Polls consistently show Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, a wealthy political newcomer, staying surprisingly close to Democrat Terry McAuliffe, a former Virginia governor, in a state that has trended steadily blue over the past decade. McAuliffe’s best hope of repelling Youngkin’s challenge is to maintain the advantage Democrats have established in the state’s booming suburbs, particularly those in Northern Virginia near Washington and others around Richmond.
Whether McAuliffe can protect that ground will likely not only determine the Virginia governor’s contest but also offer a key gauge of attitudes across the broader suburban battlefield looming in the 2022 midterms.
“If you took the results of what happened in Virginia in 2017 and spread it across the country, that was 2018,” says Democratic consultant Bradley Komar, who served as Northam’s campaign manager in 2017. “So all eyes will be on Virginia to see if we are holding our gains in the suburbs. Are we motivating our voters without Trump in the White House?”
Northam notably improved in the historically Republican-leaning suburbs of Richmond. But the big shift came in the growing Northern Virginia suburbs. Northam won the big five suburban counties outside Washington by a stunning 263,000 votes. That was about double the margin McAuliffe had squeezed from those same counties while winning the governorship in 2013 and a bigger net advantage than Barack Obama managed even with a presidential-year turnout in 2012. That suburban tsunami was enough to propel Northam to a commanding 9-percentage-point win overall in a state that previously had been considered a battleground between the parties.
Virginia set the pace in 2017
The suburban wave largely rolled on through 2020. Big, sometimes enormous, gains in affluent, diverse inner suburbs were key to Biden’s victory in almost every closely contested state. Compared with Clinton in 2016, he swelled the margins by 100,000 votes in the four suburban counties outside Philadelphia, by 175,000 votes in Denver and its suburbs, and by 200,000 votes in Atlanta and its giant suburban neighbors. Biden comfortably carried Virginia by winning the big five suburban communities outside Washington by more than 500,000 votes, about 115,000 more than Clinton and more than double Obama’s advantage there just eight years earlier.
On the other side of this divide, Republicans through the Trump years benefited from expanding margins and explosive turnout among rural and small-town voters. Even in the 2018 Democratic sweep, that allowed Republicans to oust Democratic senators in North Dakota, Missouri and Indiana, three states with large White rural populations. Likewise, Trump’s rural strength allowed him to hold states such as North Carolina and even Texas despite big Biden gains in their metropolitan centers. Democrats in 2020 also faced the limits of their suburban gains, losing some of the 2018 seats they had won in more conservative suburban areas (like Charleston, South Carolina, and Orange County, California) and failing almost completely to capture any of the further House seats they targeted in more traditionally Republican suburbs around Dallas, Houston, St. Louis and Indianapolis.
Even with these caveats, the parties emerged from the Trump presidency confronting a widening trench between rising Democratic strength inside the nation’s major metro areas and consolidating Republican dominance beyond them. A key question for political professionals is whether those exaggerated patterns persist beyond Trump or, on both sides of the trench, revert somewhat toward the mean with him no longer at center stage.
In Southern California, as of the latest count, Newsom dominated the affluent Westside of Los Angeles, won a solid three-fifths of the vote in San Diego County and even narrowly carried Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, suburban behemoths that Republicans once usually won. (Even if the final counts tilt any of those counties narrowly toward the yes position, Newsom at worst neutralized what was once a GOP strength.)
The “no” vote amassed big margins in the more sparsely populated inland counties that have become the California GOP’s last redoubt, but until the final ballots are counted (a process that will take weeks), it won’t be entirely clear whether those places kept pace with the robust turnout in the blue-leaning population centers. While cautioning that the final numbers could point toward a different conclusion, Sean Clegg, a senior strategist for Newsom, says, “I think we got asymmetric turnout.”
The issue was especially cutting with the college-educated voters key to the Democrats’ suburban gains under Trump. In the California exit poll, according to details provided by the CNN polling unit, about four-fifths of both White and non-White college-educated voters said they supported Newsom’s mandate for masks in schools and more than 7 in 10 in both groups described his approach to the pandemic as about right or even insufficiently strict. About two-thirds of non-Whites with at least four-year college degrees and an astounding 70% of college-plus Whites opposed the recall, the exit poll found; in the 2018 race, Newsom had won 59% of those college-plus White voters.
“This upscale vs. downscale, college educated vs. non-college educated divide really correlates to vaccination too,” says Clegg, noting that vaccination rates are much higher for Americans with college degrees than those without them. “Don’t think about it as just a Democrat vs. Republican fault line, think about it as a fault line between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. When you draw the line there, you bring a lot of independents with you and even a few Republicans.”
Newsom’s private polls, as well as late public surveys by the Public Policy Institute of California and the University of California at Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, all showed about two-thirds or more of vaccinated voters opposing the recall.
Youngkin, the Virginia GOP nominee, has two big advantages over Gillespie in 2017. One is that voters from the party out of the White House typically are more inspired to vote in off-year elections.
“There’s just a lot more energy when the guy you hate is in the White House than when he is out,” says Glen Bolger, a veteran Republican pollster. “I think California is the anomaly, because California is so Democratic.”
A tightrope for Youngkin
The Washington Post/Schar School poll underscored the challenge that positioning creates for Youngkin in the state’s burgeoning suburbs: College-educated White voters preferred McAuliffe over Youngkin on handling both the virus and abortion by margins exceeding 15 percentage points. On the bottom-line question, the poll showed McAuliffe leading among those well-educated White voters by 12 points, a significantly bigger margin than Northam amassed among them in 2016.
To Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, those results capture the squeeze facing Youngkin. To maintain the super-heated energy that Trump generated among the GOP’s mostly rural Virginia base, “he can’t change” his opposition to vaccine mandates or legal abortion, even though those views limit his suburban potential. “Youngkin’s affable and he’s a good guy. But he can’t do anything about the positions that are hurting him [in the suburbs],” says Sabato.
Bolger, the GOP pollster, says Youngkin doesn’t need to run as competitively in the Virginia suburbs as Republicans did a decade ago because the party now generates so many more votes in rural areas.
“We have to do better than we did in 2018 and 2020, but I don’t think we have to do quite as well as we did” in the first elections of this century, through around 2012, Bolger says. But Komar, the Democratic strategist, says Youngkin faces the conundrum that the hardline Trump-style positions necessary to maintain an elevated rural advantage inherently limit his potential suburban inroads.
“There is a real Republican base in Virginia, and Youngkin needs to turn the Trump voters out — but without offending the suburbs,” Komar says. “He’s in a much tougher spot than McAuliffe when it comes to picking the right issue.”
Youngkin’s best hope, Sabato says, may be to peel away the outer DC suburbs of Loudon and Prince William counties from the more steadfastly liberal and Democratic suburbs of Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria closer to the city itself. (The Washington Post/Schar survey showed signs of that happening.) To secure an upset, Youngkin probably also needs a further decline in Biden’s approval rating; conversely, any recovery for the President before Election Day will narrow the Republican’s path.
Betting on Newsom’s playbook
Sabato thinks that will be a strong card to play. “On the vaccine side, it was the anti- vaxxers who had the energy; now it’s the vaccinated population furious at the unvaccinated,” he says.
“For college-educated people, vaccine mandates don’t seem too onerous,” says Tom Davis, a former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee who represented a district from Northern Virginia in the US House.
Davis, now a partner at the law firm Holland & Knight, says that however these debates play out, the underlying dynamics of first-term midterm elections still point toward GOP gains in 2022, particularly with Biden’s approval rating sagging.
“People voted for Biden because they didn’t want Donald Trump in their living room for four more years, but they didn’t vote for all this woke stuff and all these taxes and things,” he says. “Everybody who wins, they overread their mandate … and I think voters are going to pump the brakes.”
But if there’s any path for Democrats to avoid, or even minimize, those traditional losses next year it runs through the suburban communities that shifted toward them in the Trump years. Newsom’s advisers believe they found a formula to do so with his trinity of Trump, abortion rights, and vaccine and mask mandates. With McAuliffe largely replicating that playbook, Virginia looms as the next big test of whether they’re right.