Braking Down The News

How Virginia’s Electorate Shifted Toward Republicans

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In a break with Virginia’s recent electoral history, Republican Glenn Youngkin bested Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the state’s highly contentious governor’s race on Tuesday. Polls going into election night had the two neck-and-neck, but given McAuliffe had led the race until about a week before the election, it was still largely viewed as McAuliffe’s to lose — especially since Virginia Republicans had not won a statewide race since 2009 and Biden carried the state by 10 percentage points last year

So who powered Youngkin’s win? Well, he overperformed across the state, but exit polling data shows he did especially well among certain voting blocs — like white voters (both men and women) and voters without a college degree — which gave his campaign a boost. But one of the biggest factors for Youngkin might have been his strong showing among suburban voters. According to exit poll data, Youngkin won 53 percent of these voters across the state, which is roughly the opposite of what happened in 2020, when exit polls suggest President Joe Biden carried voters in those areas with a similar share of the vote.1

In short, we identified three main throughlines that we think are useful at this stage when discussing Youngkin’s upset: 

  • First and foremost, this is a story about suburban voters, who, on average, moved to the right. That is, as we suggested, a departure from what we observed nationally in the 2020 presidential election.
  • Education issues that dominated much of the lead-up to Tuesday’s race were significant for understanding how voters felt about the candidates, but it’s actually really hard to isolate the role education played in the race.
  • Rather, disappointment in — or opposition to — Biden’s presidency may have been the main driver of this outcome, as is often the case in off-year Virginia elections.

Let’s assess these one at a time: For starters, we (Geoffrey) wrote earlier this week that the big reason Youngkin was successful was his strength in the suburban areas of the state where former President Donald Trump previously struggled. That’s especially true in Loudoun County, one of the most populous suburban enclaves in the commonwealth. 

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In Loudoun, McAuliffe underperformed relative to his party’s performance in 2020 while Youngkin overperformed: Although McAuliffe carried the county by 11 points, that marked a huge departure from Biden’s 25-point edge there last year. But Youngkin’s improved showing came across much of northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. (including Loudoun) as well as in predominantly suburban and exurban localities like Virginia Beach and Chesapeake in the southeastern corner of the state.

In unpacking why Youngkin made inroads in the suburbs, though, things get more challenging. From the beginning, Youngkin straddled being pro-Trump but not so Trumpy that he repelled suburban voters and white women (groups Trump famously struggled with). And because much of the previous suburban shift toward Democrats appears to have been driven by disdain for Trump, it’s now unclear that these gains will hold when Trump is off the ballot. It didn’t hurt that Youngkin, clad in a fleece vest most of the campaign, was able to posit himself as the spitting image of a genial suburban dad.

Interestingly, though, it doesn’t look like white college-educated voters, often disproportionately associated with the suburbs, necessarily drove Youngkin’s victory. The polarization of white voters by educational attainment has been a developing trend in recent years, and the Virginia result shows an even more substantial split, thanks mainly to Youngkin gaining among white voters without a college degree. Remember, plenty of white voters without a four-year degree live in suburban places, too.

The white voter education divide grew in Virginia

Vote share by race and education level, according to Virginia exit polls

RaceEducation LevelPct. of ElectorateMcAuliffeYoungkinMargin
WhiteCollege grads37%52%47%D+5
Non-college grads362476R+52
NonwhiteCollege grads117525D+50
Non-college grads157920D+59

Exit poll data received its final weighting on Nov. 3.

Source: ABC News

Meanwhile, McAuliffe still narrowly edged Youngkin among white voters with a college degree; in fact, his margin wasn’t much different from Biden’s in Virginia last November. By contrast, there wasn’t really much indication of an education gap among voters of color. 

Second, while education-related issues — whether it was critical race theory or related to the pandemic — did seem to have had some effect on Tuesday’s results, it doesn’t seem like they alone influenced voters enough to push Youngkin over the edge. That doesn’t mean Youngkin didn’t make a concerted effort to appeal to parents, though. Throughout his campaign, he made subtle and not-so-subtle appeals to them by preying on fears around things like critical race theory being taught in the classroom. It wasn’t just the question of how race should be discussed in schools either. Youngkin also made appeals to parents fed up with more than a year of remote learning and other COVID-19-related school policies, like requiring masks in schools. But all of this falls under the category of “education,” which makes it incredibly hard to disentangle which issue had a bigger impact on voters. And as we’ll discuss below, it’s not clear that education was even the most important factor for voters.

While roughly 59 percent of men with children under the age of 18 living in their home, for instance, supported Youngkin over McAuliffe, a majority of women with children (53 percent) backed McAuliffe. Similarly, a majority of men without children (56 percent) backed Youngkin, while women without children (54 percent) backed McAuliffe. In other words, men voted similarly regardless of their parental status, as did women.

Parental status maybe wasn’t that important

Vote share by sex and whether the voter had any children under 18 years old living at home, according to Virginia exit polls

GROUPPct. OF ELECTORATEMcAuliffeYoungkinMargin
WomenWithout children37%54%45%D+9
With children185347D+6
MenWithout children314456R+12
With children144159R+18

Exit poll data received its final weighting on Nov. 3.

Source: ABC News

Of course, these numbers could be explained in part by the simple fact that men tend to vote Republican, while women, on average, tend to vote Democratic. But the gender gap among parents here is notable because it makes it more difficult to pinpoint what education issues were the most salient to voters. Also, it’s possible that “nonparents,” by the exit poll’s definition, included a lot of younger and older voters who might have canceled each other out. 

But even if parental status wasn’t the most important thing in unpacking how voters voted on Tuesday, we shouldn’t discount the role education played in Tuesday’s race. Exit polling found that voters who believe parents should have “a lot” of say in what their child’s school teaches overwhelmingly supported Youngkin over McAuliffe (77 percent to 22 percent). 

Other issues were also top of mind for voters, though. Polls ahead of Tuesday show that the economy topped voters’ list of concerns. According to exit polling data, Youngkin won those voters, who were one-third of the respondents, with 55 percent of the vote compared to McAuliffe’s 44 percent. Youngkin also edged McAuliffe among the 8 percent of voters who named abortion as the top issue in the commonwealth: 58 percent to 41 percent.

That said, it really does seem like disappointment with Biden’s presidency is what ultimately drove support for Youngkin. Not only does reporting already suggest that some people who supported Biden last year didn’t vote in Virginia’s election, but those who disapprove of Biden made up a majority of voters and voted overwhelmingly for Youngkin.

An unpopular Biden influenced how Virginians voted

Vote share by whether a voter approved or disapproved of President Biden’s job performance, according to Virginia exit polls

Strongly/somewhat …Pct. of ElectorateMcAuliffeYoungkinMargin
Disapprove53%10%90%R+80
Approve46936D+87

Exit poll data received its final weighting on Nov. 3.

Source: ABC News

For instance, 59 percent of voters who said they “somewhat” disapproved of the way Biden is handling his job as president and 96 percent who “strongly” disapproved backed Youngkin. Moreover, almost twice the share of people who had an unfavorable view of Trump backed Youngkin (17 percent) than the share who disapproved of Biden and backed McAuliffe (10 percent).

To be sure, as with any election, it’s really hard to disentangle whether macro trends (Biden’s approval) versus local factors (education and the economy) had the biggest impact on the shifts toward the GOP. But they are related, and if Democrats want to avoid a midterm shellacking next year, they might want to prioritize some of these more local issues that at least Virginians demonstrated could be important.

Other polling bites

  • Voters named “the economy and jobs” the No. 1 issue in Virginia’s elections this week, and nationally, the outlook on the economy isn’t too optimistic, with 65 percent of U.S. adults describing the economy as “poor,” according to an AP-NORC poll conducted Oct. 21-25. This is up 11 points from when AP-NORC last asked this question in September. But Americans are split on whether the economy will improve: 30 percent of adults said they expected the economy to improve next year while 47 percent said they thought it will get worse.
  • In Biden’s closing remarks on Tuesday at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, he pointed to Democrats’ spending bill as America’s contribution to the fight against climate change. Only one problem: Congress is still debating what will be in the bill. On climate specifically, a number of key provisions have already been cut, with some items, like a fee on methane emissions, still being ironed out. But per a Morning Consult poll taken last month, voters have started to doubt Biden’s ability to deliver on his campaign promise of sweeping climate legislation. Just 48 percent of registered voters said they approved of Biden’s handling of climate change, with 31 percent saying they somewhat approved and 17 percent saying they strongly approved.
  • Overall, though, Americans aren’t following Democrats’ spending bill or the bipartisan infrastructure bill too closely. An ABC News/Ipsos poll taken Oct. 29-30 found that a plurality of Americans, 44 percent, only knew “just some” of what might be in the bills. This is understandable given that what’s in the bill is still changing, but almost half of respondents, 45 percent, said they weren’t following negotiations carefully.
  • Americans increasingly don’t trust their own political institutions, and on the world stage, some countries also don’t think America is a great example of democracy. The Pew Research Center in February surveyed 16 countries, finding a median of 57 percent of respondents thought the U.S. used to be a good example of democracy but hasn’t been in recent years. However, one of the areas in which countries thought the U.S. excelled was technological advancements. A median of 72 percent of respondents across these 16 countries said the U.S. was the best or above average in technological achievements.
  • Many Americans, 56 percent, told the Public Religion Research Institute in its 2021 American Values Survey, conducted in September, that they thought believing in God was important to being truly American, but a separate poll from Pew conducted in March found that many Americans, 55 percent, think separation of church and state is important. Twenty-eight percent said they strongly supported the two institutions’ separation while 27 percent moderately supported their separation.

Biden approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,2 42.7 percent of Americans approve of the job Biden is doing as president, while 50.5 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -7.8 points). At this time last week, 43.7 percent approved and 51 percent disapproved (a net approval rating of -7.3 points). One month ago, Biden had an approval rating of 44.8 percent and a disapproval rating of 47.8 percent (a net approval rating of -3.0 points).

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead Republicans by 2.3 percentage points (43.4 percent to 41.2 percent, respectively). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 2.5 points (43.9 percent to 41.4 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats over Republicans by 3.4 points (45.1 percent to 41.7 percent).

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