7 min read

Generic Person for President

The two narratives being told about the 2023 election results.
Generic Person for President
In 2017, BBC created a composite image of every sitting member of the U.S. Congress. Here, a correspondent holds up the image in front of the Capitol. (Screengrab)

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, November 8, 2023 — also known as my 22nd birthday! 🥳

Here in America, Election Day is usually held on the first Tuesday of November — but because of a quirk with the Electoral College, it has to be pushed back a week if the first Tuesday is November 1st. (As the Presidential Election Day Act of 1845 says, it has to be “the Tuesday after the first Monday” of the month.) That means November 8th is the last available day American elections can be held on, something I’ve always taken great pride in. (I guess you could say my love of political quirks was decided at birth.)

Everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Franklin Roosevelt was elected on my birthday. I got my learner’s permit the day Donald Trump was elected; I took my first legal drink watching last year’s midterms. This year my birthday missed Election Night by a day — but at least I get a Debate Night as a consolation prize. (More on yesterday’s elections and tonight’s debate below!)

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Almost across the board, Democrats had a very good night last night. Here are the key results to know from Election Day 2023:

  • Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear was re-elected in Kentucky, defeating Republican Daniel Cameron, a Mitch McConnell protégé (Beshear 52.5%-Cameron 47.5%)
  • Democrats flipped the Virginia House of Delegates and maintained control of the Virginia State Senate, denying Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s hopes of a trifecta (Seat-by-seat results)
  • Ohio voted to enshrine the right to abortion in its state constitution (Yes 56.6%-No 43.4%) and to legalize marijuana for people 21 and older (Yes 57%-No 43%)
  • Democrat Daniel McCaffery defeated Republican Carolyn Carluccio to win a crucial open seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court (McCaffery 52.9%-Carluccio 47.1%)
  • The best GOP result of the night was maintaining the Mississippi governorship, but even Republican Gov. Tate Reeve’s win against Democrat Brandon Presley was closer than one might expect in a deep-red state (Reeves 51.8%-Presley 46.9%)

There is one very clear takeaway from these results: Abortion rights remain an effective political message for Democrats in the post-Roe era, at least in lower-turnout elections. (Necessarily, we can only work off of data from last year’s midterm elections and last night’s off-year elections, plus a scattering of special elections in between.)

Kentucky’s Beshear and Pennsylvania’s McCaffery both made abortion centerpieces of their campaigns, as did many Democratic state legislative candidates in Virginia. Obviously, the issue also worked to bring voters to the polls in Ohio, which became the eighth consecutive state to uphold abortion rights in a referendum. Whenever abortion has been on the ballot up-or-down since the Dobbs decision, the pro-choice side has won.

Youngkin, the Republican governor of Virginia, thought that he had come up with an approach to abortion that would appeal to suburban swing voters: campaigning on restricting abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, not six weeks or earlier, and referring to the proposal as a “limit,” not a “ban.” But that strategy fell flat last night, which may send Republicans back to the drawing board to find another message to make their pro-life stance more palatable to voters. (Although Virginia, it should be noted, is a blue-leaning state.)

Can we apply any other takeaways from last night to the 2024 race for the White House? I don’t think so, for all the reasons I laid out yesterday. Presidential elections are inherently different beasts than off-year elections, with much higher turnout (which potentially means an electorate less favorable to Democrats) and candidates with much different reputations (Joe Biden ≠ Andy Beshear).

Among the pundits showing less restraint this morning, most have been cohering around one of two central narratives:

  • These election results show that when push comes to shove, Democrats show up on Election Day, especially to protect abortion rights. If a pollster asks, they may register their genuine complaints about the economy or about Biden’s age, but at the end of the day, they will vote his way when they need to.
  • These election results show that Democrats don’t have a party problem: they have a Biden problem. The national environment is working in Democrats’ favor — which should make Biden’s struggles in the polls all the more alarming, because they’re so unique to him. At 80, Biden may be the one person just unpopular enough to blow the party’s perfect hand.

Which narrative is right? No one knows, and you shouldn’t believe anyone who says they do. The first narrative focuses on midterm/off-year election results; the second narrative focuses on presidential polling. Neither source of data is especially predictive of presidential elections one year out.

And that’s in the best of times. Next year’s elections will be even more unpredictable, because of a stew of largely unprecedented factors:

  • Two unusually established candidates — the sitting president and a former president — squaring off for the White House.
  • One candidate who is 80 years old...
  • ...And another facing 91 criminal counts.
  • A pair of historically unpopular candidates running against each other.

These are two men with glaring vulnerabilities: according to the recent New York Times/Siena College poll, 71% of voters in six key states think Biden is too old to be president — but 6% of voters in the same states would switch their votes from Trump to Biden if the former is convicted, which would likely be enough to swing the election.

How will these two vulnerabilities mix and interact with each other over the next year? Again, no one knows. Some pundit humility is called for.

Underlining their shared unpopularity, another finding of the Times/Siena poll was that a “Generic Democrat” would do better against Trump than Biden... and a “Generic Republican” would do better against Biden than Trump:

  • Trump vs. Biden: Trump wins by 5.6% (average of five battleground states)
  • Trump vs. Generic Democrat: Generic Democrat wins by 8%
  • Biden vs. Generic Republican: Generic Republican wins by 18.4%

(Notably, swing voters — dreading a Trump/Biden rematch — may want a more generic matchup, but the people with actual say over the nominees — primary voters in the two party bases — don’t share that same desire. Presented with generic alternatives like Tim Scott and Dean Phillips, primary voters on both sides seem plenty happy going in the other direction, both ignoring the pleas of voters in the middle.)

In the 2023 elections, when a bunch of Generic Democrats and Generic Republicans ran against each other, Generic Democrats mostly won. This has generally been the case in elections since 2017, with the glaring exception of 2020, when Republicans over-performed in presidential swing states and in an array of House races.

That’s because nothing is generic in a presidential year. Once the names “Donald Trump” and “Joe Biden” are on the ballot — with all the various pluses, minuses, and baggage that brings for both parties — the makeup and mood of the electorate is sure to be transformed.

Transformed how? One last time: No knows.

Speaking of Generic Republicans...

It’s time for another GOP primary debate!

Five candidates will be on stage in Miami tonight: Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who qualified for the previous two debates, did not meet the criteria. Former Vice President Mike Pence has dropped out.

For the third consecutive debate, Donald Trump will not be in attendance. The former president will counterprogram with a rally in nearby Hialeah, Florida, where he will receive an endorsement from Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, his former press secretary.

The main fireworks from the debate are expected to come between DeSantis and Haley, who have been locked in a fierce — and tightening — battle for second place. (A distant second, that is.)

Both campaigns have released memos broadcasting their plans to attack the other, continuing a back-and-forth that has grown louder since the last debate.

Scott will also likely use the debate to try to climb into the DeSantis/Haley tier, a goal that has eluded him for most of the primary. His latest pitch, delivered on CNN last night, sought to emphasize his electability, citing the aforementioned Times/Siena poll by proudly referring to himself as a “generic Republican.” Inspiring!

The debate will air at 8pm Eastern Time on NBC News and Salem Radio Network. You can also watch online at NBCNews.com, in Spanish at NoticiasTelemundo.com, and around the world on Sky News.

“NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, “Meet the Press” anchor Kristen Welker, and Salem Radio Network host Hugh Hewitt will moderate.

More news to know.

Some more election results of note:

  • Rhode Island elected its first Black member of Congress, Gabe Amo (D), who won a House special election. More
  • Philadelphia elected its first female mayor, Cherelle Parker (D). More
  • Yusef Salaam (D), an exonerated member of the “Central Park Five,” was elected to the New York City Council. More
  • Ed Romaine (R) became the first Republican elected to lead Suffolk County, New York, in two decades. More

More headlines:

The day ahead.

White House: President Biden has nothing on his public schedule besides his daily intel briefing. VP Harris will join Biden for the briefing, participate in an event on climate change, and host a reception for Diwali.

Congress: The Senate will vote to confirm a U.S. district judge nominee and a nominee for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The House will begin debate on the Financial Services-General Government appropriations bill.

Courts: The Supreme Court will hear a case on GI Bill benefits that could give additional tuition money to millions of veterans. In New York, Ivanka Trump will testify in the $250 million civil fraud case against the Trump Organization.

Thanks for reading.

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— Gabe