Next week’s bellwether gubernatorial election in Virginia between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican newcomer Glenn Youngkin has all the makings of a nail-biter, with the two most recent polls showing the race essentially tied. This should have been a cakewalk for McAuliffe. Joe Biden won the state by 10 points in 2020. As a former governor in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican to statewide office since 2009, McAuliffe enjoys the name ID and status of an incumbent.
But he has spent the last month on the defensive — trying to distance himself from the chaos of the Biden presidency and walk back his own disastrous debate comments about the role of parents in their children’s education. So as the political class tries to read the tea leaves of this neck-and-neck race, the reality is it could tip either way.
My analysis tells me there are at least four potential drivers that could impact the outcome of the contest.
The Trump effect
In 2016, Donald Trump lost Virginia by 5 points but won independents, if just barely. In 2020, he lost the state by a larger margin, for the most part, because he lost independents. By tying Youngkin to Trump, Democrats are hoping for a similar result this year.
But polls have showng Youngkin doing much better with independents. The outstanding question is how effective has McAuliffe been in claiming that Youngkin is “Trump in khakis.” More importantly, how much does it matter to voters, especially independents?
In two polls released this week that showed the contest effectively tied, voters cited education as their top issue (Emerson College/Nexstar Media survey) or second-most important issue (USA Today/Suffolk University poll). The economy/jobs almost always dominates the issue matrix in most polls, but we’ve seen education become a driver before — in the 2000 presidential election.
To put that in context, in 1996, the exit polls put education at only a distant third (12 percent) among the issues that mattered most to voters, with the economy/jobs at 21 percent and Medicare/Social Security at 15 percent. Bob Dole lost “education” voters by 62 points.
In 2000, however, George W. Bush made education a key issue. This time, the exit polls showed the economy/jobs issue slipping to 18 percent and education coming in second at 15 percent. Bush lost education voters, but only by 8 points, an improvement by a remarkable 54 points. In the tightest presidential race in memory, education as an issue mattered.
McAuliffe’s now-infamous debate statement that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” appears to have dramatically affected the dynamics of the race. The fact that his campaign has been forced to pivot to the education issue, with new ads touting McAuliffe’s “commitment” to education, is evidence that the issue is having an impact. How much again remains to be seen.
But it’s worth noting that when the Suffolk survey asked “who should have more influence on a school’s curriculum,” voters opted for parents over school boards, 50 percent to 39 percent. Twenty-three percent of voters put education as their top issue, with jobs/economy at 40 percent.
The Emerson survey posed the question slightly differently using only “jobs,” which came in second at 15 percent to 21 percent for education. Independents put education second in the Suffolk survey, at 20 percent, while education took the top spot overall in the Emerson survey, at 21 percent, when only “jobs” was an option. The Suffolk survey was also based on a sample of 500 likely voters, which is on the smaller side when it comes to sampling. However the election plays out, education is clearly a factor.
The third unknown that can’t be ignored is the evolution of Virginia into a blue-leaning state over the past decade. In the last off-off-year election, 2017, exit polls showed Democratic voters had an 11-point advantage in party ID over Republicans, at 41 percent to 30 percent. Since 2014, Democrats’ party ID edge has ranged from dead even in 2014 to +7 in 2016 and 2018.
What’s interesting is that in the 2020 exit polls, the Democrat’s partisan advantage dropped to only 2 points, with 36 percent voters self-identifying as Democrats and 34 percent as Republicans. So Trump had a better opportunity to win the state last year but lost it because he lost independents by 19 points.
Where independents go next week will decide not only the governor’s race and the rest of the ticket but control of the state legislature as well.
The Biden factor
Finally, the driver that is likely to influence not only the outcome of the race but the impact of the other factors is the big slide in Biden’s job approval, both nationally and in Virginia, especially with independents. In the two polls cited earlier, Suffolk put his overall job approval at 42 percent approve to 52 percent disapprove. Among independents, Biden has sunk to a disastrous 32 percent to 57 percent approval-disapproval. Emerson’s numbers were equally bad. Democrats ought to be alarmed by what is a huge drop, especially among the independents he won handily less than a year ago. This makes Biden’s Tuesday night appearance with McAuliffe a bit of a head scratcher. Even McAuliffe himself admitted Biden wasn’t popular in Virginia.
Biden’s campaign stop, however, may pale in comparison to the national news coverage of Democrats in disarray that is likely to dominate the media in the final days of the race. Even worse, they will see the president and much of his Cabinet not on the job dealing with the issues that matter most to Americans but talking climate change in Scotland.
Democrats, led by Biden, have created a national environment under which Republican candidates can expand their coalition of support — and this is exactly what Youngkin has done. McAuliffe made his own contribution to what is now a competitive race with his ham-fisted debate performance and a less-than-stellar campaign that evidently didn’t expect a serious contest.
Whether Youngkin pulls out a victory or not, Democrats ought to be worried about 2022.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as an election analyst for CBS News.