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PollerCoaster: Terry McAuliffe vs Glenn Youngkin

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Crooked Media has partnered with Change Research to conduct a series of battleground polls. You can view the complete toplines here, and read more insights from Change here.


PollerCoaster 12: Virginia

KEY INSIGHTS

  • Terry McAuliffe leads 49-43, with 3% supporting Blanding and 5% undecided. McAuliffe is significantly underperforming Biden among young voters and Hispanics.
  • Voters prefer McAuliffe on more issues, and by wider margins, than Youngkin, who has a significant lead only on rural issues. On voters’ top issue—getting Covid under control—nearly 60% of likely voters are aligned with McAuliffe, favoring mask mandates and vaccination mandates in most settings in which they’re being implemented or proposed.
  • Hot-button right-wing issues are keeping this race close. Youngkin voters’ top issues are guns and illegal immigration. And over 90% of Youngkin voters believe that critical race theory, illegal immigration, voter fraud, and socialism pose significant threats to Virginia. By contrast, 81% of McAuliffe voters say voter suppression is a threat (along with over 90% of McAuliffe voters who think climate change and white supremacy are threats).
  • Independent and undecided voters are fearful of critical race theory. Independents and Republicans were most supportive of a message suggesting that the government should not decide what’s being taught in schools. One message that highlighted the importance of teaching about even the uncomfortable parts of our history was viewed positively by 59% of all voters, suggesting that this is a fight we can win by addressing it head on.

METHODOLOGY

We surveyed 1,653 likely voters in Virginia from August 17-21, 2021. A full summary of the survey’s methodology is here.

SUMMARY OF RESULTS

McAuliffe leads 49-43, but Democrats paying less attention

McAuliffe initially leads 49-43. Princess Blanding is at 3%, while 5% are undecided. We see almost no movement after messaging, with each candidate gaining less than half a percent.

McAuliffe and Youngkin voters say they’re roughly equally likely to vote. Still, there are a few reasons McAuliffe’s campaign should not rest on its laurels:

  • Youngkin voters are paying much more attention to the race: 46% say they’re paying a lot, compared to 33% of McAuliffe voters who say the same.
  • 82% of Youngkin voters say they’re extremely motivated to vote, while 75% of McAuliffe voters say the same. Equal turnout is not a given, with those numbers.
  • While 95% of Trump voters support Youngkin, only 91% of Biden voters support McAuliffe.
  • Among voters under 35, who supported Biden by 51-37, McAuliffe only leads 44-39. 8% of these voters are undecided, but another 9% plan to support Princess Blanding, who’s running from McAuliffe’s left.
  • Though many of Blanding’s 3% comes from those who voted for a third party candidate in 2020, there are a decent number of Biden-Blanding voters. These voters—who are racially diverse but almost all under 50—tend to describe themselves as “very liberal,” and have positive views of AOC but neutral to somewhat negative views of McAuliffe.
  • Hispanic voters, who voted for Biden by a 20-point margin, are supporting McAuliffe by only 4.

Vaccination status is strongly tied to vote choice. While McAuliffe leads 63-31 among fully vaccinated voters, Youngkin is up 86 to 5 among those who are not fully vaccinated.

Democrats want Covid, voting rights addressed; Republicans want more guns

Democrats’ top four issues are getting Covid under control, voting rights, civil rights, and health care. None of these is a top issue for more than 3% of Republicans. Republicans’ top issues are gun rights, ending corruption, and illegal immigration. “Jobs and the economy” is the only top issue for more than 5% of Democrats and 5% of Republicans. Undecided voters are concerned about issues that surface for both parties’ voters: Their top issues are Covid, corruption, and jobs.

Virginians disagree on the state’s direction and its leaders, but agree on hating Trump

49% of likely voters say the state is headed in the right direction, while 51% say it’s on the wrong track. But there’s near-complete political polarization on this question: 91% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents say “right track,” while 96% of Republicans and learners say “wrong direction.”

We see similar trends when it comes to politicians. Unlike in our previous PollerCoaster poll—where Arizonans were moderately favorable toward Mark Kelly but hated just about every other Arizonan official on both sides of the aisle—Virginians split nearly evenly on almost every major political figure. Both gubernatorial candidates, as well as the incumbent governor, both U.S. senators, the president and the vice president, have net favorability ratings between -5 and +5.

There are two strong exceptions: Donald Trump’s net favorability is -20, and the Republican Party’s is -21. So it’s no wonder that our message tying Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump made people angrier than any other message we tested.

McAuliffe voters drawn to his record and plans; Youngkin voters driven more by opposition, Trump

37% of Youngkin voters are voting for him mostly to oppose McAuliffe, while only 23% of McAuliffe voters say the same about Youngkin. Another 8% of Youngkin voters will vote for him because Trump told them to. 65% of McAuliffe voters are drawn to him because of his record or his plans, while only 49% are drawn to Youngkin because of his record or plans.

Voters favor safety-oriented Covid policies, but are not convinced that they help the economy

Virginians are generally in favor of Covid prevention measures:

  • They support an indoor mask mandate by 58-41
  • They favor mask and vaccination mandates for schools by 59-41
  • By 57-38, they support requiring all students to be vaccinated once the FDA approves vaccinations for children under 12
  • 64% support allowing businesses to require their workers to get vaccinated if they work together indoors
  • 62% disapprove of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s prohibition of businesses requiring proof of  vaccination

Yet, McAuliffe is tied with Youngkin on who will help businesses recover from the pandemic. If McAuliffe can point to closed businesses and schools and high case rates in states that have adopted plans like Youngkin’s, he can make the case that getting the disease under control is the best way to get the economy up and running and open schools. Voters already agree with him that these policies are responsible; he still needs to convince many of them that it’s also economically beneficial.

McAuliffe leads on income inequality, climate, abortion, education; Youngkin on rural issues

McAuliffe’s biggest advantages are on income inequality, climate change, education, abortion, and addressing rising housing costs. (We found that 59% of Virginia voters want abortion to be legal in most or all cases.) Youngkin has an advantage on rural issues. The two candidates are virtually tied on helping businesses recover from the pandemic and gun policy.

Some Republicans believe the GOP is headed in the wrong direction

Overall, 47% of voters believe the Democratic Party is headed in the right direction, while 51% say it’s going in the wrong direction. There’s very strong polarization between members of the two parties. Notably, 59% of independents who lean toward neither party say Democrats are headed strongly in the wrong direction.

Meanwhile, only 37% say the Republican Party is headed in the right direction, while 61% say it’s going in the wrong direction. Only 36% of pure independents say the GOP is going strongly in the wrong direction. But 18% of Republicans and Republican leaners say the GOP is headed in the wrong direction. 

Who are the Republicans who don’t like the direction of the GOP? They’re largely 50-64 year old white voters in Northern Virginia. For some of them, the problem is that the party is not Trumpy enough. But a large number are Never Trumpers. 51% of these “wrong-direction Republicans” feel unfavorable or neutral toward Trump. 84% of them voted for him anyway—but the 16% who didn’t far outnumber anti-Trump defections among most other groups of Republicans. 

Violent crime, climate are most widely held fears; voters polarized on all other threats

Overall, Virginians see their greatest threat as violent crime, with 79% saying it’s at least a medium-sized threat. The only other threat seen as medium-sized or larger by more than 60% of voters is climate change. All other items—from voter suppression to voter fraud, illegal immigration to white supremacy to socialism to critical race theory—evenly divide Virginia voters. 

But among Democrats, there’s near unanimity on two threats: climate change and white supremacy. On voter suppression and violent crime, significant numbers of Democrats see them as only minor threats. 

To Republicans, meanwhile, socialism and critical race theory are the two greatest threats facing Virginia; illegal immigration and voter fraud are just slightly behind. Unsurprisingly, there are significant differences between Republicans who consume right-wing media and those who don’t. But even among Republicans who only consume mainstream media, over 80% view socialism, critical race theory, illegal immigration, and voter fraud as medium or large threats.

Critical Race Theory a big concern; “Teachers should decide what they teach, not Congress” is effective

Critical race theory is a concern for a substantial number of voters in Virginia, including undecided voters. 52% of undecided voters—along with 35% of Biden voters who are not planning to support McAuliffe—say it’s at least a medium-sized threat. Messaging about Youngkin never allowing critical race theory to be taught in Virginia schools was the most effective pro-Youngkin message among all voters and undecided voters.

We A/B tested two messages aimed at combating Republicans’ critical race theory messaging:

  • One pointed out that denying the uglier parts of our history denies the heroism of Americans of all races who fought to right those wrongs.
  • Another argued that the federal government should not meddle in local schools’ curricula; teachers should have the freedom to teach all of American history.

Democrats strongly preferred the first message: 94% of Biden voters agreed with it, including 75% who strongly agreed. Only 80% of Biden voters agreed with the second, with 58% agreeing strongly. 

But Republicans and independents preferred the second message by even wider margins. 21% of Trump voters agreed with the first message, while 44% agreed with the second. And among independents who lean toward neither party, 35% agreed with the first message, 64% with the second.

The second message’s success among independents and Republicans suggest it would be a winner for this campaign.

Effective messages emphasize McAuliffe’s focus on economy, Youngkin’s focus on the wealthy

Among all voters, there is little distinction between the various pro-Youngkin and pro-McAuliffe messages: they’re all rated as convincing to the vast majority of those already planning to support each candidate, and unconvincing to nearly everyone who plans to vote against them. 

But two messages stand out among undecided voters: McAuliffe’s plan to rebuild the economy and reduce income inequality, and Youngkin’s pledge never to allow critical race theory to be taught in Virginia’s schools.

The two anti-Youngkin messages that best persuade undecided voters both make the same point: that Youngkin will take care of himself and his wealthy friends at the expense of Virginian families. The one which uses his work at Carlyle as a frame is more effective with all voters than the other, which mentions Youngkin’s comment about the American Rescue Plan being “unnecessary.”

The other anti-Youngkin messages—about his connections to Trump, his comments about his true views on abortion, and his support for the Big Lie claiming Trump actually won the 2020 election—are convincing to a majority of voters. So while they may not be the most effective messages, they can likely be used in targeted settings without alienating many voters.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe has large vulnerabilities on both education and endorsements he’s received from groups that support defunding the police. The counterarguments to both are fairly simple, but it is important for McAuliffe to make them clearly and frequently.