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Democrats lost in Virginia, but their win in New Jersey is more worrisome

With Trump gone, Democrats need a new way to motivate people to vote.

First, the good news — and Democrats could use some: New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy ended the Democrats’ 44-year curse by becoming the first Democratic governor to win re-election in the Garden State since 1977. Sure it was very close, but a win is a win.

The results in Jersey were arguably worse for Democrats than the results in Virginia.

Now the bad news: The results in Jersey were arguably worse for Democrats than the results in Virginia, where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat Democrat Terry McAuliffe for governor. Why? Well, because between 2020 and this year there was a big drop-off in Democratic voters, even though Murphy had enacted a buffet of progressive policies that many believed would increase Democratic turnout.

Democrats need to understand that in off-year elections, policy alone is unlikely to win the day. They also need voters to be “angry.” For example, in the 2010 midterm elections, held during the second year of President Barack Obama’s first term, exit polls determined that 73 percent of people who cast a ballot were “angry/dissatisfied,” compared to 25 percent who said they were “satisfied” or “enthusiastic.” The result? Democrats got crushed, losing 63 House seats and six Senate seats.

We had all the “anger” we could handle when Donald Trump was president, which fueled people to come out and vote Democratic beginning in 2017 through 2020. But with Trump gone, Democrats need a new way to motivate people to vote.

Just look at Tuesday’s results. In 2020, Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 points. On Tuesday, Youngkin won by about 2.5 points. That’s a nearly 13-point flip, but the reversal of fortunes for Democrats in Jersey was even more stark.

Biden won the Garden State by 16 points, with a 725,000-vote margin of victory. With nearly 90 percent of the vote reported in Tuesday’s election, Murphy’s lead over Jack Ciattarelli, his lesser-known GOP opponent, was about 40,000 votes. While Murphy’s vote count will grow, as of Thursday afternoon, he had received 1.25 million votes — less than half of the 2.61 million votes Biden got there in 2020. Ciattarelli had 1.21 million votes, which is about 64 percent of the 1.88 million votes Trump got in Jersey in 2020.

What’s all the more alarming for Democrats is that Murphy had enacted a swath of policies Democrats have long championed including free community college, marijuana legalization, expanded family leave, higher taxes on the wealthy, criminal justice reform, a higher minimum wage and more. And on Covid-19, Murphy implemented vaccine mandates for state employees and contractors, and, according to a recent poll, half of registered voters polled said they trusted him more than his opponent to handle the pandemic.

Murphy headed into the election with an average 8-point lead in the polls. Then came Tuesday’s nail-biter.

Democrats clearly believe that if they deliver policies, they will win. Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal of Washington and moderate Democratic Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey separately tweeted after Tuesday’s elections that the message is Americans want Democrats to “deliver” for people, referring both to the bipartisan infrastructure bill and the broader Build Back Better proposal that expands social programs — such as funding universal pre-K — and addresses climate change. Progressive or moderate, Democrats believe policy wins the day.

Polls that showed Murphy with a strong lead didn’t measure voter intensity.

Based on policy alone, Murphy should have won in a cakewalk. While he squeaked by, the Democrats who helped him enact his policies appeared to have lost state legislative races in South Jersey. The most jaw-dropping loss happened to long-serving Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney, who lost to a first-time, virtually unknown candidate who, according to NBC Philadelphia, “spent only $153 on Dunkin and paper fliers over the course of his campaign.”

Polls that showed Murphy with a strong lead didn’t measure voter intensity. It’s one thing to like free community college or a higher minimum wage, but will that inspire a person to vote? Meanwhile on the GOP side, it’s all red meat, all the time, and that does get people worked up.

That’s why “critical race theory” made an appearance in the Jersey race — although not to the same level as in Virginia. Murphy had signed a law that incorporated teaching diversity and inclusion into the K-12 curriculum. Ciattarelli jumped on that, saying he didn’t believe students should be taught “the white person is the oppressor and the black and brown is the oppressed,” New Jersey 101.5 reported.

Ciattarelli also made vaccine mandates an issue. According to a Monmouth University poll from late September, 50 percent of registered voters polled said they trusted Murphy more than Ciattarelli to handle the Covid-19 pandemic. But those who disagreed with Murphy's handling of the pandemic and his mandating vaccines were likely angry about them, making them likelier to vote in an off-year election. (Local issues like property taxes were also factors in the Jersey race, but given there were no exit polls, we can’t be certain what specifically motivated voters.)

The lesson for Democrats heading into the 2022 midterm elections has to be that while policy is important, so is “anger.” Democrats should be serving up “red meat” to their base — and not red meat like the GOP’s “critical race theory,” which is based on lies and racism. But anger based on the actual policies Republicans are enacting, from their efforts to suppress the vote to their commitment to oppressing women with their extreme abortion bans.

Democrats should remember this simple equation: “policy plus anger.” That may just be the formula that leads them to victory in 2022.