Democrats can’t blame ‘huge bummer’ in Virginia on turnout

Winning tough elections goes beyond just winning the base

In Virginia, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s positive strategy focused on bread-and-butter issues and education helped him build a winning coalition of conservatives, moderates and independents, Winston writes.  (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
In Virginia, Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin’s positive strategy focused on bread-and-butter issues and education helped him build a winning coalition of conservatives, moderates and independents, Winston writes. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Posted November 10, 2021 at 6:00am

It seems like everybody has a theory for Glenn Youngkin’s big win in Virginia last week. Why and how did he win? Who deserves the credit or the blame for the Democrats’ losses?

Many of the explanations, whether from politicians, cable news pundits, consultants or columnists, seem to reflect their own political narratives and assumptions rather than hard data. Many simply cannot accept the fact that Youngkin’s positive strategy focused on bread-and-butter issues and education helped him build a winning coalition of conservatives, moderates and independents. 

Progressives blamed the loss in Virginia on a lack of enthusiasm for Democrat Terry  McAuliffe’s campaign which, they claimed, didn’t excite the liberal base to turn out. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called the loss a “huge bummer” that showed “the limits of trying to run a fully 100 percent super moderated campaign that does not excite, speak to, or energize a progressive base.”

Some argued, as one Sunday show pundit put it, that “the Democrats weren’t able to, even though they increased turnout, … keep apace with the GOP increase in turnout.” Except, as you’ll see below, while the turnout was smaller, the political and ideological makeup of the electorate was exactly the same as 2020.

But turnout wasn’t the only theory making the rounds this week. The liberal cable news crowd put the focus squarely on critical race theory and racism to explain the loss, a topic that has dominated their coverage for months. This focus on race to explain Youngkin’s win is one of the most puzzling claims given that Virginians also elected Republican Winsome Sears as lieutenant governor, the first Black woman to win statewide office.

Conservative pundits also claimed critical race theory was a key factor in Youngkin’s victory, seeing McAuliffe’s debate gaffe on parental involvement in schools as a turning point. But both sides failed to understand that the education issue is much broader than critical race theory alone. 

The role of parents in their children’s schools, student performance, curriculum, and COVID-19 mask and vaccination policies are some of the subsets that together drive education as a political issue that crosses party lines and demographic groups and was voters’ No. 2 issue this election.  

Others smarting from the Democrats’ losses in Virginia put the blame on Congress’ inability to pass the infrastructure bill before the election. “Democrats in Congress hurt Terry McAuliffe” with their “purist demands” was how Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine saw it. 

And the Donald Trump folks claimed Youngkin’s win was thanks to him and the Joe Biden folks said it wasn’t him or his agenda.

Similar electorate

The Virginia exit polls give us the data to quantitatively understand the electorate, who voted and the policy implications of the vote. In last week’s column, we looked at some of the “who” in terms of voting. But more analysis shows that, contrary to what we’ve been hearing, the makeup of last week’s electorate, based on ideology and party ID, was nearly identical to the 2020 election.

In 2020, Democrats had only a slight advantage in party ID, comprising 36 percent of voters, with Republicans at 34 percent and independents at 30 percent. Last week, voters self-identified at exactly the same numbers — 36 percent Democrat, 34 percent Republican and 30 percent independent. 

Were there more conservatives voting as a percentage of the electorate this go-round? No. The ideological electorate in Virginia was nearly identical to 2020, with moderates making up 41 percent of voters, conservatives at 36 percent and liberals at 23 percent. In 2020, moderates accounted for 40 percent, conservatives 36 percent and liberals 24 percent.

What this shows is that the bases of both parties turned out for the election in the same percentages as they did just a year ago. It’s true that turnout was lower this year, but that’s to be expected in a non-presidential year. The turnout was still higher than in 2017, when Democrat Ralph Northam won with almost 54 percent of the vote. In raw numbers, McAuliffe won 14 percent more votes this year than any other gubernatorial candidate in Virginia history except one — Youngkin. 

Candidates matter

While turnout matters, what matters just as much is who turns out. In this case, the breakdown of the electorate by both party ID and ideology shows no change from 2020. But Biden won and McAuliffe lost. If the composition of the electorate remained the same, what changed? The candidates and the issues, which translated into voter preference.

Contrary to AOC’s conclusion, turnout by liberals was just 1 point below what we saw last year as a percentage of the electorate. McAuliffe won Democrats by 92 points (same as Biden) and won liberals by an almost identical margin (87 points to Biden’s 89 points).   

Youngkin won his Republican base by 94 points, 13 points higher than Trump’s margin in 2020. Among conservatives, the difference between Youngkin and Trump was even larger, with Youngkin winning this group by 86 points compared with Trump doing so by only 67 points — an improvement of 19 points in a year.

As we noted last week, the electorate in Virginia wasn’t more conservative or more pro-Trump this year. In fact, Trump’s favorable rating in the exit polls remained low at 40 percent.

Youngkin succeeded because he was able to win conservatives by even higher margins than Trump and independents by 9 points, a 28-point swing from last November when Biden won them by 19 points. Youngkin was also able to win over 17 percent of those voters with an unfavorable view of the former president. Just as important, Youngkin cut into Biden’s 34-point winning margin among moderates, who made up 41 percent of the Virginia electorate this year, with McAuliffe winning this group by 21 points.

For many in the political arena, winning elections is all about the base. They believe that it’s not really possible to go after both the middle and the base, though exit polls show otherwise. Candidates in tough races who connect with moderate and independent voters based on issues people care about can build winning majority coalitions. 

Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin is living proof.

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.