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Recall or Referendum?

What the off-year election tells us about 2024.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets voters and their children while campaigning at Piney Branch Elementary School November 7, 2023, in Bristow, Virginia. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On Monday, Democrats were deep in despair and mutual recriminations about only the latest poll to show President Joe Biden in the ditch with swing state voters, including in Pennsylvania, where Biden was shown underperforming his 2020 numbers by 6 points in a rematch with former President Donald Trump.

Just 19 percent of voters of the New York Times poll of the nation’s most valuable swing state had anything good to say about the economy, and 69 percent said Biden is too old for another term. That will put some lumps in your Quaker Oats, right there.

And yet, the very next day, in a statewide vote for a vacancy on the state Supreme Court, Pennsylvania voters handed a 6-point victory to the Democratic nominee. This was essentially a generic ballot test, since neither candidate was well known, and the same Pennsylvania that keeps blowing raspberries at Democrats in polls rewarded the incumbent party.

I hear you all out there yelling “Roe v. Wade,” and you’re not wrong. Certainly Democrats are banking heavily on a pro-choice backlash against the conservative U.S. Supreme Court and pro-life state lawmakers to save Biden and their party next year.

But the answer is insufficient, not just in Pennsylvania or the Virginia suburbs or even mostly rural Kentucky where, this week, Republicans fumbled yet again in their efforts to take advantage of an unpopular incumbent president and intensely negative views among voters on the direction of the country and the economy.

Another part of the answer is that we didn’t get a look at the whole electorate this week. We saw results from across the country and in red states and blue states, but only among the chunk of voters who are most likely to vote. An off-year election will typically draw a turnout somewhere between 40 percent and 60 percent smaller than a big quadrennial contest in a presidential year.

Once upon a time, low-turnout elections favored Republicans because their party dominated with the high-education, high-income voters most likely to turn out. But Democrats have been making gains there since even before Trump, and most certainly since. 

Contrary to the talking points of many in the GOP who decry convenience voting and easy ballot access, the new populistic Republican Party has every reason to want a big turnout. Poor and working-class voters are less likely to participate than their more affluent counterparts. Republicans should want to make it as easy as possible, whereas Democrats have new incentives to tighten things up.

In any case, the snapshot of the electorate we saw this week was a more educated, higher-income version of what we will see next year. Based on everything we know about voter demography, it’s not surprising to see Democrats overperform compared to the electorate as a whole.

There’s also this: There isn’t much generic about Republicans these days. 

The way things are supposed to work for parties out of power is that they benefit from a blank-slate effect. Voters are frustrated with whomever is in charge, and their anger at the party now out of power for its misdeeds when it was in charge have faded. In our highly polarized, intensely negative version of partisanship, that means passing majorities back and forth and back and forth.

But what if the out party doesn’t act like an out party? What if its defeated former nominee never goes away? What if instead of using its small power in Washington to harry and harass the incumbent, it turns inward on itself to answer the increasingly exorbitant demands of its own hardline members? 

Part of what we are seeing is, yes, abortion backlash. And part certainly relates to changes in voter propensity for the base of each party.

But another significant factor here is in a minority party that is far too easy for a weak majority party to define. Republicans do not exist as a bland alternative to the status quo, but rather a frequently disturbing and often chaotic vision of an alternate path. 

What we saw this week is a version of what Republicans will have to deal with in 2024, which is an election that is not a referendum on the party in power by the choice between two parties that both act like they’re in charge.


Holy croakano! We welcome your feedback, so please email us with your tips, corrections, reactions, amplifications, etc. at STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. If you’d like to be considered for publication, please include your real name and hometown. If you don’t want your comments to be made public, please specify.


STATSHOT

Biden Job Performance
Average approval: 40.8%
Average disapproval: 55.2%
Net score: –14.4 points 

Change from one week ago: ↓ 0.8 points                        
Change from one month ago: ↓ 1.4 points

[Average includes: Reuters/Ipsos: 39% approve-56% disapprove; Quinnipiac: 39% approve-58% disapprove; NewsNation: 44% approve-56% disapprove; USA Today/Suffolk: 40% approve-56% disapprove; Emerson: 42% approve-50% disapprove]

Polling Roulette


TIME OUT: GIMME A BREAK 

New York Times: “Danny Taing’s 55,000 Kit Kats began their long, twisted and sometimes obscure journey in Japan. … The Kit Kat shipment — which included sought-after flavors like melon, matcha latte and daifuku mochi — had cost $110,000, but Bokksu expected to make about $250,000 in total revenue. … In the United States, obsessives fawn over the collectibles, comparing reviews on Japanese snack blogs and shelling out for limited editions. These particular Kit Kats would become the key players in an ultimately frustrating saga of shell email accounts, phantom truckers, supply-chain fraud and one seriously bewildered cargo freight broker. … The Bokksu Kit Kats are just one instance of an increasingly common computer-based form of fraud that some experts call ‘fictitious pickups’ or ‘strategic theft.’ It’s part identity theft, part extortion. The freight, sometimes called a ‘hostage load,’ can vanish if the extortion demands are not met.”


MANCHIN WON’T RUN FOR SENATE, TEEING UP NO LABELS BID

New York Times: “Senator Joe Manchin III announced on Thursday that he would not seek re-election, dealing a blow to Democrats’ chances of holding the Senate next year. Instead, Mr. Manchin, who was likely to face a strong Republican challenger to keep his Senate seat in a deeply red state, suggested he would continue exploring whether there was an appetite in the country for a centrist third-party bid for the presidency. That prospect has alarmed many Democrats. … The decision was an immediate setback for Democrats’ hopes of holding a majority in the Senate. … Mr. Manchin was seen as the only Democrat with a chance of holding the seat. A recent poll showed Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia, a Republican, as the front-runner in the race. … Republicans immediately began claiming victory. ‘We like our odds in West Virginia,’ Senator Steve Daines crowed in a statement.”

Trump outrage fuels Schiff’s Senate campaign: The Atlantic: “In recent years, Schiff has had a knack for eliciting loud and at times unhinged reactions from opponents, even though he himself tends to be quite hinged. The 45th president tweeted about Schiff 328 times, as tallied by Schiff’s office. … This onslaught has also been good for business, inspiring equal passion in Schiff’s favor. … Schiff has come in at or near the top of the polls in the Senate race so far, along with [Rep. Katie Porter]. … 69 percent of likely voters said they could render an opinion of him (40 percent favorable, 29 percent unfavorable). He raised $6.4 million in the most recent reporting period, ending the quarter with $32 million cash on hand, or $20 million more than the runner-up, Porter. … Although Schiff is best known for his work as a Trump antagonist—and happily dines out on that—he is also wary of letting the former president define him entirely.” 

Tester keeps things local as ads begin in critical Montana: NBC News: “Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., is launching the first TV ad of his 2024 re-election campaign, as he vies for his fourth term in a red state seen by both parties as crucial to Senate control. The spot, called ‘Big Sandy,’ uses upbeat music and Tester’s voice to highlight his roots as a third-generation Montanan. It casts him as a Washington outsider seeking to combat Montana’s rising costs, to ‘expand veterans’ clinics, and save our rural hospitals and schools.’ … The ad, first reported by NBC News, was described by Tester’s campaign as set to run statewide, backed by ‘a significant six-figure buy.’ … It could be the toughest race of Tester’s career, after he has spent years defying political gravity.” 

Former Rep. Meijer launches Michigan Senate campaign: Politico: “Former Michigan Rep. Peter Meijer’s announcement that he would make a run for the state’s Senate seat was met with a less than enthusiastic response from the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. … ‘Peter Meijer isn’t viable in a primary election, and there’s worry that if Meijer were nominated, the base would not be enthused in the general election,’ NRSC Executive Director Jason Thielman said. … Meijer is a centrist with a well-known name and bio who has stated independence from Donald Trump. … In Michigan, the NRSC recruited Mike Rogers, a former House Intelligence Committee chair. … The James Craig campaign views Meijer’s entrance as a positive development because he will now face two candidates who have criticized Trump and who could split the anti-Trump vote.” 

BRIEFLY

She’s back: Jill Stein launches Green Party bid after Cornel West drops—New York Times

Utah Rep. John Curtis considers run for Romney’s seat—Salt Lake Tribune

Michigan Dems warm to a primary of Detroit Rep. Shri ThanedarDetroit Free Press

Richmond mayor to launch Virginia gubernatorial bid—Richmond Times-Dispatch

WITHIN EARSHOT: CALIFORNIA, PENNSYLVANIA 

“There are two additional Democrats running for president right now. … One is a congressman from Minnesota, the other one is the governor of California, but only one has the guts to announce it.”—Pennsylvania Sen.  John Fetterman calls out California Gov. Gavin Newsom for shadow campaigning during an event in Altoona, Iowa. 


MAILBAG

“Texas continues to be an interesting place as our state legislature seems increasingly fatigued at being called back into special sessions ahead of what is likely to be a tumultuous primary season on the Republican side in 2024. It seems the Texas GOP has been constantly fighting itself for the last decade or more. At what point does one side win? Can one side win? Or is a state like Texas just doomed to have this intraparty fight play out for another decade within its ‘natural party of government,’ to borrow a phrase from across the pond?”—Rehm Maham, Austin, Texas

Great question, Mr. Maham! What happens when there aren’t political consequences for being bad at politics? The signal achievement of the Texas Legislature this year was the failed impeachment of the state’s attorney general for, among other things, using his office to reward a political crony who found a fake job for the attorney general’s mistress. Then the attorney general’s wife, a state senator, had to sit and listen to the evidence. Hillary Clinton couldn’t have improved on her performance and Billy Lee Brammer couldn’t have written a better plot. Part of this madness is due to the fact that it’s been so easy for so long for Texas Republicans. Cycle after cycle we hear that this time will be different and each time it ends up just the same. Texas Democrats couldn’t beat Ted Cruz in 2018, a very tough year for Republicans. Ted Cruz! When the other side isn’t a credible threat, the majority party tends to get soft and self-indulgent. The energies that would otherwise be outwardly directed are turned inward. Cruz is up again this cycle and the broad expectation is that Democratic Rep. Colin Alred will be the next Beto O’Rourke, an appealing-seeming candidate who becomes a sinkhole for Democratic donations that will be wasted on a losing effort. And in that version of Texas politics, Republicans have little incentive to be better at governing or behaving like adults. But if Alred were to actually get past Cruz, you can bet that the Texas GOP would be reborn in 2025 as a bunch of do-gooding squares.

“It appears that Democrats desperately want Trump to be the GOP nominee, and likewise Republicans just as desperately want Biden to be the Dem nominee. Is it this underlying dynamic, rather than the wishes of each party’s voters to nominate the candidate they think will win, that is driving us to the dreadful Trump/Biden rematch?”—Mark Holmlund, Glenbrook, Nevada

You’re very right about there being a link between the two parties’ nominating contests, Mr. Holmlund, but I think it works a little differently. The broad Democratic elite, the superdelegates, if you will, certainly want Trump rather than either Nikki Haley or Ron DeSantis. But they also want maximum chaos on the Republican side. The best case scenario for Democrats would be a long, embittering contest that stretches into May or June and concludes with Trump anyway, but only after exacerbating the deep divisions in the GOP. So what do Republican elites want? Certainly they are eager to exploit Biden’s age and evident infirmity and his strong association with the miseries of inflation. But I’m sure if they had their way, the Republican political class would rather have Vice President Kamala Harris as their 2024 foe, particularly if her nomination came after a bruising fight with the radical progressive wing of the party. Imagine, for instance, the administration trying to hold the line on support for Israel with an open presidential primary happening in the background. As the results of this week’s elections showed, Democrats remain mostly united. And that’s in part because of Trump, too. While Democrats may believe that Trump would be the easiest of the final three to beat, they also fear his potential victory most of all. Biden needs the threat of Trump to keep his party in line. Trump needs the promise of revenge against Biden and the (fake) bloody shirt of the 2020 election to keep Republicans with him. 


You should email us! Write to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM with your tips, kudos, criticisms, insights, rediscovered words, wonderful names, recipes and, always, good jokes. Please include your real name—at least first and last—and hometown. Make sure to let me know in the email if you want to keep your submission private. My colleague, the lavishly sweatered Nate Moore, and I will look for your emails and then share the most interesting ones and my responses here. Clickety clack!

CUTLINE CONTEST: AND THAT’S WHEN HE FIRST SAW OHIO

Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign event at the Orpheum Theater on October 29, 2023, in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Donald Trump speaks to guests during a campaign event at the Orpheum Theater on October 29, 2023, in Sioux City, Iowa. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

What more could you people want than this week’s photo? But to whom much content is given, much content is expected. Even so, you did not disappoint. This week’s winner managed, in tight fashion, to combine a visual gag and topical humor. Ahoy! 

“Former President Trump portrays Columbus in an American Academy history lesson.”—Linda McKee, DuBois, Pennsylvania

Winner, Ralph Rackstraw Division:

“Trump’s one-man show of H.M.S. Pinafore was a surprise hit at his latest rally. Here we see him performing ‘We Sail the Ocean Blue.”—Kevin Cook, Fort Worth, Texas

Winner, the Excedrin People Will Tell You Division:

“I don’t know, but my doctors are saying it’s probably the worst headache in history.”—Bill Ward, St. Augustine Beach, Florida

Winner, Pancho and Righty Division:

 “Federales? Well here we go again.”—Donnie Bishop, New Castle, Virginia

Winner, Albatross Division:

“And I watched that drive and I tell you, it went in the hole, it really did. They said ‘Donald, did you not hear that splash in the pond?’ They didn’t know. You know it was in the hole, don’t you people.”—Rahm Maham, Austin, Texas

Winner, Sunday Scholar Division:

“Oh, be careful little eyes what you see!”—Mark Swedberg, Natal, Brazil

Winner, Longtime Caller Division:

“… B-10 … I-24 … Can’t see way back there … Did I hear Bing-OOO!!?”—Richard Basuk, New York, New York

Send your proposed cutline for the picture that appears at the top of this newsletter to STIREWALTISMS@THEDISPATCH.COM. We will pick the best entrants for each week and an appropriate reward for the best of this month—even beyond the glory and adulation that will surely follow. Be hilarious, don’t be too dirty, and never be cruel. Include your full name and hometown. Have fun!


MONEYBOWEL 

Sports Illustrated: “More than 30 of the 300 or so officials in attendance have come down with an undetermined stomach ailment at Major League Baseball’s annual offseason kickoff event. … Some executives have spent the week in breakout sessions. Others have spent it in outbreak sessions. The provenance of the disease is not clear, nor is its type, said a person in position to know. … Nearly every team has been hit, as has the league office, which has seen some eight officials felled. … Yankees GM Brian Cashman, whose staff suffered four illnesses, said with a grin that he was skipping the buffet on Wednesday. ‘I’m getting a burger,’ he said. The good news for MLB is that the GM meetings are almost over. They’re almost done being the butt of the joke.” 

Nate Moore contributed to this report.

Chris Stirewalt is a contributing editor at The Dispatch, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, the politics editor for NewsNation, co-host of the Ink Stained Wretches podcast, and author of Broken News, a book on media and politics.