A report conducted by Democrats in the wake of the Virginia election painted a gloomy picture for the party’s performance in the governor’s race there, led by a candidate voters did not find memorable and whose attempts to make the race about former president Donald Trump failed.
The report, which was conducted by the Democratic think tank Third Way and ALG Research, also laid out issues Democrats are likely to face in upcoming midterm and other elections, citing a “weak national brand” and an electorate that remains convinced the economy is doing poorly, despite several reports that show job gains, higher wages and other improvements amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Voters are unhappy with the direction of the country and don’t think we get it,” the report stated. “They aren’t hearing solutions from us, they don’t think we’re doing anything to address the big issues (lack of workers + rising prices), and in general they just aren’t seeing the smoother ride they thought they’d get after having voted out Trump.”
The report’s findings were based on interviews conducted virtually Nov. 8 and 9 with 18 voters – three focus groups of six voters each in the Richmond metro area and Northern Virginia. The demographic makeup of the focus groups was not specified. All had voted for President Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, then either swung Republican or considered both candidates in the Virginia gubernatorial race.
Republican Glenn Youngkin, a former CEO of the Carlyle Group private equity firm and a first-time political candidate, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who had already served as Virginia governor once before. Youngkin’s victory was an upset for Democrats a year after Biden won Virginia by 10 points.
The report offered a bleak assessment of the candidacy of McAuliffe, who received “no benefit” from having been governor before and who some voters got mixed up with current Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
“Zero respondents could remember anything [McAuliffe] did as governor,” the report stated. “He also was more of the same for them, at a time when they are frustrated with the status quo.”
In addition, McAuliffe’s attempts to tie Youngkin to Trump were ineffective.
“We’re not saying this was a mistake, or that Terry had a better message he left on the table. We don’t know,” the report stated. “But we do know that if our most-effective message in 2022 is that Republicans = Trump, we’re going to get creamed.”
Though the report was released nearly two weeks ago, it was promoted Tuesday by Jon Favreau, a former speechwriter for President Barack Obama and co-host of “Pod Save America,” who said it should serve as a wake-up call for Democrats across the country.
“I completely understand the frustration that might come from reading this, and I share it,” Favreau tweeted. “But I promise you that dismissing or caricaturing these kinds of voters – our fellow citizens – is not the way to win them back. And there’s no path to victory without winning them back.”
He also suggested that Democrats should commission further studies of voters who might have been apathetic to the Virginia governor’s race or other elections after 2020.
“There’s also no path to victory without winning back voters who turned out in 2020 but are now thinking about staying home – would love to see some focus groups about what those folks are thinking as well,” he added. “It’s not either/or with these two types of voters – we have to get both.”
Among the report’s summaries for Democrats nationally was that no amount of statistics could change voters’ minds that the economy was bad – at least in the short term.
“Jobs numbers, wage numbers, and the number of people we’ve put back to work don’t move them,” the report stated. “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.”
The report also found that the voters interviewed thought Democrats were focused on social issues, not the economy – “deadly in an environment when it’s the top issue.”
Brian Stryker, a partner at ALG Research and a co-author of the report, said Wednesday he brought up critical race theory in the conversations – “I just sort of put that term in front of them” – and asked what voters knew about it and whether it had factored into their vote. He took away that the debate around critical race theory was not voters’ biggest concern about schools and that they did not find “some sort of white backlash against critical race theory that cost McAuliffe the election.”
Critical race theory holds that racial inequality is woven into contemporary institutions and legal systems, affecting people of color throughout their daily lives. It is typically taught in colleges and law schools.
The report stated that many voters knew, when pushed, that critical race theory wasn’t taught in Virginia schools but “felt like racial and social justice issues were overtaking math, history and other things.”
“I don’t want to brush it off,” Stryker told The Washington Post. “But we really found it was more [concern over questions] like are there buses at school? Are the schools open?”
The report found that voters “broadly don’t feel heard right now when it comes to schools, and they blame liberals and Democrats.”
Stryker said he did not remember how many voters in the focus group were voters of color.
Stryker said the report had takeaways for Senate and House incumbents, despite its damning summary of McAuliffe’s forgettability.
“If we’re going to hold the House and we’re going to hold the Senate, it’s mostly through incumbents,” he said. “You can’t just assume that people know what you’ve been up to. You need to tell the positive side of the story – especially since, for a lot of these people, covid just blotted out the sun for two years.”