Why Democrats Have So Many Problems In Virginia

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If the polls are to be believed, Republicans are going to do very well in Virginia given the state’s political base. Traditionally, this portended a strong Republican performance midway through next year. In fact, given that Virginia is bluer than the nation as a whole at the presidential level, a tie in this year’s gubernatorial election would be essentially in line with Republicans winning the National House vote by 5 points in the year. next.

Youngkin won in the polls. He was following McAuliffe, a former governor, by about 5 points two months ago. The Republican closed the gap to 3 points a month ago. Today, Youngkin was 1 point ahead of McAuliffe in a poll average.
To be clear, McAuliffe can still win this race. The election is well within the margin of error. As I noted on Friday, the accuracy of poll averages in the last gubernatorial election is such that a double-digit victory by either candidate actually falls in between. 95% confidence in the results.

Still, the most likely outcome is a narrow margin between McAuliffe and Youngkin. That’s bad for Democrats considering President Joe Biden won the state by 10 points last year.

In the last two presidential elections, Virginia is about 5 points to the left of the nation.

A close result would be – and the poll tightening already is – a sign that the popularity of Biden’s slagging is impacting low-vote Democrats. McAuliffe’s lead faded as Biden went from a positive net approval rating (approve – disapprove) in the state to a net approval rating of -7 on average in October.

A tight result would also signal that Democrats cannot count on former President Donald Trump to bring down Republicans too much. Trump is more unpopular than Biden is in Virginia and nationally. McAuliffe attempted to tie Youngkin to the former president, while Youngkin had to walk a tightrope in distancing himself from Trump while relying on some of his rhetoric to motivate the GOP base.
McAuliffe’s efforts didn’t stop Youngkin from having a chance to win. Trump’s shadow also doesn’t seem to prevent Republicans from having a participating advantage. Normally, Republicans have a turnout advantage in off-year elections with a Democratic president, but some have thought Trump could keep Democrats energized.

Among pollsters who recently provided a result among registered voters, McAuliffe is ahead by 3 points on average. That’s 4 points less for the Democrat than among the likely voters (a 1 point lead for Youngkin).

Still, that shouldn’t be too surprising as Biden is the incumbent, even though Trump is more present than usual for a former president.

It also shouldn’t be too remarkable that Biden is unpopular. Looking at the three Virginia gubernatorial elections since 2009 (that is, since exit polls were routinely conducted for Virginia’s off-year election), the president’s clear approval among voters in the Virginia’s governorship was worse than its margin in the previous presidential election.

An unfortunate sign for Democrats, this presidential unpopularity resulted in his party losing seats in the US legislative elections the following year (2010, 2014 and 2018).

More potentially bad news for Democrats: We know from all gubernatorial elections (not just Virginia) that zero-incumbent ones can tell us a lot about the national political environment. In the median cycle since 2002, how much a party surpasses the partisan baseline (based on presidential results) in the average incumbent governor race differed by less than 2 points from the National House vote.

Looking towards the House of Delegates

Of course, the race for governor in Virginia is just a race. It’s best to watch a series of elections, if we can, to understand if the results mean broader trends.

Luckily for political analysts, we can look at the 100 state House of Delegates races up for grabs on Tuesday.

Specifically, check the difference between the statewide aggregate delegate voting margin in 2013 and 2017 compared to the presidential election margin of the previous year. It turns out that this shift correlates well with the shift in the margin from the presidential vote nationwide to the National Chamber vote during the mid-terms of next year.

The 2013 example is particularly noteworthy because McAuliffe won that year, even as Democrats would suffer heavy losses the following year in the United States House. McAuliffe’s victory this round had more to do with his unpopular GOP opponent (Ken Cuccinelli) than the national environment.

Democrats and Republicans were tied on the generic House of Delegates ballot in the October average ballot. If that holds true in this week’s election, it would be quite a turnaround from 2017, when Democrats won the aggregate House of Delegates by almost 10 points.

In other words, the poll of governors does not seem an outlier in any way. Rather, it reflects a real change in mood among voters in Virginia.

And that’s what matters to those interested in what Virginia’s result portends nationally. While the winners and losers will certainly matter to residents of Virginia, the poll will have to be unfavorable enough for the result to suggest a good environment for Democrats nationwide.

This means Democrats will likely have to hope for a major shift in political winds over the next year to have a real chance of retaining the House of Representatives in 2022.


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