Off-year gubernatorial elections like those recently held in California, New Jersey, and Virginia are typically overinterpreted and have an outsize impact on how parties approach the upcoming midterms. For example, the big Democratic sweep in Virginia in 2017 was thought to have exemplified a blue suburban trend that would carry over into 2018, produce a big Democratic landslide in 2020, and keep the commonwealth blue for the foreseeable future.
That was partially right. Democrats’ 2017 success did indeed carry over to the next midterm and the next presidential election. But precisely because Democrats luck reversed in 2021 against all early expectations, with Republican Glenn Youngkin beating Democrat Terry McAuliffe, the Old Dominion is again being treated as a bellwether.
Though the best data on the race from voter files and Census information won’t be available for months, the conventional wisdom on what led to the Republicans’ victories across the state is already solidifying. So it’s important to take a look at whether the preliminary information we do have supports those conclusions. Right now, that means looking at exit polls, though (a) they are invariably flawed and (b) may represent a bit of an apples-and-oranges comparison given recent increases in early voting, which require regular phone polling to assess rather than the on-site post-voting interviews.
With these caveats, here are some takeaways from the Virginia race that appear to be justified.
As always, some takes on what happened are just spin
You can generally ignore any analysis that includes the words Virginians decided this or that. A bit over 3.2 million Virginians voted in this election — out of 5.9 million registered voters — with some final mail ballots still trickling in. Glenn Youngkin’s lead over Terry McAuliffe is about 80,000 votes. That’s significant, particularly given the comfortable Democratic Virginia wins in 2017 and 2020, but it’s not as though the entire commonwealth left one camp and entered the other.
Similarly, anyone who claims Virginia voters were sending some clear message to Washington — you know, “Joe Biden is too socialistic” or “Democrats need to scale down the Build Back Better legislation” — is almost certainly spinning the results to support some preconceived opinion. There is no question that partisan polarization has made state and local election results reflect national trends more than at any time in living memory, and Virginia’s proximity to Washington, D.C., may increase that tendency, particularly in portions of the state in the D.C. media market. But it’s not like Virginia voters went to the polls in order to micromanage the two national parties’ messages and strategies. They had their own fish to fry.
Youngkin didn’t really win by flipping the NoVa suburbs
Preelection analysis heavily emphasized the battle for the vote-heavy Northern Virginia suburbs, in part because college-educated white suburban voters were thought to be the key to recent Democratic success, and in part because Youngkin lived in NoVa and campaigned there heavily. He did improve on Ed Gillespie’s 2017 performance by roughly five points in NoVa (which represented 28 percent of the vote in 2017 and 29 percent in 2021), but the region did not disproportionately contribute to a six-point improvement on Gillespie’s vote percentage statewide. In fact, Youngkin’s percentage advantage over Gillespie was quite even across all the state’s regions with the exception of Hampton Roads, where he did nine points better.
As for the idea that Youngkin “flipped” college-educated white voters statewide: It seems he actually trailed Ed Gillespie’s losing performance in this category (Youngkin won 47 percent of these voters, while Gillespie won 48 percent).
There were unquestionably turnout patterns that benefitted Youngkin
The early Election Night impression of most observers was that turnout was up pretty much everywhere, and indeed, total turnout was 55 percent of registered voters, up from 48 percent four years ago (though not, of course, anything like the 72 percent turnout in the presidential year of 2020).
But as Ron Brownstein pointed out, the turnout jump was not uniform in size or shape, and thus the electorate skewed red as compared to both 2017 and 2020:
Compared with the 2017 governor’s race, or the 2020 presidential contest in the state, the electorate Tuesday was older, whiter, less college-educated, and more Republican, the exit polls found. Census figures show that voters of color have increased as a share of the state’s eligible voter population since 2017, but in the exit polls nonwhite voters plummeted from about one-third of the electorate in both 2020 and 2017 to only a little over one-fourth this year. Voters under 30 fell from 20 percent of the vote in 2020 and 14 percent in 2017 to just 10 percent Tuesday. College graduates shrank from nearly three-in-five voters in 2017 to just under half. And although Democrats outnumbered Republicans by 11 percentage points in the 2017 electorate, the exit polls found that GOP voters almost exactly equaled them this year.
There are other indicators that the shape of the electorate this year was friendlier to any Republican who might have been on the ballot. The Black percentage of the electorate was 20 percent in 2017. In 2021 it was 16 percent. Self-identified conservatives represented 31 percent of the vote in 2017 and 36 percent in 2021. Perhaps most tellingly, white voters without a college degree were 26 percent of the electorate in 2017 and 36 percent in 2021 (white college graduates dropped from 41 percent in 2017 to 37 percent in 2021).
Youngkin’s improved vote share was often among Republican-leaning groups, not “swing voters”
Gillespie won 79 percent of self-identified evangelical or “born-again” voters in 2017. Youngkin (himself conspicuously a conservative believer) boosted that percentage to an amazing 89 percent. He beat Gillespie’s already high percentage among gun owners by 6 percent. And among the slightly diminished majority of Virginia voters who want Confederate monuments (which are abundant in the former capital of the Confederacy) to stay in place, Youngkin won 82 percent as opposed to Gillespie’s 71 percent.
Perhaps the most remarkable Youngkin surge was among non-college-educated white women, who gave Ed Gillespie 67 percent of their votes in 2017. That Republican percentage increased to 74 percent in 2021, even as the percentage of the electorate composed of white working-class women increased from 11 percent to 19 percent.
Some anecdotal Youngkin advantages may have been illusory
Youngkin and his campaign put a lot of emphasis on parental rights in education, and without question the biggest McAuliffe gaffe in the campaign was his debate comment (real, if taken out of context) that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.”
Curiously, though, the exit polls show Youngkin not doing much better among voters with school-age kids than among other voters. This may indicate that all the Republican-generated controversy over critical race theory was a general-purpose culture war topic rather than a wedge issue with parents who might otherwise vote Democratic in particular.
There’s already a take circulating that blames “Karens” (usually thought of as a reference to privileged white women) for Youngkin’s victory. While, as noted above, white non-college-educated white women did indeed go heavily for Youngkin, he actually lost ground compared to Gillespie among college-educated white women.
Some Youngkin numbers in the exit polls are frankly mysterious, perhaps reflecting a sampling error or just a little-understood trend. For example, the 2021 Republican candidate won 45 percent of voters under the age of 30, a 15-point improvement over Gillespie. Since that category significantly declined as a percentage of the electorate (from 14 to 10 percent), this could reflect differential turnout within a demographic category (i.e., conservative under-30 voters turning out more than their progressive peers), or, more ominously for Democrats, a rightward turn among Gen Z as opposed to millennial voters.
Both parties have their work cut out for them in 2022 and beyond
To the extent that the differential turnout patterns mattered most in the 2021 contest, a lot depends on how the size and shape of the electorate changes between now and 2022. In the last two midterms, total turnout varied vastly from 37 percent in 2014 to 54 percent in 2018. Given the voting reforms Democrats introduced recently to make voting easier in the commonwealth, turnout is unlikely to fall to anything like 2014 levels, but this year showed that high turnout doesn’t necessarily give Democrats an advantage either. Clearly Democrats in Virginia (and everywhere else) need Joe Biden’s job-approval ratings to improve between now and 2022, while low-propensity Democratic voters (particularly Black and young voters) need to be more strongly encouraged to show up at the polls. Progressives will tell you Terry McAuliffe was not the ideal energizer for Democratic constituencies, just as conservatives will tell you Youngkin hit the sweet-spot combination of MAGA, money, and old-school reactionary politics.
As for 2024, it’s worth remembering that presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama were reelected after poor showings by their party in off-year gubernatorial elections and terrible midterms. For all the GOP gloating right now, they are going to have to work hard to flip the White House in 2024, particularly if the 45th president, who didn’t show much strength in Virginia in 2016 or 2020, is once again at the head of the ticket.