WASHINGTON — For nearly two years, poll after poll has found Americans in a sour mood about President Biden, uneasy about the economy, and eager for younger leaders of the country.
And yet when voters have actually cast ballots, Democrats have delivered strong results in special elections — the sort of contests that attract little attention but can serve as a useful gauge for voter enthusiasm.
In special elections this year for state legislative offices, Democrats have exceeded Biden’s performance in the 2020 presidential election in 21 of 27 races, topping his showing by an average of 7 percentage points, according to a study by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the party’s campaign arm for state legislative races.
Those results, combined with an 11-point triumph for a liberal state Supreme Court candidate in Wisconsin this spring and a 14-point defeat of an Ohio ballot referendum this summer in a contest widely viewed as a proxy battle over abortion rights, run counter to months of public opinion polling that has found Biden to be deeply unpopular heading into his reelection bid next year.
Taken together, these results suggest that the favorable political environment for Democrats since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade has endured through much of 2023. Democratic officials have said since the summer of 2022, when the ruling came down, that abortion is both a powerful motivator for the party’s voters and the topic most likely to persuade moderate Republicans to vote for Democratic candidates.
“Dobbs absolutely changed the way that people thought about and processed things that they had perceived as a given,” said Heather Williams, the interim president of the DLCC. “We continue to see voters recognizing what’s at stake in these elections.”
Democrats are using abortion rights to power races far down the ballot — an extension of how candidates in special elections at the congressional level have long used prominent national issues to fuel their campaigns.
In January 2010, Scott Brown won a shocking upset in a Senate special election in deep-blue Massachusetts by running against President Barack Obama’s health care push. In March 2018, Conor Lamb won a special election to fill a House seat in a deep-red Pennsylvania district by campaigning as a centrist voice against Trump.
Both the Brown and Lamb special elections served as indicators of the wave elections their parties won in subsequent midterms.
Some of the special elections won by Democrats this year have involved relatively few voters: Under 2,800 ballots were cast in a New Hampshire state House contest last week.
“The best evidence that a special election produces is whose side is more engaged on a grassroots turnout level,” Lamb said in an interview Monday. “That gives you some signal about who is bringing their turnout back next year.”
Biden’s low approval ratings have illustrated a wide gap between how Democratic leaders view him and what voters think. But past presidents — including Obama — have recovered from similarly sour numbers to win reelection, a point Biden’s aides repeat to seemingly anyone who will listen.
Political operatives remain vexed about how much stock to put into the results of special elections. Such races tend to draw a fraction of the turnout in regular contests, and the voters skew older and more educated — a demographic that, in the Trump era, is more likely to favor Democrats.
The party that wins special elections tends to trumpet their importance and predictive power, while the losing side writes them off as insignificant measures of voters’ mood.
Last week, after Democrats won special elections to maintain control of the Pennsylvania House and flip a Republican-held seat in the New Hampshire House, Julie Chávez Rodríguez, Biden’s campaign manager, emailed donors to say the results showed Biden’s political strength.
“These aren’t just one-off election wins,” she wrote. “They prove that our message is resonating with voters — and that we can’t write off any corner of the country.”
Officials with the Republican state legislative campaign arm did not respond to messages on Monday.
The next chance for Democrats to prove their strength in down-ballot elections will come in Virginia. A slate of Democratic state legislative candidates are warning on the campaign trail that a Republican-controlled legislature and Governor Glenn Youngkin would roll back abortion rights. Republicans are pitching the same menu of tax cuts and parental influence over schools that swept Youngkin into office two years ago.
The elections are likely to serve as a solid arbiter of the parties’ strength heading into 2024. Under the state’s new legislative district lines, Biden would have won a majority of House of Delegates seats in 2020. But Youngkin carried a majority of the districts when he was elected in 2021.
“These are competitive maps,” Williams said. “When we get to the other side of this November election and you look at all of these things combined, you’re going to see a very strong story for Democrats.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.