It’s safe to say the quickly congealing conventional wisdom about Glenn Youngkin’s victory in the Virginia gubernatorial contest in November was that the moderate-seeming (albeit Trump-endorsed) Republican won by flipping suburban voters who forsook the Democratic Party out of concerns over public-school closures and “woke” curricula and also Joe Biden’s economic policies.
Back on November 5, I dissented from this judgment, suggesting that disparate turnout patterns, long the curse of Democrats when they control the White House, may have been the real story. But my evidence for this proposition came from exit polls, and some political analysts refuse to put much stock in those.
Now comes some more granular data from political scientists Seth Hill and Dan Hopkins via FiveThirtyEight, and it seems to confirm that poor turnout by Democratic base voters defeated Terry McAuliffe more than ambivalent swing voters. “It was heavily pro-Biden precincts that delivered the governor’s seat to the GOP,” they write. More specifically, analysis of every Virginia precinct shows that McAuliffe underperformed Joe Biden’s 2020 margins by 592,000 in precincts Biden carried with at least 70 percent of the vote, while in those same precincts Youngkin fell short of Trump’s vote by only 124,000 votes. Both candidates had significantly slighter (and more equal) falloff from their presidential-candidate predecessors in more competitive and Trump-dominated precincts; indeed, Youngkin actually got slightly more votes than Trump in precincts the former president carried with at least 70 percent of the vote. This latter data point, however, confirms the general impression that the election was a battle of the bases that Youngkin handily won. And that’s exactly what the exit polls showed.
This is at best cold comfort for Democrats in Virginia and elsewhere who worry about 2021’s lessons for 2022, since off-presidential-year falloff for Democrats could well persist (unless hard-to-turn-out voters, particularly young people, who lean Democratic, are galvanized by subsequent events — like, say, a Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade). But it’s likely that in 2024, disparate turnout patterns will end, and the blue tendencies Virginia has exhibited in the past four presidential election will reemerge.