic disarray as an all-purpose explanation for everything. Certainly, Joe Manchin just fed the fires of discord with his refusal Monday to sign on to the $1.75 trillion Biden spending package, which had been dramatically downsized to fit his specifications. 

Passing far-reaching legislation is inherently a messy affair in the best of circumstances. But even by the permissive standards of a comparison to the Affordable Care Act in 2010, the Democratic struggles to approve the Biden spending agenda has been all muck and mire. 

Compounding the political problems for Biden and company have been the unrealistic expectations of a major segment of left-wing voters and a surprisingly large swath of House Democrats. It’s hard to resist the temptation to shout from the sidelines, “What part of a 50-50 Senate don’t you understand?”

In some ways, Democratic pessimism has created a self-fulfilling prophecy. Convinced that they will be in the minority for years to come, congressional Democrats have tried to stick all their lifelong legislative dreams into a single package.

The result: The endless struggles to pass the original overstuffed $3.5 trillion package have muddled Democratic messaging and probably made it more difficult for them to hold on to the House and Senate in 2022. 

State of the pandemic

That said, my strong suspicion is that neither Afghanistan nor Democratic legislative overreach will be the dominant political issue in 2022. Rather, next year’s congressional elections — just like 2020 — will reflect the long shadow of COVID-19. 

If the virus is still virulent and the mask and vaccine wars are still raging, that would bode badly for the Democrats. But a steady retreat by the pandemic and a resurgence of normal behavior would feed the pro-Biden storyline that the country was on the right track. 

Biden and the Democrats should be duly cautious in claiming credit for anything after the ill-timed “summer of freedom” celebration on July 4 at the White House. Whatever the COVID-19 case rate is in 2022, the president will not get another victory parade. 

For all the uncertainties of the virus and all the conflicting comments from epidemiologists, there are valid reasons to hope that the worst is behind us. Current case levels are less than half of what they were in mid-September. And slowly, inexorably slowly, vaccine mandates are changing behavior. 

The one number I would love to know before venturing any 2022 predictions is neither Biden’s approval rating nor the unemployment rate a year from now. Rather, it is the COVID-19 case rate. If it is low enough, it would shape both perceptions of the Biden presidency and the economic mood. 

My suspicion is that the returns from Virginia and New Jersey will tell us what we already know: Biden has lost ground and Democratic voters are disillusioned about the future.

But my strong belief is that these gubernatorial results will not necessarily be predictive of 2022. The times are too strange for a simple as-goes-Virginia cause and effect. And historical analogies break down with the pandemic.

There are also oddities to the Virginia race that will be difficult to replicate elsewhere. 

Terry McAuliffe, for all his strengths and weaknesses, is a back-slapping, hand-shaking politician forged by the Clinton era in the 1990s. Republican attacks on the supposed bogeyman of critical race theory is an idiosyncratic issue likely to be forgotten by November 2022. 

In the end, political reporters will eagerly parse the skimpy 2021 returns because they’re the only game in town. But remember that they are a hazy guide to the future — especially during what we hope are the waning days of the pandemic.

Walter Shapiro has covered the last 11 presidential campaigns. He is also a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU and a lecturer in political science at Yale. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.