Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe ran an off-target campaign that, from the outset, forgot what almost always decides elections: “kitchen-table” issues. Or, to quote Bill Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid.” Exit polls revealed that the economy was issue number one in the minds of Virginia voters.
For months, kitchen-table issues have been hitting even closer to home than usual. Every time voters go grocery shopping and encounter both suddenly higher prices and empty shelves, or fill up their gas tanks for twice as much as it cost them a year ago, they obsess over how the economy is affecting their pocketbooks and quality of life. Politicians who do not address this ignore the kitchen table at their peril. McAuliffe never addressed these close-to-the-vest matters that were paramount voter concerns. In contrast, Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin hammered them home daily.
Instead, McAuliffe tried to nationalize the campaign through “Trumpification.” This worked for Democrats in 2018 and 2020 when Trump dominated the daily news cycle and was a clear and present danger. But Trump is now gone and to a large extent rendered irrelevant, primarily because he has been kicked off social media and is no longer the lead story on the nightly news and 24-hour cable channels. His feeble attempts at relevance through his press releases are not even seen by the vast majority of voters.
Consequently, elections once again turn on kitchen-table issues that resonate with the vast majority of Americans. How Democrats could ignore this is incomprehensible.
The other key lesson deriving from this election is that it is the center that is almost always determinative. And suburban women represent the center more than any other demographic. Also, they more often than not do the family budgeting and can see that their hard-earned dollars do not go as far as they did even a few months ago. Despite the trend toward a more equitable sharing of household duties, they are most often the ones who do the grocery shopping. While in 2018 and 2020 they could be swayed to vote Democratic because they abhorred Trump’s boorish behavior and overt misogyny, now they have reverted to what passes for electoral normalcy.
In addition to misreading the minds of voters, McAuliffe suffered from his terrible gaffe—“parents should not be telling schools what to teach”—a faux pas his opponent immediately jumped on and constantly emphasized in his shrewd TV ad campaign. McAuliffe also went way beyond what was necessary and emphasized his close connection with teachers’ unions, apparently unmindful of the fact that parents view these organizations with some suspicion.
While, heaven forbid, Trump may be back on the ballot in 2024, he won’t be next year. Democrats need to take away from this off-off-year election that it is bread-and-butter issues that they need to emphasize. If they are actually able to enact both the Infrastructure and Build Back Better bills over which they have squabbled for months, they will have something tangible to take to voters next year. Meanwhile, in 2022 they need to forget Trump, as have the majority of suburban women, who swung from Biden to Republican Youngkin by an astounding 15 points.
Finally, Democratic Progressives have to abandon dumb slogans like “Defund the Police” that turn off the vast majority of voters. If they want their policy positions to prevail, they first need to elect Democrats. They won’t be able to do that if they offend the electorate. As Barack Obama once said: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
November 5, 2021