How did Democrats win big despite Biden’s bad polls? What it means for 2024

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WASHINGTON − Ignore the polls. Watch how people vote.

President Joe Biden's allies pounced on that mantra after Tuesday's off-year election produced a resounding night for Democrats: a gubernatorial win in conservative Kentucky, a sweep of both Virginia legislative chambers and an overwhelming victory for abortion rights in Ohio.

It came at an ideal time, calming growing Democratic anxiety about the 2024 election that reached a fever pitch after polling from the New York Times/Siena College showed Biden trailing former President Donald Trump in five of six top battleground states.

Democrats breathed a sigh of relief. The White House felt vindicated. And Biden's reelection campaign claimed victory against the punditry.

"Polls a year out from the election don’t matter – results do," Michael Tyler, the Biden campaign's communications director, said in an email to supporters. "Voters across the country overwhelmingly proved the pollsters and pundits wrong once again and turned out to reject the MAGA extremism that has come to define the modern Republican Party."

Yet, one year out from the 2024 election, Democrats' strong performance did not end questions about Biden's strength as a candidate. Biden, who turns 81 years old on Nov. 20, remains hampered by low approval ratings and faces continued concerns among voters about his age and handling of the economy.

Tuesday's strong performance for Democrats generated another debate: How much, if any, credit should Biden get for the outcome? And are Democrats safe to apply their optimism from Tuesday to Biden in 2024?

"If you talk to these campaigns, I don't think that he was a factor," veteran Democratic strategist James Carville said on MSNBC. "Do doubts remain about the president's age? Yeah, I mean, how can any sane person say that this is not an issue?"

Carville laughed off those in his party who might label him "a bedwetter" for admitting apprehension. "You cannot say that there's not concerns on the part of voters and there's concerns on the part of Democrats," he said.

Michael LaRosa, former press secretary for first lady Jill Biden, said it would be "a complete misread of the results" to credit Biden for Democrats' election wins this week. He instead pointed to Democrats' support of abortion rights as the overlying factor, not Biden's accomplishments in office.

"I wouldn't say it necessarily had anything to do with the president – and that's good and bad, actually," LaRosa said. "Despite his unpopularity, voters in pretty red areas were still not willing to relinquish a right (to abortion) championed by the Democratic Party."

President Joe Biden speaks to United Auto Workers at the Community Building Complex of Boone County on Nov. 9 in Belvidere, Ill.
President Joe Biden speaks to United Auto Workers at the Community Building Complex of Boone County on Nov. 9 in Belvidere, Ill.

Did Democrats win in spite of Biden?

The White House wasted no time taking a victory lap.

Karine Jean-Pierre, Biden's press secretary, said, "Biden's values and agenda won big across the country." Vice President Kamala Harris said Americans showed they are "willing to stand for freedom" through their support in Ohio and elsewhere for abortion rights.

"It was a good night," Harris said, delivering a rare statement Wednesday to reporters outside the West Wing. "The president and I obviously have a lot of work to do to earn our reelection but I am confident we're going to win."

Republican candidates tried unsuccessfully to tie their Democratic opponents to a president whose approval rating has hovered around 40%. The strategy flopped especially in Kentucky, where Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron warned of the "Biden-Beshear" record on the economy. Gov. Andy Beshear ended up winning reelection by 5 percentage points in a state that Trump carried by 26 points in 2020.

"How did the Biden bashing work for you?" Ron Klain, former White House chief of staff under Biden, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Biden, though, did not campaign in any of the states that voted Tuesday including Kentucky. And Beshear benefitted from localizing the race – relying on his moderate brand and well-known last name in the Bluegrass State – and staying away from national politics.

"When people wake up in the morning, they don't think about President Biden or President Trump," Beshear said the day after his victory. "They think about do they have a good enough job. Can they afford to take their kids or parents to a doctor when they're sick?"

Gov. Andy Beshear waves with wife Britainy Beshear, right, and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, left, after winning a second term as Kentucky's governor on Tuesday.
Gov. Andy Beshear waves with wife Britainy Beshear, right, and Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman, left, after winning a second term as Kentucky's governor on Tuesday.

Donna Brazile, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, credited "young voters, combined with the traditional Democratic coalition" for Tuesday's victories.

She compared the party's formula for 2024 to a Cajun dish from her native Louisiana. Citing Democrats' recent wins, she said there's "nothing in that recipe that we should remove." That includes at the top of the ticket, suggesting Biden – with a record of delivering on progressive priorities – can provide "that extra Tabasco."

"I do believe that Joe Biden can provide that extra kick. You know, people focus on his age. He's not applying for the NFL. He's running for reelection," Brazile said.

Kayleigh McEnamy, former White House press secretary under Trump, delivered a warning shot to Democrats, however: "You won in spite of Joe Biden, not because of Joe Biden," she said on Fox News, remarking on reports of celebrating among White House staffers. "Do that at your own peril because Biden is an albatross."

Democrats convinced there's a 'clear trend'

Even if some aren't willing to credit Biden, Tuesday's election made Democrats more convinced they have the right message and foil in Trump as the likely Republican nominee.

Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg said the off-year 2023 races marked the latest example of Democrats overperforming historic expectations in the era of Trump including the 2022 midterm elections, a string of local mayors races and dozens of special elections at all levels.

"There is a clear trend. This is been going on for a year and a half. The data is all pointing in the same direction," Rosenberg said.

He said the "fear and opposition of MAGA" – combined with the Supreme Court's overturning of abortion rights – has created a winning climate for Democrats. And he is skeptical Trump, the Republican front-runner who topped out at 46.8% of the national vote in 2020, can perform better in 2024 given his efforts to overturn the last election, multiple criminal indictments and the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade thanks to Trump's court appointments.

"Many of the challenges that Biden have are things that we can overcome. They're doable within a campaign. They're addressable. They're manageable. Trump's problems, I think, are unmanageable and can't be fixed," Rosenberg said. "As a strategist, I see our path for victory. I don't see their path for victory."

But the Times poll has Biden losing to Trump in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Georgia by between 4 and 6 percentage points and Nevada by 10 parentage points. Wisconsin is the only battleground state the poll has Biden ahead. Polls released by Bloomberg/Morning Consult on Thursday have Biden losing six of seven swing states.

A USA TODAY/Suffolk University poll taken last month found 56% of Americans disapprove of Biden's job performance – dangerous territory for an incumbent seeking reelection.

Biden campaign advisers have argued it is too early for an accurate snapshot of a hypothetical matchup against Trump, insisting the race will crystalize for votes as a clear contrast between the "chaos" of Trump versus Biden's record of accomplishments as the election gets closer.

"What we've seen across the midterms and the '23 elections is that as dissatisfied as voters are with Democrats they're even more disenchanted with Republicans," said Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist. "And what's motivating them to vote isn't necessarily their enthusiasm for Democrats, it's their determination to keep Donald Trump and his ilk out of office."

Biden campaign looks to 'reassemble' abortion coalition

Biden pushed back when a reporter asked him Thursday why he's behind Trump in so many key swing states.

"Because you don’t read the polls. Eight of them, I’m beating him in those places. Eight of them. You guys only do two," Biden, visibly irritated at the question, said. "Check it out. We’ll get you a copy of all those other polls."

Even before Tuesday's outcomes, the campaign countered Biden's bad polling by stressing Democrats' recent performance in elections beginning with the midterms, especially on the issue of abortion.

With Ohio's passage of Issue 1 by a 57%-43% margin, abortion-rights advocates have won all seven statewide elections with abortion on the ballot since the court’s decision including in red states.

In Kentucky, Beshear's most powerful television ad featured a woman who said she was raped by her stepfather at 12 years old, saying "this is to you, Daniel Cameron" for opposing abortion exceptions for rape and incest. And in Virginia, Democrats campaigned aggressively against Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin's proposal for a 15-month abortion ban.

People celebrate the defeat of Issue 1 during a watch party on Aug. 8 in Columbus, Ohio.
People celebrate the defeat of Issue 1 during a watch party on Aug. 8 in Columbus, Ohio.

Quentin Fulks, deputy campaign manager for the Biden campaign, pointed to a strong turnout among the Democratic base for Ohio's abortion amendment: more than 70% of Hispanic voters in Ohio, more than 80% of Black voters and 82% of voters under 30 years old.

"We saw people show up energized, and they showed up to protect democracy and to vote on the same issue that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have championed since the moment they were elected," Fulks said, "the same issue that propelled us to the most successful midterm since 1934 in 2022 and led to the big victories that we saw Tuesday night."

He added: "It's the same coalition that will reassemble next November."

Still, exit polls conducted by CNN of Ohioans who voted Tuesday found only a quarter believe Biden should run for reelection and only 4 out of 10 approve of his job performance.

"Of course, all of these races were run independent of the president. And of course, Joe Biden and Democratic organizations are going to try to tie him to the victory," Smith said of the outcomes in Ohio and elsewhere Tuesday.

Either way, she said it bodes well for Biden's chances in 2024.

"It speaks to the mood of the electorate," Smith said. "In this era of discontentment, voters are more discontent with Republicans than Democrats. It might not be the most inspirational message, or takeaway, but it's better than the alternative."

Reach Joey Garrison on X, formerly known as Twitter, @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Democrats won big despite Biden's bad polls. What it means for 2024