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Tea Leaves

Democrats Had a Great Day on Tuesday. Joe Biden Is Still in Serious Trouble.

Elections across the country brought good news for the party. But the results don’t answer the biggest doubts about Biden’s reelection effort.

Photo by Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images
Joe Biden in 2022

As voters went to the polls on Tuesday, Democrats were in a panic. A New York Times/Siena poll released on Sunday showed that a year out from the presidential election, President Joe Biden is in deep trouble where it matters most: trailing perpetual defendant Donald Trump nationally and in five of six swing states.

Tuesday’s election results thus provided Democrats with something that has been in short supply: hope. In Virginia, Democrats took full control of the state’s legislature, effectively preventing Governor Glenn Youngkin from passing severe limits on abortion. In Ohio, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment that guarantees the right to an abortion. In Kentucky, Governor Matt Beshear was reelected in a deep red state, brushing aside a vicious campaign from Daniel Cameron, the state’s former attorney general, that fixated on Beshear’s support for trans rights. And in school board races from Virginia to Iowa, voters pushed back on candidates backed by the far-right “parental rights” group Moms for Liberty.  

These results have been widely characterized—even on Fox News—as a huge win for Democrats and a wipeout for Republicans. That’s self-evident. What’s less clear is whether the results herald anything good for Biden specifically. 

“Considering how the incumbent president’s party usually suffers in off-year elections, and how bad Biden’s national numbers have been, Democrats should be pretty pleased with these outcomes,” wrote Vox’s Andrew Prokop. CNN’s Gregory Krieg, like many others, saw the results as more evidence that abortion remained a winning issue for Democrats, nearly two years after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade: “Another round of elections with abortion rights winning across party lines is plainly good news for a president who, after these last few weeks, can use it.” A triumvirate of Politico writers, meanwhile, saw the results as a sign that Democrats should cheer up: “For now, the results on Tuesday—taken together with a string of special elections throughout the year that showed Democratic candidates outperforming Biden’s vote shares in districts across the country—serve as a powerful counterpoint to the party’s doom-and-gloom over the president’s poll numbers.” 

It’s hard to quibble with any of these takeaways. Tuesday was a very good night for Democrats. It once again proved that abortion rights motivate voters to the polls, even in red states. Republicans, meanwhile, showed that they are incapable of avoiding losing issues, particularly surrounding trans issues and schools. So it would seem that Democrats have a winning playbook for 2024, one that could even help them hold the Senate: Emphasize abortion rights, and let Republicans shoot themselves in the foot with their transphobia and book bans. That ought to be enough to hold onto power, voters’ misgivings about Biden notwithstanding. 

Alas, the political reality that existed before yesterday’s elections remains largely unchanged: Biden is extremely unpopular, and the biggest drags on his candidacy—his age and the economy—will still be potent a year from now. 

The vast majority of voters think Biden is too old, and he’s not getting any younger. A majority is also pessimistic about the economy—a perception that, given the slowness of the economic recovery, will be hard to reverse over the next year. (Prices are no longer going up, but they’re not going down.) Younger voters and Muslim Americans are deeply critical of the administration’s support for Israel’s brutal bombing campaign of Gaza. In Ohio exit polls, 72 percent of voters said that Biden shouldn’t run for reelection (versus 64 percent who felt the same way about Trump). Democrats, it seems, are stuck with a candidate who is heading into an election year with the worst approval rating since Jimmy Carter—and we all know how that turned out. 

Yes, much of the 2024 election will revolve around abortion, and it seems clear at this point that it will benefit Democrats, perhaps decisively. For Biden, it will allow him to make the case that a Democrat must reelect him so he can fill a Supreme Court vacancy, should one arise. (The court’s two oldest justices, 75-year-old Clarence Thomas and 73-year-old Samuel Alito, almost certainly won’t retire under his watch, but things happen.) It is possible he’ll benefit from Democrats turning out to back state-level amendments enshrining abortion rights. 

Republicans weren’t able to motivate voters on the economy or on cultural issues on Tuesday, and Democrats were able to motivate voters on abortion and competent leadership. That’s exciting news for the party, to be sure. But how many Democrats on Wednesday morning were more excited about Biden himself than they had been a day before? There’s the rub.