Five Questions About Virginia’s Tight Gubernatorial Race

Breaking down 2021’s marquee race with less than 3 weeks to go

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The Editors

KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— In the closely-watched Virginia gubernatorial race, Glenn Youngkin (R) is keeping it close with Terry McAuliffe (D), in part because he now enjoys some of the advantages that Democrats enjoyed in Virginia during Donald Trump’s presidency.

— Though the McAuliffe campaign has worked relentlessly to tie Youngkin to Trump, an unpopular figure in the commonwealth who has endorsed Youngkin several times, President Biden’s weakened approval ratings weigh on Democrats. Congressional Democrats’ lack of action on big-item legislation, specifically on infrastructure and social spending, also seems to be dampening enthusiasm among their rank-and-file voters.

— The down-ballot races will probably be linked closely with the top of the ticket, with the state House of Delegates up for grabs in addition to the other statewide offices.

— While early voting is down a good deal compared to last year’s presidential race, as expected, it is hard to draw firm conclusions from these totals because the lion’s share of Virginians have traditionally voted on Election Day, aside from last year during the pandemic.

What to watch in Virginia

With less than 3 weeks to go before Virginia’s nationally-watched gubernatorial election, we couldn’t blame anyone for getting flashbacks to the last gubernatorial race in the Old Dominion 4 years ago. Polls, in aggregate, were close, and there were real questions about whether Ed Gillespie, the GOP nominee, was having success against Ralph Northam (D) on issues like crime. We favored Northam in that race the whole time, though we were not supremely confident about it, and the internal polling we had heard about ranged from something like a tie to a modest Northam lead. As it was, Northam won by 9, beating expectations.

Those who favor former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in this year’s race over former investment firm executive Glenn Youngkin (R) couldn’t be blamed for believing history will repeat. Virginia is at least a blue-ish state now, as seen last year with President Biden’s 10-point win in the state. Last month’s recall election in California may also give Democrats reason for optimism, as polls underestimated Gov. Gavin Newsom’s (D-CA) standing. If in fact McAuliffe beats the polls, Virginia’s new core partisanship — not nearly as blue as California, but blue enough — will be confirmed.

That said, the comparison to 2017 may very well be off, particularly because some of the big-picture factors that favored Northam, the Democrat in that race, are now working in favor of Youngkin, the Republican in this one.

With that in mind, here are 5 questions about the Virginia race that we’re pondering:

1. Why is it close?

Part of the reason that Northam seemed favored the whole time in 2017 was that the history of Virginia’s odd-numbered-year elections and the overall political environment were both on his side. As we have documented, the Virginia governorship is often won by the party that does not hold the White House, and the non-presidential party has consistently performed better in this race than it did in Virginia in the previous year’s presidential election. The sitting president, Donald Trump, was unpopular — his average national approval rating was 38% approve/57% disapprove in the FiveThirtyEight average on the day of the 2017 election, and the Virginia exit poll showed his approval among the electorate at a very similar 40% approve/57% disapprove split.

This time, though, McAuliffe carries the burden of being the presidential party candidate — just as he did in 2013. As such, it would be very surprising if he matched Joe Biden (+10 in 2020) or even Northam (+9), based on history, although McAuliffe only ran about 1.5 points behind Barack Obama’s 2012 showing in his victory over then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). That was the first time since the 1970s that the presidential party won the governorship.

In 2013, McAuliffe also had to deal with a slumping president that shared his party label: Obama’s approval rating in the 2013 Virginia exit poll was 46% approve/53% disapprove — a reversal of the 51%-47% margin that he carried the state by a year earlier. That approval spread was not good, but it was not as poor as Trump’s 4 years ago. Biden’s approval has weakened nationally, to the point where his approval in the FiveThirtyEight average is roughly 45% approve/50% disapprove. His standing in Virginia may be better than his national standing, but likely not much better. McAuliffe himself identified Biden’s unpopularity as a problem for his campaign.

McAuliffe likely was hurt in the closing stretch of the 2013 campaign when problems with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act replaced a GOP-led government shutdown as the top story in Washington. In the final weeks of another campaign, McAuliffe may be hurt by events in the nation’s capital once again, this time by the endless and, to many, incomprehensible Democratic internal squabble over passing both a bipartisan infrastructure package and a Democrats-only social spending package. When asked about Congress at a debate a few weeks ago, McAuliffe summed up, “I’m sick and tired of all of them.” Though he may have been tapping into a common frustration with voters there, McAuliffe would love to have some legislative success he could point to from across the Potomac, but the hour grows late.

Eight years ago, McAuliffe had a significant advantage over Cuccinelli in terms of ad spending. Youngkin and McAuliffe have been at roughly even parity on the airwaves in recent weeks, and Youngkin went up on the air earlier in the race. Youngkin doesn’t come off as conservative as Cuccinelli, who had built a reputation as a hardline immigration hawk and strong social conservative. Youngkin has done at least a passable job of straddling the various wings of the Republican Party, giving clear nods to the Trumpier wing by talking about so-called “election integrity” while emphasizing less hot-button issues in his advertising, like repealing a state grocery tax. This has made it harder for McAuliffe to truly tie Youngkin to former President Trump, particularly because Youngkin just doesn’t sound or act much like Trump in public. The former president and many of his supporters give off talk radio-host vibes; Youngkin is more of a Mitt Romney/Paul Ryan-style Republican in terms of his demeanor, though Youngkin did say that Trump “represents so much of why I’m running,” audio that McAuliffe has used extensively in his own messaging.

In other words, McAuliffe faces the same kind of hurdles he faced in 2013, when he won, but only by a modest 2.5-point margin. He also faces a stronger opponent than he did in 2013. On the other hand, McAuliffe now has the asset of already serving a term as governor, experience that Youngkin cannot match.

2. Is Virginia too blue for Youngkin? 

While Republicans have been losing statewide races in the Old Dominion for the last 12 years, the state may not be entirely out of reach for them, if enough factors fall into place.

Though Gillespie lost by a surprisingly wide 9% margin to Northam in 2017, he still received more raw votes than any previous Republican gubernatorial nominee. Northam was no doubt aided by Democrats who were eager to vote against then-President Trump’s party, especially in Northern Virginia — in Loudoun County, scenes from Dulles International Airport in the wake of Trump’s travel ban became national news. Without a foil in the sitting president, could Democratic enthusiasm lag? In other words, if Youngkin can hold Gillespie’s voters but McAuliffe can’t inspire the type of turnout that benefited Northam, the contest could get close in a hurry.

Additionally, polling generally indicates that Youngkin performs better with independents than McAuliffe. This dovetails with a broader trend in Biden’s sagging approval (his numbers are weak with independents overall). However, while winning independents is obviously preferable to losing them, Democrats can afford to win statewide without them: if exit polls are to be believed, McAuliffe lost independents by 9 points in 2013, and, more recently, even Northam lost self-identified independents by 3 points in 2017.

One of the biggest reasons why Democrats did so well in the Trump era in Virginia was because of their gains with college-educated white suburbanites — this is something we have mentioned often. But, in sorting through recent election returns, there’s enough evidence to suggest that many of these voters are not straight ticket Democrats yet, and may be open to a “different” (read non-Trump) type of Republican. It seems hard to believe now, but the last time McAuliffe won, he lost VA-10 — this Northern Virginia congressional district, which Biden carried by about 20 points last year, has been something of a poster child for Democrats’ gains in suburbia. Without Trump in office, will the area be as reliable for Democrats? Though McAuliffe doesn’t need a Biden-style margin there, he will probably need to win the district by at least high-single digits.

Since the Obama era, Democratic performance has dipped in some minority-heavy pockets of the state, especially in rural Southside. While Democrats’ gains with suburban whites have helped to wallpaper over this trend over the past few cycles, Black voters are still the heart of the Democratic coalition — if there is any pro-GOP reversion with the former, the decline with the latter will be more obvious. Caroline County, a mostly rural county which sits between the Richmond and Washington, D.C. metros, may be a place to watch. Just over 30% Black by composition, McAuliffe carried it 49%-43% in 2013, but Northam came up just 9 votes short there. It seems poised to vote for Youngkin, but the margin could be telling. More broadly, Northam did worse than McAuliffe in 2013 in many smaller rural areas in western and central Virginia. This year, McAuliffe could easily run behind Northam in those places too. Individually, these are small counties, but they do add up, particularly if the more populous areas aren’t as strong for Democrats.

The bottom line here is that Virginia has gotten bluer in aggregate since McAuliffe’s last election in 2013, but perhaps not so blue that Youngkin can’t win.

3. What issues actually matter?

McAuliffe is in a somewhat unique situation, given the state’s single consecutive term rule: he’s a candidate running with previous gubernatorial experience. No governor has successfully attempted a comeback since Mills Godwin — in 1965, he became the last Democratic governor elected with the support of the then-declining Byrd Machine, then won again in 1973 as a Republican. As Virginia recovers from the pandemic, McAuliffe has argued that his experience with the levers of power would provide a needed measure of stability in government. He has also pointed to a record of working with “reasonable Republicans” to get results during his tenure (as governor, he had a GOP legislature).

McAuliffe has embraced vaccine mandates — on his website, he has amended the state’s slogan to “Virginia is for Vaccine Lovers” — and has broadly supported the measures that Northam has put into place during the pandemic. While McAuliffe’s support for vaccines could play well in the state’s suburbs, some heavily non-white rural areas been comparatively less enthusiastic about getting their shots — some urban localities, like Richmond and Norfolk, also fall into this category. Youngkin, who must both hold onto Trump supporters and appeal to enough swing voters, has taken a more nuanced position on vaccines: while he personally encourages Virginians to get vaccinated, he emphasizes that it should ultimately be an individual choice.

Opposition to Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools has long been an issue the Youngkin campaign has stressed. While this may be an issue that fires up Republican partisans, polling from earlier this year showed that large swaths of the American public were unfamiliar with CRT. More recently, though, Youngkin found something less abstract to run with. When education came up at the final gubernatorial debate last month, McAuliffe defended his decision to veto a bill that would have notified parents when their children were assigned certain books, although his phrasing was not artful: “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Youngkin has featured this soundbite in his ads, and Republicans clearly believe they have struck gold on this McAuliffe comment.

Abortion, especially since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to stop a strict Texas law from going into effect, has become an issue. Polling suggests that a majority of Virginians want abortion to be legal in all or most cases. While McAuliffe has made no secret of his support for abortion rights, Youngkin identifies as pro-life, but has not always been eager to discuss his stance. In 1989, then-Lt. Gov. Doug Wilder, as the Democratic nominee, made support for abortion rights a centerpiece of his campaign against Republican nominee J. Marshall Coleman, a former state attorney general. Coleman’s campaign conceded right before the election that the issue hurt them — a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier that year had given states greater ability to regulate abortion rights, which raised the salience of the issue, just like the Texas law may be raising the salience of abortion now. Abortion likely was an important factor in Wilder’s very narrow win that year.

One other thing: though Youngkin has tried to paint Democrats as weak on crime, he has done so with more finesse and, to our eyes, more effectiveness, than Ed Gillespie, the GOP’s nominee four years ago.

4. What about the other races?

As both McAuliffe and Youngkin have noted, they are not just running for governor — they are leading their respective party’s tickets. Aside from the governor, Virginians will elect the lieutenant governor and attorney general, while the entire 100-member House of Delegates will be up next month (the state Senate is elected in odd years before presidential years).

Despite their rather unorthodox “unassembled convention” earlier this year, Republicans emerged with a ticket that seemed to satisfy many in the party. Through ranked-choice voting, they nominated former Del. Winsome Sears, a Black woman and Marine Corps veteran, for lieutenant governor, and current Del. Jason Miyares, for attorney general. All three GOP statewide nominees have some connection to Hampton Roads: Youngkin spent part of his youth there, while Sears and Miyares were elected to districts in the region. Virginia Beach, a vote-rich Hampton Roads locality that flipped from Trump to Biden, is the state’s largest independent city and is probably a must-win for Republicans.

In a competitive June primary, Democrats nominated Del. Hala Ayala, who hails from Prince William County. Ayala, a cybersecurity specialist, was first elected in 2017, as part of a blue wave in the House — that year, Democrats cut the GOP majority in the chamber from 66-34 to a bare 51-49. Ayala defeated a Republican incumbent 53%-47% and expanded that margin in a 2019 rematch.

With a base in Loudoun County, incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring (D) is seeking a third term. He first won his job in 2013: His razor-thin victory completed the Democrats’ sweep of the three state offices. After a comfortable reelection in 2017, he turned back a primary challenge earlier this year from Norfolk-area Del. Jay Jones. Herring found himself part of Northam’s “blackface” scandal, as the attorney general sheepishly admitted to wearing blackface to dress up as a rapper when he was 19.

Since 2009, one party has taken all three statewide offices — although as Herring’s 2013 result showed, just barely — and with ticket-splitting on the decline, that trend could easily hold next month. Last week, polling from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center gave all three Democrats leads ranging from 4 to 6 points. Perhaps Herring might get a tiny boost from his incumbency, which could matter if all the margins are very thin.

Still, this isn’t to say that a split verdict will be impossible: if the gubernatorial topline is close enough, just 1 percentage point of divergence down the ballot could be decisive. In 2017, Northam, who won by 9 points, ran ahead of the other two statewide Democrats, as well as most Democratic nominees in competitive House of Delegates races — as Ayala flipped HD-51 by 6 points, for example, Northam carried it by double-digits.

Though the Democrats are going into the election with a 55-45 edge in the House of Delegates, the consensus seems to be that the GOP could win back control on a good enough night. In September, CNalysis, a site that tracks legislative races across the country, moved the chamber into the Toss-up category. Last week, our friends at Elections Daily posted a useful rundown of some key contests. While the Democrats have a few offensive opportunities, they will be mostly defending their gains from the past few cycles.

Because the 2020 census data was delivered so late, Virginia did not have a chance to redistrict — so elections will be held using the same map that was in place in 2019 (it had been modified by the courts and made more Democratic in advance of that election). It is possible that Virginia will have to have another set of House elections next year on the new map, followed by a regular set of elections in 2023. Election analyst Ryan Brune estimates that the median districts in the chamber voted for Biden by roughly the same amount as he won statewide.

5. Does early voting tell us anything?

Voters are already voting in Virginia, although only a relative sliver of the total likely vote has been cast.

According to Virginia Department of Elections data aggregated by the Virginia Public Access Project, a little under 320,000 votes have been cast so far in the race, either early in-person or by mail.

Virginia had 5,945,556 registered voters as of Oct. 1. Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that turnout of registered voters in this election ends up being about 45.3% — the average of turnout in the past two gubernatorial elections (47.6% in 2017, and 43.0% in 2013). That would mean a turnout of about 2.7 million voters, which would be a little more than 2017 in terms of raw votes cast (but the turnout would be lower because there are more registered voters than there were 4 years ago). Just to be clear, this is only a guess as a way to illustrate what may be going on with the early vote — turnout may end up much different than this back-of-the-envelope estimate.

Anyway, if the total number of votes cast ends up being about 2.7 million, then only a little over 10% of the total votes have been cast so far. So the early voting pace is markedly slower than last year: John Couvillon, a Republican pollster and analyst, has been tracking the votes cast in advance of the election this year and comparing the pace to last year; according to his numbers, a little more than 20% of 2020’s total votes had already been cast at this point of the election. So that’s a bigger share at this time of the race, even taking into account the much lower overall turnout one would expect in a gubernatorial versus last year’s blockbuster presidential race (Virginia cast a little under 4.5 million votes for president last year).

We find it difficult to contextualize the early voting numbers in large part because, prior to 2020, only a tiny share of Virginia’s votes were cast either early in-person or mail-in. For instance, just about 7% of the votes cast in the 2017 gubernatorial election were early/mail.

This was in large part because it was not easy to vote before Election Day (a voter needed an excuse to do so). The Democratic-controlled state legislature removed this requirement in early 2020: legal changes paired with the pandemic caused the share of votes cast early to skyrocket for last year’s presidential election: Roughly 60% of all votes cast were early in-person or mail-in. Joe Biden won that early/mail vote by a lopsided 65%-34% margin, while losing Election Day 62%-36%, per Couvillon. The vote cast so far is unsurprisingly Democratic leaning, per a recent CBS News/YouGov poll and other sources, but it’s not yet that big of a share of the total vote we’d roughly expect to be cast.

So the early/mail vote share has already surpassed all of 2017, when early/mail-in voting was much harder to do in Virginia, but the pace is likely behind 2020 at a comparable point of the election. Given a trend toward Democrats preferring to vote early and Republicans preferring to vote in-person, one could see this as alarming for Democrats — and it may indeed represent a lack of Democratic enthusiasm in the post-Trump era. On the other hand, Virginia has such little tradition of early/mail voting — and voters may be more comfortable voting in-person despite the pandemic compared to a year ago — that it’s possible many voters from both parties are just going to vote on Election Day even if they voted early a year ago.

We’ll continue to monitor the early/mail-in voting numbers — data junkies need their fix, after all — but we don’t know if it’ll tell us all that much. Most of the polling indicates that McAuliffe benefits from a larger electorate, so he will want a brisker early voting pace in all likelihood. He is bringing in some heavy hitters on the Democratic side — former President Barack Obama, First Lady Jill Biden, and former Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams — over the next week and a half to campaign on his behalf. He has also indicated that Biden will be campaigning for him before the end of the campaign, despite the president’s dip in popularity. Meanwhile, polling also generally indicates that Youngkin’s voters have an enthusiasm edge, which leaves open the possibility of Republicans swamping Democrats on Election Day, and giving Youngkin the ability to overcome whatever edge Democrats build in the early vote.