Virginia Gubernatorial Election Autopsy

As this article is written (Nov 8), the 2021 election day is just over a week in the past. Though off-year elections are generally fewer in number and far less significant, they can be viewed, along with special elections, as potential harbingers of the outcome of the midterm elections. 

Virginia’s gubernatorial race, in particular, is a traditional must-watch race as the unceasing political horse race chronicle turns its attention towards 2022. The party in the White House has won Virginia’s gubernatorial mansion only once out of the state’s last 11 gubernatorial election cycles, a pattern consistent with the general losses suffered in midterm elections by the incumbent president’s party. 

A closer examination of the data shows that Virginia’s gubernatorial race can serve as a moderately accurate predictor of the forthcoming midterm election. In six of the last eight elections, the party that won Virginia’s gubernatorial mansion went on to win the popular vote in the midterms as well, as shown in the table below:

Note: For each year listed, the outcomes of that year’s Virginia gubernatorial election and the following year’s midterm elections are provided. (e.g., 2018 for 2017). For shading purposes, Democratic margins are shown as negatives, while Republicans are shown as positive. The midterm election margin given is derived from the national ‘generic ballot’ – that is, the aggregate popular vote proportions for each party. All data was taken from state and federal records. The R-D margin for the 2021 Virginia race continues to change as mail-in and absentee ballots are counted. 

The notable exception to this rule occurred in 2013 when the Democrats lost in the midterms despite taking back the governor’s mansion. This was largely due to a spoiler candidate, Libertarian attorney Robert Sarvis, who took 6.5% of the vote, generally at the expense of the Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli, per polling.

Democrats ran their winning candidate from that 2013 race, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, while Republicans put forth former Carlyle Group CEO Glenn Youngkin. 

The result was a roughly two-point victory (the exact margin is subject to change as ballots are counted) for the Republican, returning to the pattern of the presidential opposition party seizing the governor’s office. 

Though this historical pattern is one explanation for Youngkin’s victory, a deeper dive into the data reveals a few other causes, as well as potential indicators for future elections for both parties.

The first notable cause of this upset victory is the enthusiasm gap between the parties. Republicans gapped Democrats in extreme enthusiasm for voting, leading this metric by 49% to 32%, per a Roanoke University poll taken roughly a week before the election. Enthusiasm is a key indicator of how well a party performs in any given election – in the past six presidential elections, four, including the one in 2020, have been won by the party with more enthusiasm about voting, per Gallup. Republicans were more excited to vote and thus turned out in droves to deliver a Youngkin victory. 

This enthusiasm was itself likely a product of the other reasons Democrats struggled in the state this season. Democrats may have been less enthusiastic due to the unpopularity of incumbent President Joe Biden, whose net approval rating (approval minus disapproval) sits at -8.5 points at this piece’s writing. Indeed, Youngkin won voters who disapprove of Biden by 80 points according to exit polling, an enormous margin for such a large group of people. 

Other issues that contribute to Biden’s disapproval struggles likely contributed to the Democrats’ washout in Virginia as well. Economic troubles were the primary issue for 48% of voters, split into 33% mentioning the economy/job market as their first concern at the ballot box, and with 15% specifying taxation. McAuliffe and Democrats lost these two groups by 11 and 36 points respectively, per Washington Post exit polling.

Democrats were likely hampered in this department by a somewhat deserved anti-incumbency bias as the party fumbled on sweeping economic reform legislation on the federal level for weeks on end. That stagnancy likely cost the party in Virginia, much as it has cost the economy and Biden’s approval rating.

Interestingly enough, the coronavirus pandemic was only the foremost issue for 15% of Virginian voters, despite the fact that the state recorded nearly 8,800 confirmed cases last week, with a test-positivity rate of 7.64%. Democrats won this voting group by 68 points, making one wonder whether the Democrats would have performed better if the pandemic had been more severe around election day. 

Finally, there was one issue particularly endemic to Virginia that may have turned the election to an extent. Critical race theory, a long-existing framework for examining institutional racism and white supremacy, has been consistently derided as of late by Republicans nationwide, with Virginia being no exception; conservatives, including Youngkin, bashed it being taught in Virginia schools, despite this being factually inaccurate. 

Voters were receptive to it nonetheless, particularly white ones, as shown by Slate. Though a Vox analysis calls into question exactly how strongly this issue affected the election, 24% of voters surveyed by the Washington Post listed education as their most important issue, and these voters broke 53-47 in favor of Youngkin/Republicans.

Altogether, Democrats lost in Virginia due to an anti-incumbency bias amplified by an unpopular administration with a middling economy, resulting in an enthusiasm gap in favor of Republicans, who were also buoyed by historical trends in the state and effective, albeit largely fallacious, messaging on education and critical race theory.

Now that this has been determined, two questions remain (and will only be partially answered here): What does this mean for the future, and what can/should Democrats do about it? 

The answer to the first is that the immediate future for the party is grim. After a shockingly close race in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race, plus eyebrow-raising losses in San Antonio and Long Island, the party appears to be in trouble for the coming midterms if the former elections are any indicator (and history tells us they likely are). 

By combining data collected by the Brookings Institute with federal data, it is clear that the incumbent party struggles in midterm elections. If the general voting trend (roughly R +6.5) is extrapolated from the 2021 election results in Virginia and New Jersey, the picture is rather morbid for Democrats:

 Notes: The national polling environment statistic here refers to the standing of the incumbent president’s party on the generic ballot. For example, in 2018, Republicans polled 8.6 points behind Democrats, hence the “-8.6”. Incumbent House and Senate changes refer to the changes in the number of seats held by the incumbent president’s party in each chamber of Congress. 

There are reasons for Democratic hope, however. The election is still far away, and plenty can happen in 12 months; the 2002 election was favorable to Republicans largely because of the national unity following the September 11 attacks and subsequent initiation of the War on Terror. Before this, Bush was not necessarily a popular incumbent. 

Moreover, Democrats have a broadly popular legislative agenda. By passing popular initiatives, such as the recent $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, Democrats could rehabilitate their public image, particularly if the economy continues to receive good reports, such as the Congressional Budget Office’s recent report on all-time high federal tax revenues and additional strong job reports. 

But Democrats must act swiftly and decisively. Even left-leaning analysts, such as the venerable David Shor, believe the Democrats may have hit their high-water mark in terms of congressional power for the foreseeable future. 

To avoid this, Democrats must capitalize on their opportunities while in power before the moment is gone. Else, they risk falling victim to the ceaseless pendulum of partisan politics, and Virginia and New Jersey ought to serve as clarion warnings that this fate is on the horizon.