Virginia’s Gubernatorial Race: Where Things Stand With Less Than a Month to Go
A Commentary By Geoffrey Skelley
It’s no surprise that 2017’s top race is competitive
The November of the year following a presidential election is always relatively quiet on the electoral front, with only regularly-scheduled statewide races for governor in New Jersey and Virginia. With the Garden State’s contest looking like a safe Democratic pickup and Alabama’s special election for the U.S. Senate not happening until December, coverage of the competitive Virginia race seems to be accelerating as it enters the final month before Election Day. This is only natural: gubernatorial elections in the Old Dominion traditionally ramp up around Labor Day, and now that the election is less than four weeks away, the candidates are beginning to go all-in on television ads, which attracts more notice inside and outside of the commonwealth.
Some of the national discussion regarding the Virginia contest expresses surprise — in Democratic circles, concern — that it appears to be close. After all, President Donald Trump’s approval rating nationally (and in Virginia) is around 40%, and Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by five percentage points in 2016. Surely the margin in a seemingly purple-to-light-blue state should be more comfortable for the Democratic nominee, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam?
Although all recent public polls show Northam leading Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, the margins vary a great deal, and reports suggest recent campaign surveys have found the race to be inside the margin of error. The reality is, the demographics of the Virginia electorate help explain why a close contest for governor isn’t a surprise. And developments in the campaign have probably helped to make it even more competitive for Gillespie.
The off-year electorate
Virginia elects its governors in off-years, which fundamentally alters the nature of the commonwealth’s electorate compared to presidential cycles. Look at Chart 1 below. Whereas 72% of registered voters in Virginia turned out in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, only 43% showed up to vote in the 2013 gubernatorial election. And 2013 had the highest percentage (38%) of the state’s voting-eligible population to show up in a gubernatorial election going back to 1997. It’s hard to say where turnout ends up this year, but obviously it’s going to be far lower than the 2016 presidential contest. That means the gubernatorial electorate will likely be older, whiter, wealthier, and more educated due to the factors that affect individual-level voter turnout — older voters are more regular voters, wealthier and more educated people are more likely to vote, and whites are older, wealthier, and more educated compared to most other racial/ethnic groups.
Chart 1: Voter turnout in Virginia statewide races, by registered voters and voting-eligible population
Notes: Different shapes indicate what race was at the top of the ballot: circles for presidential elections, diamonds for U.S. Senate elections, and squares for gubernatorial elections. The voting-eligible population in gubernatorial years is estimated based on available data for the federal cycles that bookend each gubernatorial cycle (e.g. 2000 and 2002 for the 2001 gubernatorial election).
Based on what we know about voting trends nationally and in Virginia, the first two factors — whiter and older — are good for Gillespie. While exit poll data have their issues, they do show shifts toward a whiter electorate from the presidential to gubernatorial cycles in Virginia. In the 2008 presidential election, the exit poll found 70% of the commonwealth’s electorate was white; in the 2009 gubernatorial election, the figure was 78%. In 2012, the exit poll found Virginia’s presidential electorate was once again 70% white; in the 2013 gubernatorial, the figure was 72% white. Again, exit polls are imperfect: they tend to exaggerate the nonwhite percentage of the electorate and its relative education level (so really, the electorates were probably whiter and less educated). Still, the data show a whiter electorate in Virginia’s off-year elections.
The third shift in the electorate — it will be more educated — is probably good for Democrats. Education has become one of the more important demographic factors in voting, and more highly-educated voters are trending Democratic. However, white voters with a college degree still split fairly evenly in the 2016 election in Virginia (the exit poll found that Trump won such voters 49%-45%), so it’s not like this is a strongly Democratic cohort, and it might be more open to a Republican like Gillespie than one like Trump. Because nonwhite voters are very likely to vote Democratic, the fact that they will likely make up a smaller share of the gubernatorial electorate is a challenge for Democrats.
Essentially, because of the competitive nature of the state and the makeup of Virginia’s off-year electorate, it would be hard for Northam, even if things in the campaign were going swimmingly for him, to truly blow out Gillespie, who is in some respects a “generic Republican.” Remember, while Democrats have won the state in three straight presidential elections, the state is not exactly a leftist redoubt. In recent party primaries, Virginia Democrats voted for Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in 2016 and Northam over ex-Rep. Tom Perriello in 2017. And the Democratic Party of Virginia’s modern history is mostly that of a centrist party, because in order to win it had to be. Only once in the modern era of Virginia two-party politics (from 1969 on) has the Democratic nominee for governor won by more than 10 points — Jerry Baliles (D) won by 10.4 points in 1985. Meanwhile, Republicans have won by more than 10 points four times (1977, 1993, 1997, and 2009). The point is, recent gubernatorial elections in Virginia suggest that a negative environment for a Democratic candidate may be more damaging in electoral margin than a negative environment for a Republican one, and the nature of the off-year electorate is a contributing factor.
Importantly for Gillespie, he’s not seen as someone who is Trumpian. The GOP nominee cuts a decidedly non-populist profile, having been a major player in Republican politics for years. This quality could help him in the suburban areas of the state: In an admittedly advantageous environment in the 2014 Senate race, Gillespie did better in Northern Virginia, an increasingly Democratic region, than all other GOP statewide nominees running from 2012 to 2016. While his cool demeanor is far from that of Trump’s, Gillespie has in some ways taken pages out of the same playbook Trump used in 2016. Gillespie is running ads on immigration and law and order, most notably ones focused on the Latino gang MS-13. These spots play to anti-immigrant sentiment among the GOP base and portray Northam as a threat to the health and safety of Virginians. The impetus for the ad was a vote Northam took to break a tie in the state senate — one of the few statutory jobs of the lieutenant governorship — to halt a bill that expressly banned sanctuary cities in Virginia. The vote was orchestrated political theater, but it gave the Gillespie campaign a talking point that has become a critical part of the campaign. For example, when the president weighed in on Gillespie’s behalf on Twitter a few days ago, he specifically referenced MS-13 while attacking Northam. Because of the racial/ethnic overtones of the ads, Democrats have attacked the ads as Willie Horton, part deux. Public polls have found that Democratic unity for Northam is slightly stronger than GOP unity for Gillespie, so the MS-13 ads suggest that his campaign sees the issues of immigration and sanctuary cities as helpful in exciting the Republican base. The ads could also be a tool to bring home some white-collar moderates in the suburbs and exurbs of Northern Virginia, voters who may not like Trump but are also concerned about the activity of MS-13 in that part of the state.
Nonetheless, the two candidates’ level of party unity is not drastically different. In recent polls with party identification crosstabs, Northam is winning among Democrats by an average of 91 points while Gillespie is up 85 points among Republicans. Considering the rancor of the GOP primary contest between Gillespie and Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, that’s better than some thought would be the case for Gillespie (one could say the same for Northam, who won his primary by more but had to work hard to do so). One aspect of the campaign that may be helping Gillespie is the significant focus on Virginia’s Confederate monuments. The issue appears to have tripped up Northam to some extent because the public is more in favor of keeping such monuments in place than removing them. Northam wants localities to handle such matters but says he’ll be an advocate for removing them, while Gillespie wants the monuments to stay but with more context added. Overall, the relative unity of Republicans on the issue — they overwhelmingly want the monuments to remain — makes this a more straightforward issue for Gillespie compared to the division among Democrats. Moreover, the monuments issue is exactly the sort of catnip for cultural conservatives that could help Gillespie turn out those voters in November despite his lack of outsider credentials. Stewart, whose campaign centered on preserving Confederate monuments, has not formally endorsed Gillespie, but that could change as former White House strategist Steve Bannon and others are encouraging Stewart to do so. It’s hard to say just how much a Stewart endorsement would matter, but more unity on the GOP side can only help Gillespie.
Together, the Confederate monuments and immigration issues could be very useful for Gillespie. Just consider a Gillespie mail piece that claims Northam “wants to tear down history while making life easier for illegal immigrants.” These issues distract from other ones that could be better for Northam, like health care, which tends to be the most or one of the most important issues for Democrats and where the GOP plans in Washington, DC have been horribly unpopular. Additionally, polls have generally shown voters are more likely to support expanding Medicaid, which is a position Northam holds. Gun control has now entered the fray in the aftermath of the Las Vegas massacre, and there may be more potential for Northam than Gillespie on that front: A Quinnipiac poll back in April found that voters are somewhat more likely to support some gun control measures than not. Nonetheless, it’s an issue where the commonwealth is pretty evenly divided.
In terms of television advertising, it seems the Gillespie campaign tried to strike first. Throughout August, Gillespie ad buys were nearly double that of Northam’s in amount spent. Since then, Northam has picked up the pace, but Gillespie used the August ad buys to re-introduce himself to the general electorate with mostly positive spots that focused on, for example, his plans for the Virginia economy and how he worked to pay his way through college. One interesting effect of Northam’s seemingly-stiff Democratic primary challenge from Perriello was that it forced Northam to spend a bunch of money. This meant that Northam had to refill his campaign coffers in July and August, which may have helped Gillespie get the jump on TV ads, with the Republican campaign buying more in that period than the Democratic one. As we get closer to November, Northam may have the overall financial edge. He had $3 million more cash-on-hand than Gillespie at the end of August, and reported having $5.7 million available to spend at the end of September. We don’t yet have Gillespie’s report for September, so we don’t know if Northam has retained his monetary edge. But compared to 2013, Northam’s cash-on-hand total seems formidable: In 2013, now-Gov. Terry McAuliffe — a fundraising maven — had $1.8 million in the bank at the end of September. That means Northam has three times as much at the same point in 2017. This is a surprising development: It seemed reasonable to expect an experienced DC operative like Gillespie to have the connections necessary to outraise Northam — not to mention the well-endowed Republican Governors Association — but now it’s very possible that Northam will have an edge down the stretch, something our Republican sources concede even though they insist this race is anyone’s game. Democrats see Northam with a small lead — considerably smaller than some public polls, from the Washington Post and Quinnipiac, that have Northam leading by 10 or more. We continue to rate the race Leans Democratic, which is where we have had it since the June primary.
Circumstances and Gillespie’s campaign strategy have made this more of a law-and-order election, which has probably hurt Northam. The favorable environment — that is, a fairly unpopular Republican president in the White House and a relatively popular outgoing Democratic governor — is helping to keep the Democrat slightly ahead, but given the tendency in Virginia to vote against the sitting presidential party in gubernatorial elections and Trump’s poor approval rating, Northam should maybe be ahead by a little more.
Still, as discussed above, a blowout was always unlikely. A concern for the Northam campaign has to be the recent history of polling in Virginia and nationally that has missed some conservative voters. For example, the final RealClearPolitics average in 2013 showed McAuliffe leading Ken Cuccinelli (R) 45.6%-38.9%, with Libertarian Robert Sarvis getting 9.6%. Although McAuliffe led by 6.7 points, he only won by 2.5 on Election Day, 47.7%-45.2%. Some of that was Sarvis’ slide to 6.5%, as it’s likely that some Republican voters considering Sarvis came home to the GOP in the end (some of Sarvis’ purported voters probably failed to show on Election Day, too). In 2017, there’s also a Libertarian candidate, Cliff Hyra, though he looks set to win a far smaller share of the vote than Sarvis did. Nevertheless, Cuccinelli’s actual percentage was 6.3 points higher than his polling average while McAuliffe’s was only 2.1 points higher. We’ve seen this phenomenon in recent races, most notably some swing states in the 2016 presidential race, but also in contests like the 2015 Kentucky gubernatorial election. What Northam has to hope for is that with a different party holding the White House, the polls are either on the mark or they underestimate Democrats, not Republicans.
While it’s true that Virginia polls were relatively on the mark in 2016, if Northam isn’t consistently hitting 50% in some polls heading into Election Day 2017, he will have good reason to fear a surprise.
Geoffrey Skelley is the Associate Editor at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
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