The Ghost of Henry Howell.

John Ellis
5 min readNov 4, 2021

Some bullet points:

1) The AP/Fox News/NORC survey of the Virginia electorate is here, all 19 pages of it.

2) The AP analysis of the data is here.

3) The gist of the AP’s analysis is the headline above it: “Youngkin win built by small gains in key groups.”

4) Washington Post chief political correspondent Dan Balz’s analysis of Tuesday’s elections in Virginia (and New Jersey), and what they imply, is here. The piece is worth reading in full. Here’s a lengthy excerpt:

Democrats awoke Wednesday to a sobering reality. A year after celebrating victory in the 2020 elections, their slender congressional majorities are now even more at risk than they feared, and it is not clear that President Biden or his party have a workable plan to rebalance a political landscape tilting significantly against them.

Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory over Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial election was not a total surprise. Nervous Democrats could sense it coming for weeks. But the full impact of the loss in a state that Biden won by 10 points just 12 months ago, along with a far closer gubernatorial race than anyone expected in New Jersey, which Biden won by 16 points, triggered alarms across the party.

Next year, the entire Democratic Party will face the voters, with Republicans more confident than ever that they have the issues, whether education, inflation or the border, as well as the strategy and a strong tail wind to drive Democrats from power in the House and Senate, and thereby short-circuit the final two years of Biden’s first term in office. How quickly Democrats absorb Tuesday’s results and begin to respond will determine how well they can hold down expected losses in the coming midterms.

It is always the case that too much can be read into the results of these off-year elections. Maybe it was just the patterns of history in Virginia, which for decades has seen the party that holds the White House lose the governorship. McAuliffe in 2013 was the lone exception. Similarly, New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who defeated Republican Jack Ciattarelli, faced a history of incumbent Democrats struggling to win a second term.

But Democrats would be foolhardy to underestimate what happened Tuesday. To lose a state like Virginia, which has been trending Democratic for a decade, and to struggle so much in New Jersey suggests that, unless things change, only the bluest of states or districts are likely to be safe in 2022.

Bad as Election Night was for the Biden Administration and the Democratic Party, Monday was arguably worse. That’s when a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College survey was released. In the last-minute frenzy of Virgina coverage, data from the poll received scant attention. Following are the numbers that jumped off the page:

Looking ahead to 2024, 36% of Democrats and Democratic leaning independents say their party will have a better chance winning the White House with Biden at the top of the ticket. 44% want someone else, and 20% are unsure.

Forty-four percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents want someone other than Biden to top the ticket in 2024. Thirty-six think the incumbent president would be the strongest presidential nominee. Twenty percent aren’t sure. Put another way, two-out-of-three Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents don’t think Biden’s a winner (or won’t say so out loud).

These are incredible numbers. The last Democratic president who had these sorts of numbers was Jimmy Carter. They are alarming (for Democrats) on any number of levels, most of them obvious. But the big one is: if not reversed, they will create a primary challenge from the left for the 2024 Democratic presidential nomination. Which, as night follows day, will doom the Democrats in the 2024 presidential general election. Just ask Gerry Ford (challenged from the right) and Jimmy Carter (challenged from the left) if you’re uncertain about the previous sentence.

Two other “issues” haunt Democrats across the country, especially those who reside (and seek re-election in) “competitive” Congressional Districts and “battleground states.” One is his age. Try as they might, they can’t imagine a vigorous, happy warrior President Biden at the top of the ticket in 2024. As one put it to me recently: “he’s old now, imagine how old he’ll be then.”

The other is “the bench.” There is no bench. Democrats can’t imagine who might replace Biden at the top of the ticket. The players on “the bench” are either has-beens with losing records (John Kerry, Hillary Clinton) or Administration officials untested at the national level (Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Gina Raimondo). After that, you have a mini-busload of left wingers (Liz Warren, Bernie Sanders, AOC), each less likely than the next to prevail in the states that decide the outcome in the Electoral College. Biden, in other words, may be the party’s best option. And that’s the Democratic Party’s problem in a nutshell. An aged-out warrior is the best they have to offer.

Compounding the Democratic Party’s woes is the political ineptitude of the people around Biden. They have completely misread the election results from teh 2020 campaign.

Biden was nominated because he was seen as the candidate best able to defeat Donald Trump. He was elected because he was not Donald Trump. He fulfilled his “mandate” when he swore the oath of office on January 20, 2021. What he got in return was gratitude from a majority of the American electorate. Their message to him: “Thanks Joe, drive carefully, enjoy the ride.”

Instead of driving carefully, Team Biden went out and bought itself one of those 200-mph NASCAR Chevys, slapped liberal wish-list policy decals all over it and started driving around town like madmen (and women and birthing persons).

Whoever advised Biden that he was The Second Coming of FDR forgot a basic rule of American politics: you need permission from the electorate to do big things. FDR had a real mandate and huge majorities in the House and Senate to help him fulfill that mandate. Biden had no mandate beyond disposing of Trump. He has razor thin majorities in the House and Senate, which will disappear after the 2022 mid-term elections, in large measure because Team Biden forgot that basic rule of American politics.

People ask if President Biden can turn it around. The answer is “no, he can’t;” not unless he discards his Administration’s legislative overreach and ceaseless pandering to the Woke Police. He needs to recast himself and his Administration as the stalwart defender of the nation’s most important social safety net programs: Social Security and Medicare. That’s a credible political posture for a Democratic Administration with no mandate. Voters will see it as a reasonable thing for a Democratic president to do. Better yet, it’s something all Democrats agree on. Better still, if attached to a couple of tax increases aimed squarely at the GOP’s donor base, it’s something that Republicans just might be stupid enough to oppose.

Getting back to old school Democratic Party basics may well be the Biden Administration’s (and thus the party’s) only hope for salvation. Otherwise, Terry McAuliffe is Henry Howell and Glenn Youngkin is John Dalton. The Howell-Dalton gubernatorial campaign took place in 1977. Dalton won. His victory was a harbinger of all that followed, including Republican gains in the 1978 mid-term elections, Ronald Reagan’s Electoral College landslide in the 1980 general election and the wholesale slaughter of Democrats down ballot that year.

Two-thirds of Democrats either don’t want or won’t say they want Biden at the top of the ticket. The rest of the electorate wants him to go away. Monday’s numbers beget more Tuesdays. It’s going to get worse for Democrats before it gets better. If they don’t get back to basics, it won’t get better for a long time.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.