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Analysis: Why Democrats are in a lot of trouble in Virginia

If the polls are to be believed, Republicans are going to do very well in Virginia given the political baseline in the state. Traditionally, this would foretell a strong Republican performance in next year’s midterms. In fact, given Virginia is more blue than the nation as a whole on the presidential level, a tie in this year’s gubernatorial election would essentially be in line with Republicans winning the national House vote by 5 points next year.
Youngkin has been coming on strong in the polls. He trailed McAuliffe, a former governor, by about 5 points two months ago. The Republican closed the gap to 3 points a month ago. Today, Youngkin has pulled 1 point ahead of McAuliffe in an average of polls.
Why Republicans are poised for gains in 2022 regardless of who wins in Virginia on TuesdayWhy Republicans are poised for gains in 2022 regardless of who wins in Virginia on Tuesday
To be clear, McAuliffe can very much still win this race. The election is well within the margin of error. As I noted on Friday, the accuracy of poll averages in past gubernatorial elections is such that a double-digit win by either candidate is actually within the 95% confidence interval of results.
Still, the most likely outcome is a close margin between McAuliffe and Youngkin. That’s bad for Democrats given that President Joe Biden won the state by 10 points last year.
Looking over the last two presidential elections, Virginia has been about 5 points to the left of the nation.
A close result would be — and the tightening of the polls already is — a sign that Biden’s slagging popularity is having an impact on down-ballot Democrats. McAuliffe’s lead has disappeared as Biden went from having a positive net approval rating (approve – disapprove) in the state to a -7 net approval rating on average during October.
A tight outcome would also signal that Democrats cannot count on former President Donald Trump to bring down Republicans too much. Trump is more unpopular than Biden is in Virginia and nationally. McAuliffe has tried to tie Youngkin to the former President, while Youngkin has had to walk a tightrope by distancing himself from Trump but still leaning into some of his rhetoric to motivate the GOP base.
McAuliffe’s efforts have not precluded Youngkin from having a shot at winning. Nor is the shadow of Trump seeming to keep Republicans from having a turnout advantage. Normally, Republicans have a turnout advantage in off-year elections with a Democratic president, but there has been some thought that Trump could keep Democrats energized.
Among the pollsters who have recently provided a result among registered voters, McAuliffe is ahead by 3 points on average. That’s 4 points worse for the Democrat than among likely voters (a 1 point Youngkin lead).
Still, this shouldn’t be too surprising because Biden is the incumbent, even if Trump is more present than usual for a former president.
Republican voters cut Youngkin some slack as he walks tightrope on TrumpRepublican voters cut Youngkin some slack as he walks tightrope on Trump
Nor should it be too remarkable that Biden is unpopular. Looking back at the three Virginia gubernatorial elections since 2009 (i.e. since exit polls were regularly taken for Virginia off-year elections), the president’s net approval among Virginia gubernatorial voters was worse than his margin in the previous presidential election.
In an unfortunate sign for Democrats, this presidential unpopularity translated into his party losing seats in US House elections nationally the following year (2010, 2014 and 2018).
More potentially bad news for Democrats: we know from all gubernatorial elections (not just in Virginia) that those featuring no incumbent can tell us a lot about the national political environment. In the median cycle since 2002, how much a party outperforms the partisan baseline (based on presidential results) in the average governor’s race without an incumbent has differed by less than 2 points from the national House vote.

Looking to the House of Delegates

Of course, the gubernatorial race in Virginia is just one race. It’s better to look at a slew of elections, if we can, to understand if the results signify broader trends.
Fortunately for political analysts, we can examine the state’s 100 House of Delegate races that are up for grabs on Tuesday.
Specifically, check out the difference between the aggregated statewide Delegates’ vote share margin in both 2013 and 2017 compared with the margin in the presidential election the year before. It turns out that this swing is correlated well with the swing from the presidential vote margin nationally to the national House vote in the next year’s midterms.
The 2013 example is particularly notable because McAuliffe won that year, even as Democrats would suffer big losses the following year in the US House. McAuliffe’s victory that cycle had more to do with his unpopular GOP opponent (Ken Cuccinelli) than the national environment.
Democrats and Republicans were tied on the generic House of Delegates ballot in the average October poll. If that holds in this week’s election, it would be quite the turnaround from 2017, when Democrats won the aggregated House of Delegates by nearly 10 points.
In other words, the gubernatorial polling does not seem to be an outlier in any way. Rather, it is reflective of a real mood shift among Virginia voters.
And that is what matters for those interested in what the Virginia result portends nationally. While who wins and loses will certainly matter for Virginia residents, the polling will have to be quite off for the result to suggest a good environment for Democrats nationally.
This means Democrats will likely have to hope for a major shift in the political winds over the next year to have any real shot of holding onto the House of Representatives in 2022.
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