What Will We Learn From the Virginia Governor’s Race?

November 2, 2021

All eyes are on the Old Dominion tonight, as the race between former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and businessman Glenn Youngkin comes down to the wire. My colleague Jessica Taylor has written a definitive account of how this blue state has become the site of a statewide  Toss Up contest.

After a winner is declared comes the next phase of the election cycle: interpreting "what it all means." To be sure, this is just one race taking place at one specific moment in time, so we have to be careful about reading too much into it. However, as the first competitive election in the post-Trump era, the outcome here will help set some guideposts for 2022. Here are three of them:

The Trump Test

Anger, not love, is the most important factor in elections. And, for the last four years, Democrats could count on anti-Trump fervor as the fuel to motivate their base. The McAuliffe campaign was hoping to harness that same energy this year. In fact, according to data by AdImpact, almost half of the total number of ads McAuliffe has run since June (13 of 36 ads) have linked Trump to Glenn Youngkin. This year, of course, Trump isn't in the White House, and Youngkin has kept Trump at a distance. 

If Youngkin wins, it will force Democrats to reassess their strategy of turning 2022 into a referendum on Trump. 

But, it's also true that Youngkin has been incredibly disciplined and a bit lucky when it comes to Trump. He has been able to keep his distance from him, while not earning his wrath. Other GOP candidates may not be willing or able to follow in his footsteps. It's also important to remember that Youngkin didn't have a primary in which Trump could have played an outsized role. That won't be the case for GOP candidates in 2022, many of whom have been actively touting their Trump bond-fides. Even so, it's going to get harder to make Trump the center of attention a year from now, especially since Democrats will have been doing all the governing. 

If McAuliffe does win, it suggests that the Trump drag remains a genuine concern for GOP candidates, especially those in blue-leaning states. Moreover, given Biden's currently weak political standing, a win for McAuliffe would suggest that the base (or floor) remains in place for Democrats. Or at least those Democrats in states and districts that Biden carried by a decent margin in 2020. But, a narrow win won't (and shouldn't) give purple state Democrats much solace. Unlike McAuliffe (or Gavin Newsom in California), those Democrats can’t afford any drop-off. Even losing 2-3 points of Democratic advantage would cost them their seats.

Mind The Margin

Politics isn't horseshoes. You don't get any points for 'coming close.' Even so, the margins are more important to watch in this race than the outcome.

If Youngkin wins by a decent margin, it will set off a panic among Democrats across the country. A five-point win, for example, would be a 15-point swing from Biden's margin in 2020. The last time we saw more than a four-point swing between presidential and Virginia gubernatorial years was 2009. 

Even a narrow win or loss by Youngkin will be an emotional boost for Republicans and a demoralizing gut punch for Democrats. It would suggest that Biden's drag on the party is so significant that even states that he easily carried in 2020 would be vulnerable in 2022. 

Of course, federal elections don't swing as much as gubernatorial elections. Even in 2018, a great year for Democrats, the GOP nominee's final margin was within one to four points of Trump's 2016 showing. 

Enthusiasm Gap

Much of the media attention on this race has been trained on the vote-rich Virginia suburbs. And, yes, whether these voters stick with Democrats this time around will be very important. But don't forget how important the Black vote is to Democrats in the state. There's plenty of evidence that younger voters of color are discouraged by what they are seeing (or not seeing) from the Democrats in Washington, especially when it comes to issues like racial justice and police reform. 

It will also be important to watch turnout in rural/Trump-rich areas of the state. Polling shows a unified and energized GOP base. Opposition to Biden is firing up the GOP base, but can Republicans really hit 2020 level turnout without Trump on the top of the ballot? 

More from the Cook Political Report