Off-year elections are a Rosetta Stone for analysts and operatives. While their political significance is universally overstated, these elections drive media narratives and offer clues as to how the political environment is shaping up for the midterm elections in 2022. In addition to the California recall election on September 14, Virginia will elect a governor in November.
As part of its PollerCoaster series, Crooked Media partnered with Change Research to conduct a poll of the upcoming Virginia gubernatorial election. Change Research surveyed 1,653 likely voters in Virginia from August 17-21, 2021. A full summary of the survey’s methodology is here.
The poll shows some good news, some bad, and the beginnings of a roadmap for how Democrats could defy the odds and hold onto the House and Senate in 2022.
The Good News
Terry McAuliffe is leading against Republican Glenn Youngkin 49-43. Being under 50 is never ideal, especially for a pseudo-incumbent like the former governor. However, while McAuliffe has work to do, he is well-positioned to recapture the governorship.
To date, Youngkin, an obscenely wealthy private-equity executive, has massively outspent McAuliffe on television and in digital advertising, yet the Republican has neither significantly strengthened his own image nor damaged McAuliffe’s.
According to the poll, McAuliffe leads by large margins on nearly every issue tested; and on the issue most important to voters—getting COVID-19 under control—nearly 60 percent of likely voters agree with McAuliffe’s positions on vaccine and mask mandates.
Youngkin’s 37-40 favorability rating is respectable for an unknown Republican running in an increasingly Democratic state. However, the underlying numbers are not great for the Republican. Firstly, five percent of Virginians are undecided. Nearly half of these voters are registered Democrats—a group Youngkin is losing 94-1.
Second, Donald Trump is an anvil around Youngkin’s neck. The former president’s approval rating is 20 points underwater. Change Research tested a message about Youngkin’s connections to the former president:
Glenn Youngkin wants to Trumpify Virginia. He spoke at a January 6 insurrectionist’s rally, and has supported Trump’s Big Lie about the election being stolen. Even Trump himself knows it. He called Youngkin a “highly respected person” who would “truly make Virginia great again.”
54 percent of Virginians and 38 percent of undecided voters found this message to be a convincing reason to oppose Youngkin. Contrary to the conventional wisdom in the national political media, the former president’s support has little power, even amongst the Republican base. Only eight percent of Youngkin voters cite Trump’s support as the reason they are voting for him.
Finally, the Republican Party is divided with 18 percent of Republicans believing their party is moving in the wrong direction. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but only six percent of Democrats feel that way about their party.
It’s not all good news. There are dark clouds on the horizon that need to be reckoned with in Virginia and beyond.
The Bad News: Republicans are Fired Up
McAuliffe’s six point lead and structural advantages obscure the fact that Republicans have a real advantage with regards to voter enthusiasm. Our poll found:
- Youngkin voters are paying more attention to the race: 46 percent say they’re paying a lot of attention, compared to only 33 percent of McAuliffe voters who say the same.
- 82 percent of Youngkin voters say they’re extremely motivated to vote, while 75 percent of McAuliffe voters feel similarly.
- While 95 percent of Trump voters support Youngkin, only 91 percent of Biden voters support McAuliffe.
On one hand, it wouldn’t be surprising if Virginia Democrats were a little exhausted. As a perennial presidential battleground state with a bevy of competitive House races and odd-year down-ballot races, Virginians never get a year off. However, polling from the California recall suggests that Democratic complacency may be a bigger problem. A CBS News poll of California voters found that 72 percent of Republicans are very motivated to vote compared to only 61 percent of Democrats.
The enthusiasm for McAuliffe isn’t bad and he has plenty of margin for error in a state that Joe Biden won by 10 less than a year ago. However, Democrats will not hold the House or the Senate if we go into Election Day with a complacent attitude.
Republican Messages Are Breaking Through
Hot button issues like critical race theory and the rise of socialism are commonly spouted on right-wing media outlets, but this new poll shows that these issues are breaking through to the broader electorate and keeping the race close. According to the poll:
- 79 percent of all Virginians, including 68 percent of Democrats, consider violent crime to be a threat to Virginia. Crime is a serious issue, but it is a major talking point of the right and the focus of Fox News et al.
- Guns and illegal immigration are the most important issues for Youngkin voters.
- Over 90 percent of Youngkin voters believe that critical race theory, illegal immigration, voter fraud, and socialism pose significant threats.
It’s tempting to dismiss some of these bogus issues and conspiracy theories as the result of brains pickled by Fox News and Facebook, but our poll shows that is not the case. Change Research compared Republicans that consume right-wing media like Fox News with Republicans that say they only consume traditional media. Ninety-nine percent of right-wing-media consuming Republicans view critical race theory as a big or medium-sized threat but 86 percent of the traditional media consumers do as well. Additionally, more than half of undecided voters and a third of Biden voters who are not planning to support McAuliffe say it’s at least a medium-sized threat.
The poll also suggests that Republicans and the right-wing media have had success in branding Democrats as radical and out-of-touch. Seventy-one percent of pure independents believe the Democratic Party is moving in the wrong direction with 59 percent strongly believing it is moving in the wrong direction. The pure independents in this poll are a Republican-leaning group (Youngkin is winning them by 20), but still, this number is alarming.
McAuliffe—like Joe Biden in 2020—is succeeding despite a deteriorating Democratic brand. Why? Because he entered the race with universal name recognition. How would more generic Democrats do in a state without the Democratic lean of Virginia?
My guess? Not great.
What Do We Do About Wavering Support?
In the context of the Virginia gubernatorial election, this poll should make Democrats cautiously optimistic. McAuliffe is winning, has some room for growth, and Youngkin has shown exploitable vulnerability. To be clear, I am not telling you not to wet the bed. There is a lot of work to do. Democrats should look at these numbers, the similar ones in California, and anecdotal reports about a drop in activism from grassroots groups across the country, and take them very seriously. Here are some initial thoughts on what to do:
- Get (Re)Engaged: Democrats entered every election in the Trump Era as if the fate of civilization was on the line. (It was!) We organized our way to the House, Senate, and White House. That is not (yet) our mentality about the elections in the post-Trump era. That is why everyone should visit Vote Save America and sign up for the “No Off Years” program to find ways to help in Virginia and elsewhere.
- Competence is Not Sufficient: There is a misconception in the Democratic Party that doing our jobs well and delivering on a popular agenda will be rewarded by the voters. I wish this were true, but this poll and other evidence suggests otherwise. The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon wrote something this week that has been stuck in my head
“If Biden can do almost everything right for six months, hit one rough patch, and then have almost as many voters disapprove of him (46 percent, according to an average of recent polls by FiveThirtyEight) as those who approve (49 percent), then the foundation of the competence strategy must be fairly flimsy.”
I know the political team in the White House quite well and don’t mean to suggest they have complacent attitudes. I don’t know if you have turned on the TV recently, but President Biden and his team have a lot on their plate. There will be a time and place for the president to engage politically, but the rest of us need to accept that being right on the issues will only get us so far. We need an argument against the Republicans more than we need one for ourselves.
- Take on the Cultural Fights: I wish this were not the case, but the power of the right-wing media ecosystem and the tilt of the Facebook algorithm are such that Democrats cannot ignore absurd and often fictitious cultural fights. We must win them. In this poll, we tested two messages about critical race theory that defused the issue.
This is just one example. More work needs to be done to finetune messages that don’t just defend, but also counterpunch.
- Determine Our Hot Button Issues: This poll reveals a clear messaging asymmetry. Democrats are talking about putting food on the kitchen table and Republicans are talking about angry civilization-destroying hordes out the window. It’s no surprise their base is more enthusiastic. We need to raise the stakes by drawing attention to issues that illustrate the dire consequences of Republicans returning to power. We can glean one possible party direction from this poll. Nine in 10 McAuliffe voters think climate change and white supremacy are threats. Finding ways to raise the stakes is necessary to narrow the enthusiasm gap and excite millions of activists, organizers, and grassroots donors that spent four years trying to rid the country of Trump.
This is just one poll and we all know by now to take every poll with several grains of salt, but there are flashing yellow lights that Democrats should heed. We may win Virginia (and California) despite those challenges, but we could be in trouble in more closely contested states and districts.