Dem focus groups of Virginia: School closures pushed Biden voters towards Youngkin

AP Photo/Steve Helber

If this sounds familiar, it’s because CNN found the same thing when it recently interviewed a group of suburban Virginia moms who’d supported Biden in 2020 for a segment that later went viral. Was it CRT that flipped you to Youngkin, CNN asked them? Nah, they said. It was schools being closed for month after month during the pandemic. School boards had their risk calculus all out of whack, treating COVID as a major risk to children and learning loss as a manageable one when in reality the opposite was true.

Dems branded themselves as the party of lockdowns, particularly in northern Virginia where schools remain shuttered long after they’d reopened in states like Florida. Parents didn’t forget. Even ones who’d voted Democratic last year.

ALG Research conducted its own focus groups in NoVa and Richmond and confirmed CNN’s finding. Their memo didn’t go unnoticed yesterday by Democrats either. I think the era of school closures was already mostly behind us in all but the bluest states now that the vaccine is available to children as young as five, but ALG’s findings should seal it. The evidence that COVID is no threat to kids is too strong, and kids’ ability to hedge against that minuscule risk has grown too robust, to justify full closures. Now that Team Blue realizes it stands to lose at the polls too if it doesn’t get right with parents, it has every incentive to reverse course.

Although maybe not across the map. Some schools in solidly Democratic districts where Republicans are no threat on Election Day are still doing hybrid learning. School quarantine policies following an outbreak remain draconian in many districts as well. ALG’s conclusions might scare some local Democrats straight in purple states but kids who live in blue ones may suffer awhile longer yet.

“They broadly don’t feel heard right now.” That frustration also gave CRT some salience, with one parent telling ALG they sensed “a lack of respect for opinions that don’t match yours identically” among proponents of anti-racism. Some Democrats are paying attention, per Phil Klein:

If parents were mad about school closures before, wait until they see the new data about learning disparities between kids who got to go back to class this past year and kids who were stuck learning remotely:

“We find that pass rates declined compared to prior years and that these declines were larger in districts with less in-person instruction,” the authors of that study concluded. “Passing rates in math declined by 14.2 percentage points on average; we estimate this decline was 10.1 percentage points smaller for districts fully in-person. Changes in English language arts scores were smaller, but were significantly larger in districts with larger populations of students who are Black, Hispanic or eligible for free and reduced price lunch.” Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Unified School District is preparing to banish 44,000 kids from classrooms soon because they remain unvaccinated in defiance of a state mandate, never mind that transmission in schools is minimal.

Unduly long school closures wasn’t the only issue that hurt Terry McAuliffe and his party in Virginia, though, per ALG. This one should also sound familiar:

I’ve made that point myself repeatedly, as recently as last night. There’s a mismatch at the moment between what Democrats are focused on and what the rest of the country is focused on. A few days ago Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grumbled to the NYT about how frustrated she and other progressives were by the lack of movement on Build Back Better, but independents and Republicans don’t care about BBB. They care about inflation, the supply chain, and getting the economy unstuck amid a national proliferation of “help wanted” signs. Polling bears it out, too:

According to ALG, “Most [focus group members] could not articulate what Democrats stand for. They could also not say what they are doing in Washington, besides fighting. They were vaguely aware of the infrastructure bill in Congress and pieces they’ve heard are in the reconciliation bill (mainly tuition forgiveness and free college).” To the average joe, I think, Build Back Better is a glutinous mass of social-welfare programs with no real form or shape. How could it be otherwise? The size of the bill and what’s acceptable to all sides of the Democratic coalition has shifted repeatedly over the last few months to try to accommodate Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The takeaway for voters is that, whatever BBB happens to be at a given moment, the ruling party is far too consumed with getting it passed and not nearly consumed enough with fixing the supply chain to ease upward pressure on the price of goods.

Oh, one last unsurprising finding from ALG: McAuliffe’s attempts to paint Youngkin as a Donald Trump in Mitt Romney clothing fell flat, although it may not fall as flat everywhere across the map depending upon who the GOP nominee locally is. Virginia voters didn’t buy that Youngkin was fundamentally Trumpy because he was “calm, well-spoken, and project[ed] warmness.” Against a populist firebreather in the Matt Gaetz mold, say, maybe McAuliffe would have had more success with his line of attack. But not necessarily. The bottom line in ALG’s panels is that Democrats don’t seem to stand for anything good at the moment but do appear to stand for plenty that’s bad, like indefinite remote learning and scolding adults for not being woke enough. Even a Gaetz would stand a chance in a purple district in that environment.