10 min read

Don’t read too much into tonight’s results

Polls can only tell us so much one year out. Off-year election results don’t make that much better indicators.
Don’t read too much into tonight’s results
Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (left) with President Biden. (Photo by the White House)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, November 7, 2023. The 2024 elections are 364 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

With less than a year to go until the 2024 election, Democrats are stressing out.

But don’t take it from me — take it from just about every news outlet in Washington...

The new wave of Democratic distress has two main sources: First, many operatives are worried that President Biden’s staunch support of Israel will cost him support among young voters and depress Muslim turnout in key states like Michigan.

Second, many Democrats are simply reading the polls and scared by what they see. Most notably, the New York Times released polls from six swing states on Sunday and found Trump leading in five of them. The surveys showed Biden’s support slumping among young voters and voters of color, two groups key to his coalition, as questions about his age continue to mount.

How much attention should you pay to these polls? Probably not too much. According to an analysis by SplitTicket, polls taken one year before a presidential election have an average error of around 4.5%. Notably, this doesn’t mean you should dismiss polls throughout the entire cycle: by the time of an election, the average polling average shrinks significantly, to 2.9%. (That may not sound like a big change, but in the polling error world, it is.)

But, for now, head-to-head polls can only tell us so much.

Graphic by SplitTicket

This also doesn’t mean you should dismiss these polls out of hand. The New York Times has one of the best polling units in the country, with a rare A+ rating from FiveThirtyEight. If their read of the current moment is that Biden is trailing — and that is also the finding of several other top pollsters — then that is probably roughly true to what the election would look like if it were held today, which means the poll still offers important lessons for both parties about the mood of the electorate.

But, as the graph above shows, a lot can change in a year. Even the most accurate polls shouldn’t be imbued with much predictive power a year out.

Without early polls as a reliable indicator of how an election will go, many pundits will instead turn to tonight’s election results — voters in about 40 states head to the polls today — as a weathervane for the national environment.

Be careful about that too. Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio are poor stand-ins for the country; the results in their key contests (more details below) will be interesting, but shouldn’t be taken as foolproof indicators of how people feel about Trump and Biden.

There are three lessons from the 2022 elections that I hope you keep in mind tonight. They all point to the dangers of taking tonight’s results (or the 2022 results, for that matter) and superimposing them on the 2024 electoral map:

1. Candidate quality matters. 2022 saw a resurgence of split-ticket voting, as Georgia and Nevada elected Republican governors and Democratic senators, while Kansas and Wisconsin elected Democratic governors and Republican senators. (Or, in most of these cases, re-elected. Another relevant lesson from 2022 was that incumbency still counts for something.)

The point here is that, although party label can go a long way, voters don’t treat all candidates from one party the same, even in our very tribalized times. The individual merits of a candidate still count for something; voters don’t look at Herschel Walker and Brian Kemp and see the same person. You can glance at gubernatorial approval ratings and see this same phenomenon; voters are more likely to view governors as their own entities, distinct from a national party brand, than members of Congress or a presidential candidate.

The most pertinent example of this tonight will be in Kentucky, where Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear is running for re-election. If Beshear wins in deep-red Kentucky, it will likely be taken as a promising sign for Biden’s re-election. But the truth is that Beshear is a very different candidate than Biden, with a unique biography and connection to his constituency (his father was also governor). His approval ratings are also very different: he is one of the most popular governors in the country, while Biden is a historically unpopular president.

If anything, if Beshear wins, it will be because he was able to avoid nationalizing his race, not the other way around. So be careful about projecting the results from Kentucky onto the rest of the country, when the individual candidates at hand are in such different positions. (To be clear, the same goes for if Republican Daniel Cameron wins. A Republican winning in a state Trump won by 26 points does not mean Democrats are doomed nationally.)

2. Ballot measures ≠ regular elections. Say it with me: progressive policy positions winning in red states does not mean that Democratic candidates will do well in those same states.

In 2022, we saw this in Kentucky (where voters defeated a pro-life ballot measure and handily re-elected Republican Sen. Rand Paul), South Dakota (where voters expanded Medicaid and handily re-elected Republican Gov. Kristi Noem), Nebraska (where voters increased the minimum wage and handily elected Republican Gov. Jim Pillen), and Missouri (where voters legalized marijuana and handily elected Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt).

This has been a running trend for years now: progressive policies fare much better as ballot measures in red states than they do in head-to-head elections with an actual Democratic candidate attached to them.

Tonight, this fact will be relevant in Ohio, where a pro-choice constitutional amendment is expected to pass. All this will tell us is that pro-choice policies are popular, which we already know. It does not mean that Democratic candidates will suddenly start doing better in Ohio or that abortion referenda on the 2024 ballot will guarantee Biden victories elsewhere.

3. Turnout environments matter. For a long time, it’s been taken as a rule of thumb that when elections see higher turnout, it benefits Democrats, and when elections see lower turnout, it benefits Republicans.

That’s no longer the case. The two parties have essentially swapped highly educated voters in their coalitions, which means Democrats, not Republicans, now lay claim to the most highly engaged voters and the ones most likely to vote in midterms or off-year elections.

The New York Times’ Nate Cohn laid this out last month; below is a graphic from his piece. In Times polling, Biden leads among the slice of voters who cast ballots in the 2022 midterms, while Trump has an advantage among the 2022 non-voters. As you can see, Biden’s support also weakens significantly among Black, Hispanic, and young voters who stayed home in ’22.

Graphic by the New York Times

For Democrats, this is all well and good for elections like today, when you want highly engaged voters on your side. But as soon as the 2022 (and 2023) non-voters get injected back into the electorate, as will happen in a presidential year, all bets are off.

So don’t jump to equate tonight’s results to anything that will happen in 2024, since the turnout environments will be so different — in a way that makes a clear difference in the outcome of elections.

Bottom line: Don’t over-interpret off-year poll results and don’t over-interpret off-year election results. It’s OK that we don’t know how the election will turn out 364 days in advance; don’t cling to any of these flawed indicators for a guaranteed sign of what will happen a year out.

There are certain facts we know: pro-choice policies are popular, Joe Biden is not. Poll results tell us that much, and tonight’s election results probably will too. Which of those facts will be more salient in voters’ minds a year from now is a guessing game not worthy of any of our time.

But still pay attention tonight!

Just because the 2023 election results won’t tell you who will be elected president in 2024 doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pay attention to them.

Even with their failed predictive powers, off-year election results can still be influential in setting party strategy: in 2021, for example, Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s successful focus on parents’ rights in Virginia led to a wave of GOP copycats in 2022, even though his victory didn’t necessarily augur a “red wave” the next year.

In addition, because there are so few elections that take place, candidates who have a good night on an off-year stand out even more than they do in a regular election year, when winning candidates have to compete for attention with so many other victors.

That means a few national figures could be crowned tonight: as Politico’s Jonathan Martin notes, either Beshear or Cameron are easy to see as presidential timber if they pull out a win in Kentucky. Youngkin is also worth keeping an eye on: if Republicans perform well in the Virginia state legislative races, the GOP governor is expected to consider a late entry in the current presidential contest.

But most importantly, a lot of statewide policy will be set or impacted tonight, which is why these elections are worthy of attention in their own right, not just as 2024 weathervanes. Here’s a quick guide to the key races to watch:

Gubernatorial elections. As noted above, popular Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) — the son of another popular Kentucky governor — is battling for re-election against state AG Daniel Cameron (R). Beshear has campaigned on his support for abortion rights, while Cameron has sought to tie Beshear to Biden and the national Democratic Party.

In Mississippi, Gov. Tate Reeves (R) is running for re-election against state Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley (D), a second cousin of Elvis Presley. Reeves is favored to win, but the polls suggest a closer gubernatorial race than the state has seen in 20 years, due to a corruption scandal from Reeves’ time as lieutenant governor.

State legislative elections. All 140 seats in the Virginia General Assembly are up for grabs today. Abortion has been a major issue here too: Virginia is the last state in the South not to have implemented new abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade was overturned. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has been pushing for the state to restrict abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, which he’s been messaging as a “limit,” not a “ban.” Whatever you call it, his ability to enact one will be decided by today’s elections.

State Supreme Court elections. The marquee Supreme Court race on the ballot today is in Pennsylvania, where the winner of an open seat on the state’s high court could play a major role in deciding abortion cases or any election disputes during the 2024 cycle in the high-profile swing state. More than $22 million has flowed into the race, likely making it the most expensive state Supreme Court election in history.

Ballot measures. All eyes will be on Ohio, where voters will cast ballots on “Issue 1,” which would enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution. The pro-choice side has won in every ballot measure contest since Roe was overturned, in red and blue states alike. Even though the Buckeye State has been trending to the right in recent years, polls project that pro-choice winning streak will continue tonight.

School board elections. Finally, as has been seen across the country, school board elections in both Pennsylvania and Virginia have become highly charged political contests, hinging on book bans and school policies towards LGBT students.

I’ll have the results from all these races for you in Wednesday’s newsletter, along with a preview of tomorrow night’s GOP debate. What a week!

More news to know.

Donald Trump took the witness stand Monday in his $250 million civil fraud trial in New York. Trump testified for more than four hours, during which he was repeatedly admonished by Judge Arthur Engoron for giving rambling answers and straying off topic. “Can you control your client?” the judge asked Trump’s lawyer at one point. “This is not a political rally.”

More headlines:

The day ahead.

Congress: Senate Republicans will meet to discuss Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s (R-AL) hold on military nominations, as GOP frustrations about the blockade mount. Meanwhile, House Republicans will meet to chart a path forward on government funding, as the party debates whether to adopt Speaker Mike Johnson’s “laddered CR” idea.

On the floor, the Senate is poised to hold confirmation votes on three Biden picks: NIH Director nominee Monica Bertagnolli and two district judge nominees. The House is set to continue consideration of the Transportation/Housing and Urban Development appropriations bills.

The House may also vote on a pair of GOP resolutions — one offered by Rep. Rich McCormick (R-GA) and the other proposed by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) — censuring Rep. Rashida Tlaib for her comments about Israel, including her use of the phrase ‘‘from the river to the sea.”

Supreme Court: The justices will hear oral arguments in United States v. Rahimi, one of the most highly anticipated cases of the term. Rahimi will be the court’s first Second Amendment case since its 2022 decision in New York State Rifle & Pistol Association v. Bruen, in which the justices ruled that laws restricting access to guns had to align with the “historical tradition of firearm regulation.”

Bruen set off a wave of conflicting lower court decisions, as judges wrestled over which gun regulations have a historical basis and which do not. Rahimi is a challenge to a federal law that prohibits individuals from owning firearms if they are “subject to a court order that restrains [them] from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner.” The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, one of the most conservative in the country, ruled that the law was unconstitutional under Bruen. Now, the Supreme Court will have to decide how their landmark ruling applies to those accused of domestic violence.

White House: President Biden will tour science and technology demonstrations in Washington, D.C.

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