Why The Virginia Governor’s Race Is So Close


Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Election Day 2021 is only about two weeks away, and the big race to watch is undoubtedly Virginia’s gubernatorial contest. A still-somewhat purple state with a Democratic lean in recent presidential elections, Virginia will be viewed by many as a bellwether for the 2022 midterms, and the race is already proving to be a testing ground for some of the big national issues that could very well influence elections next year, including COVID-19 policies, what should be in taught in schools and the economy. 

Terry McAuliffe, a former governor, aims to regain his old job and continue a 13-election winning streak for Democrats in Virginia statewide races since 2012, while Glenn Youngkin hopes to break that run and deliver a gubernatorial election victory to the GOP for the first time since 2009. And according to FiveThirtyEight’s Virginia polling average, it really is either candidate’s race to win. McAuliffe leads by only a few percentage points, suggesting a close, competitive race that, while somewhat likelier to result in a Democratic victory, could go either way.

In fact, Republicans argue their polling has Youngkin slightly ahead of McAuliffe, as a survey conducted by On Message Inc. on behalf of the Republican Governors Association recently found Youngkin leading by 3 points. The poll also found that Republicans benefited from President Biden’s underwater approval rating, including dissatisfaction toward the president among independent voters. To be sure, campaign polls like this one tend to overstate how well the candidate is performing by 4 to 5 points, but recent public polling does suggest it’s a close race, and those surveys also show that Biden might be a drag on the Democratic ticket. 

A survey conducted Oct. 4-11 by CBS News/YouGov, for instance, found McAuliffe leading among likely voters by 3 points, 50 percent to 47 percent. The poll also found Biden’s approval rating at 48 percent and his disapproval rating at 52 percent in Virginia. Similarly, an Emerson College poll from earlier this month also found Biden’s ratings underwater in the commonwealth, at 45 percent approval versus 48 percent disapproval. That poll also found McAuliffe and Youngkin running neck and neck at 49 percent, the Republican’s best recent public survey

Together, the Virginia numbers echo Biden’s decline in national approval polling and suggest his standing in Virginia has declined meaningfully since his 10-point victory over then-President Donald Trump last November, which has produced an electoral environment that could be friendly enough for the GOP to win the governorship.

And given the narrow margins in the polls, Democrats are concerned, including McAuliffe, who recently told a group of Democrats in a teleconference that the campaign had to “plow through” the “headwinds from Washington” because of the president’s unpopularity in Virginia. On the one hand, McAuliffe was in this situation before and came out on top. He won in 2013 when another Democratic president, Barack Obama, had an approval rating in the mid-40s and Virginia was redder than it is now. (McAuliffe’s 2013 win actually marked the first victory for the president’s party in a Virginia gubernatorial election since 1973). On the other hand, Youngkin may be a more formidable foe than McAuliffe’s 2013 opponent, then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who was easy to portray as a right-wing ideologue and trailed McAuliffe badly in fundraising. By comparison, Youngkin doesn’t have a track record to attack — he’s never held office — and as a former finance executive, he also has a vast amount of personal wealth to spend on the race, which has helped him slightly outpace McAuliffe in overall fundraising.

In terms of the issues, McAuliffe has been hammering Youngkin over his opposition to a COVID-19 vaccine mandate, and that CBS News/YouGov poll suggests this could be a winning issue for the Democrat: 54 percent of likely voters backed Virginia businesses requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for their employees, and more voters (46 percent) thought McAuliffe would handle vaccines better than Youngkin (41 percent). Abortion could also be an important issue for McAuliffe, following the Supreme Court’s decision to allow a restrictive Texas abortion law to go into effect, as almost 60 percent of Virginia voters in both the CBS News/YouGov and Emerson College polls said that abortion should always be legal or legal with some restrictions. The issue could especially motivate the Democratic base, as Democrats across the country are now more likely than Republicans to say the issue is “very important” to them. However, Virginians in the CBS News/YouGov survey thought Youngkin would create more jobs than McAuliffe (45 percent to 41 percent) and do more to reduce violent crime (45 percent to 35 percent). That latter advantage stands out, as Youngkin has tried to portray McAuliffe as incapable of keeping Virginians safe. Additionally, Youngkin has attacked McAuliffe over school curricula and parents’ control of their children’s education, including by seizing on a clip of McAuliffe at a debate in late September where he said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” Emerson College’s poll found 52 percent of voters felt parents should have more influence on school curricula than school boards, compared with 33 percent who prioritized school boards.

Still, the polls could be overselling the GOP’s chances, like they did in 2017 when Republican Ed Gillespie trailed Democrat Ralph Northam by about 3 points going into the election — similar to where Youngkin is now — but ended up losing by 9 points. That’s impossible to say with any certainty, as the direction of polling error is inconsistent from one cycle to the next. But polls that model higher turnout, such as the CBS News/YouGov survey, which found that McAuliffe led Youngkin by 8 points instead of 3 points in a high-turnout situation, suggest Democrats could perform better than expected if pollsters are underestimating turnout. Higher-than-expected turnout might be in play, too, considering the incredibly high levels of participation in recent elections and Virginia’s push in the past couple of years to make voting more accessible. Moreover, Democrats had concerns about turnout in California’s gubernatorial recall election earlier this year, but those worries proved unfounded (although Virginia doesn’t mail a ballot to every voter like California did).

At the same time, it’s probably a mistake to equate 2021 with 2017. Four years ago, Virginia’s gubernatorial contest happened while an unpopular Republican occupied the White House, which helped boost Democrats. Now, a somewhat unpopular Democratic president could help Republicans. Consider that polls suggest that Republicans have a somewhat more energized base: 50 percent of likely Youngkin voters told CBS/YouGov they were “very enthusiastic” to vote, compared to 44 percent of McAuliffe backers, and a Christopher Newport University survey of likely voters conducted in late September and early October also found more Republicans were “very enthusiastic” to vote (61 percent) than Democrats (55 percent). 

Of course, voters can still cast a ballot regardless of how enthusiastic they are, but these findings do align with the expectation that we’ll see some degree of “differential turnout” in the election, or where voters from the party not in the White House are more likely to show up in a non-presidential election than those from the president’s party. Couple this with Youngkin’s advantage among independents — Youngkin led by 6 to 9 points among independents in those polls from CBS News/YouGov, Emerson College and Christopher Newport University — and it could be enough for a Youngkin win.

Historically, Virginia hasn’t been an especially good barometer of the overall national environment, but given how close the race currently is, the media and the parties will probably react strongly to whatever the result is: A Democratic win will be a sign that Democrats aren’t completely up a creek without a paddle in 2022, while a GOP victory will be a loud klaxon signaling a red wave next year. The truth is more complicated, of course, as one election should never be used as a benchmark on its own, but the spotlight will shine brightly on Virginia’s result nevertheless.

Other polling bites

  • According to an AP-NORC poll conducted last month, two-thirds of Americans are “extremely” or “very” concerned about cyber attacks on national security and defense systems. And Americans seem to be most concerned by the threats that China and Russia pose: 73 percent of Americans thought the Chinese government was a big threat to the cybersecurity of the U.S. government, while 72 percent thought the Russian government was a big threat. By contrast, 53 percent said groups not affiliated with a foreign government posed a big threat to the U.S. government’s cybersecurity.
  • Just over a year before the 2022 midterm elections, 45 percent of registered voters say they are “extremely” enthusiastic (26 percent) or “very” enthusiastic (19 percent) to cast their ballots, per a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll. Those who voted for Republican House candidates in the 2018 midterms were slightly more likely to be extremely enthusiastic about voting in 2022 (34 percent) compared to voters who cast their ballots for Democratic House candidates in 2018 (29 percent). This 5-point gap isn’t all that big, but it does line up with research we cited earlier that suggests voters from the party not in the White House are often more motivated to vote in a non-presidential election.
  • Earlier this year, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal documents to the Wall Street Journal that showed Facebook was aware of negative effects it had on users as well as the negative effects of Instagram on teenage girls’ mental health. In congressional testimony this month, Haugen claimed Facebook knew about these harmful effects and did nothing about it. In light of this leak and testimony, 59 percent of Americans said they believed Haugen’s claims were true, per a Leger/The Canadian Press survey, although 24 percent said they hadn’t heard of the leak.
  • School mask mandates continue to be hotly debated between school districts, lawmakers and parents, sometimes resulting in violent altercations. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland directed the FBI and U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to investigate the harassment and threats of violence against school board members and teachers. It’s possible, though, that some Americans view this investigation as government overreach. According to a recent Rasmussen Reports survey, 47 percent of likely voters said they opposed a federal investigation, with 39 percent “strongly” opposed and 8 percent “somewhat” opposed.
  • From Oct. 6 to Oct. 12, an average of 6,659 new COVID-19 patients were admitted to a hospital in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This continued stream of COVID-19 patients has strained hospitals, and there is now a looming shortage of health-care workers in states like Florida, Arkansas, Texas and Alabama. In a Morning Consult poll conducted in early September, 41 percent of health-care workers said shortages of workers within some health-care professions have had a “major” impact on them and their jobs, and a majority of health-care workers (51 percent) said their mental health had worsened since the pandemic spread to the United States. Yet still, 69 percent of health-care workers said they hadn’t considered leaving their job.

Biden Approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 44.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 49.7 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -5.0 points). At this time last week, 44.2 percent approved and 48.3 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -4.1 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 45.9 percent and a disapproval rating of 49.2 percent (a net approval rating of -3.3 points).

Generic Ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead Republicans by 2.9 percentage points (44.4 percent to 41.5 percent, respectively). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 2.8 points (44.7 percent to 41.9 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats over Republicans by 2.5 points (43.8 percent to 41.4 percent).



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