Tuesday’s off-off-year election was the vote heard round the world. Democrats were left reeling from what is a national rejection of progressive policies, from Virginia to New Jersey and Long Island, to Texas and even Minneapolis and Seattle. It is a defining loss for Democrats, who have been so convinced of the rightness of their liberal agenda and the popularity of their policies that an outcome this disastrous, this broad and this deep was simply inconceivable.
But other than employing the usual clichés to explain their crushing defeats, progressives and liberal media pundits seem to be blaming what they see as an ill-informed public that simply doesn’t understand or appreciate the liberal values of progressive socialism. Oh, and also Terry McAuliffe, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and anybody else not on board the Build Back Better train.
So in the interests of clarity, here are some numbers that explain some of what actually happened Tuesday, based on an early dive into Edison Research’s exit poll data from Virginia. Republican Glenn Youngkin defied the pundits by putting together a winning majority coalition in what has been a blue state for 12 years, and it had nothing to do with dog whistles or even Donald Trump and everything to do with offering solutions to kitchen table issues that drove the electorate.
What voters wanted
First, the issues. When voters were asked to name their top issue and in whom they had more confidence to handle that issue, Youngkin easily won four of the five top issues over McAuliffe by solid margins: economy/jobs (55 percent to 44 percent); education (53 percent to 47 percent); taxes (68 percent to 32 percent); and abortion (58 percent to 41 percent). Only on the coronavirus pandemic did McAuliffe come out ahead (84 percent to 16 percent).
Drilling down further, Youngkin’s ability to connect with voters on issues they cared about helped him construct a winning coalition well beyond his Republican base. Looking at just one issue — education — Youngkin had much broader appeal. For example, of the voters who said education was their top issue, only 30 percent said they were Republicans; 33 percent were Democrats and 37 percent were independents. Yet Youngkin won over this group by 6 points.
For those who said the economy/jobs was their No. 1 issue, Youngkin outperformed McAuliffe by 11 points. By focusing on kitchen table issues that mattered most to voters, he was able to win by crossing party lines and ideology.
The exit polls also give us an idea of the makeup of Youngkin’s majority coalition and the dramatic shifts in voter behavior that drove his victory. Independents top the list. Joe Biden won these voters handily in 2020 by 19 points. Youngkin won them by 9 points. That’s a 28-point swing in just 12 months.
The shift in the suburban vote was also a key factor in this election. Biden won the suburbs last fall by 8 points. This election, suburban voters represented 60 percent of the electorate and went for Youngkin by a 7-point margin. Again, a big shift of 15 points.
Moderates, who made up around 40 percent of the Virginia electorate, went for Biden by 34 points last year. Youngkin cut that margin by almost half, losing them by 21 points. Voters without a four-year college degree, who made up 51 percent of the electorate this year, went for Youngkin by 19 points. Biden won them by 7 points — a 26-point swing.
Youngkin even made significant progress with younger voters, aged 18-44, who made up 31 percent of the electorate. Biden won this key group by 25 points. Youngkin pulled close to even, losing them by only 3 points.
Finally, women. Biden won the women’s vote by 23 points over Trump. Youngkin cut that margin by over two-thirds, losing them by only 7 points. This shift should be alarming to Democrats and enlightening for Republicans.
What the exit polls show us is that Youngkin’s winning coalition extended down ballot, with the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general also elected and, as of this writing, the GOP on track to flip the the Virginia House of Delegates.
We saw similar coalitions, based on policy positions and issues, in other parts of the country. The best example is New Jersey, where the Republican gubernatorial candidate focused on taxes, among other things, to help the GOP significantly close the gap from Biden’s 16-point win in 2020. While he appears to have fallen short, Jack Ciattarelli was about 1 point behind the Democratic incumbent, whom the pundits had seen as a shoo-in.
The Virginia exit polls also give us insight into the role of Trump and Biden in the race. Clearly, Biden’s job approval nationally has dropped precipitously, and the exit poll data reflected this. A year ago, Biden was at 52 percent favorable/47 percent unfavorable in Virginia. This year, his overall job approval rating in the state was 46 percent approve/53 percent disapprove. He was at 42 percent approve/56 percent disapprove in the suburbs and at a remarkably bad 36 percent approve/63 percent disapprove among independents.
Trump fared no better. He was at a weak 40 percent approve/55 percent disapprove, according to the Virginia exit polls. His approval/disapproval rating was 36 percent to 59 percent among independents and 42 percent to 53 percent among suburban voters.
Despite Trump’s continuing unpopularity in Virginia and McAuliffe’s relentless attempts to tie Youngkin to the former president, Youngkin outdid McAuliffe when it came to favorable/unfavorable ratings. Voters overall had a favorable view of Youngkin (50 percent to 46 percent). His favorability ratings were 52 percent to 44 percent in the suburbs, and 55 percent to 42 percent among independents.
McAuliffe, on the other hand, was underwater with voters overall — 47 percent favorable/50 percent unfavorable. He was at 45 percent favorable/52 percent unfavorable with suburban voters, and just 39 percent of independents viewed him favorably, compared with 58 percent who didn’t.
Voters clearly saw Youngkin through a much more positive lens than Trump, Biden or McAuliffe. One of the most interesting findings in the exit polls centered on Youngkin’s ability to win 17 percent of voters who had an unfavorable view of Trump. This represented almost 20 percent of the people who voted for Youngkin, reflecting his ability to go beyond the traditional Republican base.
For the last 12 months, since the 2020 election, Democrats have operated in a progressive bubble, convinced of the rightness of their agenda, whether voters knew it or not. They’ve spent most of their all-important first year of full Democratic control by misinterpreting Biden’s win over Trump as a mandate for radical change. There were many currents swirling in the 2020 election but, as I’ve written in this column many times, voters chose to not reelect Trump but they did not reject Republicans or their centrist agenda, as evidenced by the GOP’s congressional gains last fall.
Glenn Youngkin offered something new to Virginians: hope, rationality and genuine solutions to issues that voters really cared about. He won because his focus on kitchen table issues resonated with voters who liked his happy warrior style and his remedies for what ails the commonwealth — lower taxes, better schools and better jobs.
He just wrote the Republican playbook for 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.