The Unexpectedly Close Race in Virginia

The polls show a dead heat in a state Democrats should win, here's what's happening.

In the hours after Glenn Youngkin won the Republican gubernatorial primary in Virginia, the Cook Report’s Dave Wasserman, a highly trusted elections expert, sent shockwaves through the political world:

Democrats won statewide elections in Virginia in 2001, 2005, 2008, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2019, and 2020. Once deeply red, Virginia has become so blue in recent years that it was barely contested in the last two elections. That the outcome in the Virginia governor’s race is in doubt — especially with Terry McAuliffe, a popular former governor, atop the Democratic ticket is deeply unsettling. Some online Democrats were dismissive of Wasserman, ridiculing his tweet and accusing him of trolling for retweets

With less than a week until the election, Wasserman’s prediction holds strong. The polls are incredibly close, and according to some Virginia political observers, momentum seems to be on Youngkin’s side. McAuliffe is still a slight favorite, but the fact Republicans have a shot in a state Joe Biden won by ten points is something worth unpacking.

The Horse Race

Wasserman’s reasoning for Republican optimism began with the nomination of Glenn Youngkin, a political outsider with bottomless pockets. Virginia Republicans tend to nominate far-Right candidates with views outside the mainstream. In 2013, the Republican gubernatorial nominee was Ken Cuccinelli, an embarrassingly dim homophobic climate change denier. In 2018, the Republicans picked Corey Stewart, a confederate carpetbagger, to run against Senator Tim Kaine. I mean that literally. Despite growing up in Minnesota, Stewart was a supporter of the confederacy. He moved to Virginia presumably to live among statues of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. The Virginia GOP picked Youngkin over State Senator Amanda Chase, an heir to the losing legacy of Cuccinelli and Stewart.

Thus far, that decision has borne fruit. The race is unexpectedly close. According to the FiveThirtyEight model, McAullife is up by only .1 percent. In early August, McAullife led by 10.

On Thursday night, Fox News released a poll that sent shockwaves through the political world. Their poll found Youngkin winning by eight points among likely voters, a massive shift from two weeks prior when Fox had McAuliffe up by five. Some readers may dismiss this poll simply because it comes from Fox News — an impulse I certainly understand. But to date, Fox’s polling unit is the one non-garbage part of the garbage network. FiveThirtyEight gives them an A rating. That poll is likely an outlier, but looking underneath the hood of many similar polls may offer a window into what is happening.

Enthusiasm Gap

Something notable about the Fox poll: while Youngkin leads by eight among LIKELY voters, his lead drops to one among REGISTERED voters. This is a vast delta between these two groups. Pollsters use a screen to distinguish between respondents likely to vote and those able to vote by virtue of their registration. Pollsters — and media pollsters in particular — are famously imprecise in where they draw the line. Still, a similar dynamic to the Fox News poll is showing up consistently in all of the polling.

A Washington Post-Schar poll released on Friday showed McAuliffe led by one among likely voters and three among registered voters. In the Fox News poll, 79 percent of likely Youngkin supporters are highly likely to vote compared to 69 percent for McAuliffe.

It’s not unusual for the party that lost the most recent presidential election to have an enthusiasm advantage. The Democrats certainly did in 2017 in Virginia, and nationally in 2018. Virginia holds a consequential election every single year, and Democrats won relatively easily in 2017 and 2020. This makes Virginia Democrats particularly vulnerable to a bout of complacency.

The good news about enthusiasm gaps is that they can be closed. And nothing closes an enthusiasm gap like a bunch of polls saying the race is much closer than people assumed. This is what happened in the California recall back in September.

Are Swing Voters Swinging?

All of the above aside, enthusiasm alone should not be enough for a Republican to win a state that has been as consistently blue in recent years as Virginia. According to polls, Youngkin is winning a sizable portion of Virginia’s Independent voters. He is up 18 points with likely Independent voters in the Post poll and 19 points in the Fox poll. According to exit polls, Ralph Northan only lost Independents by three when he won the Virginia governor’s race in 2017 and Biden won Independents by 19 points. The race has shifted and it happened around the same time the political environment shifted against President Biden. A Democrat can afford to lose Independents by a decent margin in Virginia but if these poll numbers prove to be accurate it puts Democrats in the danger zone.

Another notable finding in the Fox poll is that McAuliffe is getting 89 percent of Biden voters, but Youngkin is getting 97 percent of Trump voters. The overly simplistic analysis will be that Biden, whose ratings are at their nadir, is dragging down McAuliffe. And of course, if Biden had an approval rating above 50 percent, McAullife would be in a stronger position to win. However, there is a bit of a chicken or egg problem with these sorts of analyses. It is likely that the political forces — the Delta surge and pandemic-related inflation — are dragging down Biden’s numbers and are doing the same to McAuliffe. The party in power takes the blame; and Democrats are in power in Washington. They also controlled Richmond for 16 of the last 20 years. As a former governor running for his old office, McAuliffe is a particularly vivid representation of the status quo some Virginians may be rejecting.

Weaponizing Education

From the very beginning, the McAuliffe campaign wanted to nationalize the election by turning it into a referendum on Donald Trump. At every turn, they sought to link Youngkin to the former president who has endorsed him seven times already. McAullife’s team is fond of calling him Glenn Trumpkin in emails and press releases. I’m not sure that moniker wins a lot of points for being clever, but sometimes simple is better than clever. This strategy is effective to a point. The Washington Post poll found:

Roughly 7 in 10 likely voters say Youngkin’s ideas and policies are similar to Trump’s, including 63 percent of political independents and 60 percent of Republicans. That’s still lower than 90 percent of Democrats who say Youngkin and Trump are similar.

Six in ten Independents believing that Trump and Youngkin are similar is a positive sign for the Democrats, but a decent number of Independents are supporting Youngkin anyway.

Youngkin tried to have his MAGA sandwich and eat it too. He courted Trump’s support, offered far-Right positions on abortion and vaccine mandates, and kept a steady presence in the MAGA media — including an appearance on Trump apparatchik Seb Gorka’s radio show. He wants to show the Trump base he is one of them and the rest of Virginians that he is different. The vehicle for doing this is relentlessly demagoguing education. As the Washington Post described Youngkin’s campaign:

The Republican stokes up rallies by promising to ban the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept about the history of racism that’s not actually on Virginia’s K-12 curriculum, and by warning that McAuliffe will ignore parental concerns about issues of gender and sexuality.

Based on the polling, at least, this strategy is working. In the Post poll, education is now Virginia voters’ number one concern. Youngkin leads by nine among the voters who named education as their top priority. McAuliffe led them by more than 30 earlier in the race. Attempting to capitalize on this momentum, Youngkin’s campaign recently launched an absurd ad featuring a Trump-supporting mother of a Republican operative complaining that her son was forced to read a book that gave him nightmares. The offending book was Beloved by Toni Morrison.

McAuliffe’s campaign believes Youngkin overplayed his hand and revealed himself to be the book-banning GOP extremist Virginians rejected since the turn of the century. His campaign responded with the below video.

The Stakes

The implications of off-year elections are always dramatically overstated, and they will be again no matter what happens on Tuesday. They are our first chance to look at three big questions that are key to the outcome in 2022:

  1. What happens to the soft Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents that came over to our side to oppose Trump without Trump on the ballot or in the White House?

  2. Can Republicans (not named Trump) generate Trump-like turnout without Trump on the ballot?

  3. Can Democrats make Trump an issue against Republicans who aren’t Trump?

It’s possible the polls are all wrong, and McAuliffe ends up winning by a decent margin. Betting against the polls is a safe bet these days. Based on the partisan lean of the state and reports on the makeup of the early vote thus far, I wouldn’t bet against McAuliffe. However, this race feels closer than it should be, and if that turns out to be correct, all Democrats should take heed.