Why Northam’s Win in Virginia Was So Impressive

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Ralph Northam, Virginia’s next governor. Photo: The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Despite a late scare when the polls were all over the place and a bipartisan obsession with turnout made voter persuasion seem irrelevant, Democrat Ralph Northam handily defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in the Virginia governor’s election by turning out his “base” and also doing very well in suburban counties in both Northern Virginia and the Richmond area. The New York Times estimates the final margin will be 54/45, far above Northam’s 3.3 percent lead in the pre-election RealClearPolitics polling average. Democrats shared their gubernatorial candidate’s win, electing (by narrower margins than Northam’s) Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring, and making major gains in the Republican-controlled Virginia House.

Team Northam’s turnout operation seems to have done its job, with voting up across much of Northern Virginia despite terrible weather (though higher early voting also contributed to the results). African-Americans were a steady 20 percent of the electorate, nearly as high as in last year’s presidential election. And Latino and Asian voting was notably higher:

But Northam’s margins among white and suburban voters really stand out. If exit polls are accurate, he carried 42 percent of the white vote, which is well above the percentage won in Virginia by Hillary Clinton in 2016 (35 percent), Mark Warner in 2014 (37 percent), Terry McAuliffe in 2013 (36 percent), and Barack Obama in either 2008 (39 percent) or 2012 (37 percent).

Northam’s performance in key suburban jurisdictions was equally impressive. In his narrow 2014 Senate loss to Mark Warner, Ed Gillespie won Northern Virginia swing jurisdiction Loudon County; Northam won it 60/39 today. Gillespie only lost another key NoVa suburb, Prince William County, to Warner by 3 percent; he lost it to Northam by 23 points. In the state’s largest county, the NoVa suburb of Fairfax, Northam won 67/31; even Hillary Clinton, who did very well in Fairfax, only won 65 percent there.

And the Democrat’s suburban wins weren’t limited to Northern Virginia. One of the state’s classic Republican-leaning suburbs is Chesterfield County, south of Richmond. Gillespie won it by 9 percent against Warner, and Donald Trump carried it by two points in 2016. The candidates basically tied there today. In another suburban Richmond County, Henrico, Northam ran two points ahead of Hillary Clinton, eight points ahead of Terry McAuliffe in 2013, and five points ahead of Mark Warner.

More predictably, Northam did well in his native Tidewater region, and Gillespie’s equally predictable margins in Western, West-Central, and Southside Virginia weren’t enough to overcome his suburban shortfalls.

Who were these suburban Northam voters? According to the exit polls, he actually won white college graduates by a 51/48 margin. Hillary Clinton’s statewide win in 2016 was attributed heavily to her success in winning 45 percent of college-educated white voters. Northam lost non-college-educated whites by a stunning 72/26 margin, basically the same shellacking Clinton took from these voters.

One would be tempted to guess Northam won a good number of anti-Trump Republicans. But the exits suggest he won only 4 percent of self-identified members of the GOP. What seems to have mattered more is that self-identified Democrats were 41 percent of the electorate, as opposed to only 31 percent who were Republicans. That is a testament to the Democratic voter targeting and turnout operation, and possibly an indication that Republicans are losing a significant number of Virginia’s white suburban voters altogether.

In terms of the dynamics of the campaign, it is reasonably clear that Gillespie’s investment in racially tinged culture-war messages did not significantly improve his performance in his “base” areas, and clearly cost him in the suburbs, where an Establishment Republican like him (who actually lives in Fairfax County) would have been expected to do well.

The president’s Twitter reaction to the results suggested that Gillespie lost because he didn’t wear a MAGA hat or explicitly appeal to Trump voters:

Actually, Gillespie’s support pretty closely tracked the president’s 2016 proposal in heavily pro-Trump jurisdictions like Augusta County (Trump, 71 percent; Gillespie, 73 percent) or Campbell County (Trump, 71 percent; Gillespie, 74 percent).

In general, it appears Northam took Hillary Clinton’s advantages over Donald Trump and intensified them. That this happened in a non-presidential year where low turnout typically helps Republicans is a very good sign for the Donkey Party going forward.

Why Northam’s Win in Virginia Was So Impressive