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Everything You Need To Know About The 2021 Elections

It may not be a presidential or midterm election year, but 2021 has its fair share of important votes happening on Tuesday. Virginia’s gubernatorial election is clearly the most noteworthy race, but several other elections — from legislative races to mayoral campaigns to ballot measures to special elections — could have big consequences as well. So buckle up as FiveThirtyEight takes you on a tour of what to watch on Election Day 2021.

An illustration of the state of Virginia within an election ballot oval

Is Virginia truly a blue state?

Tuesday’s main event will happen in Virginia, where Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin are vying to be the commonwealth’s next governor. And the race is pretty much tied, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Virginia polling average, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if either candidate comes out on top.

On one hand, the competitiveness of the race is a bit surprising as Virginia has leaned Democratic in recent years. It voted for President Biden by 10 points in 2020, and it has elected a Democrat in every statewide election dating back to 2012.1 But on the other hand, this D+5 state, according to FiveThirtyEight’s partisan lean,2 is still very susceptible to shifts in the national environment. And thanks to an unpopular Democratic president in the White House, the electoral environment currently favors the GOP. 

Headed into the election, Biden’s approval rating sits at about 43 percent and his disapproval rating at about 51 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker.3 It’s underwater in Virginia, too. Recent polls from USA Today/Suffolk University, Fox News and The Washington Post/Schar School found Biden’s approval rating in the mid-to-low 40s. This may galvanize Republicans — who were already more likely to show up at the polls in reaction to having a Democratic president — while also potentially repelling some independents who backed Biden last November. It’s also dampened enthusiasm among Democrats. The final poll from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center found that 80 percent of Republicans were “very enthusiastic” about voting, compared with just 65 percent of Democrats.

Of course, this is hardly new territory for McAuliffe. He was in the same position in 2013 when another unpopular Democratic president, Barack Obama, was in the White House. Obama’s approval numbers were nearly identical to Biden’s right now, yet McAuliffe still managed to win. In fact, McAuliffe’s victory marked the first for the president’s party in a Virginia gubernatorial race since the GOP won in 1973, during Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Thanks to Virginia’s one-term limit for elected governors, McAuliffe wasn’t able to seek reelection in 2017, but it’s plausible that McAuliffe should be in an even stronger position this time around, as he left office popular. Virginia is also more Democratic-leaning now than it was in 2013. Yet Youngkin looks more formidable than McAuliffe’s 2013 foe, then-state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, who was easy to cast as a right-wing ideologue and couldn’t keep pace with McAuliffe in fundraising. Youngkin, meanwhile, is leaning into his appeal as an outsider — he’s never run for office before — and he’s kept up with McAuliffe in fundraising, thanks in part to self-funding from the immense personal wealth he accrued in the finance industry.

Election live updates and results graphic

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Youngkin has also homed in on education in an attempt to capitalize on debates over how race is taught in schools. His campaign has run ads criticizing McAuliffe for saying in a recent debate that he didn’t “think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe was defending his 2016 veto of legislation that would have allowed parents to have their children “opt out” from reading school books with sexually explicit content, but McAuliffe is clearly concerned about Youngkin’s line of attack, as he’s countered with his own ad in which he says he’s “always valued the concerns of parents.” But in an effort not to give McAuliffe the final word on the matter, Youngkin closed his campaign with an ad featuring a woman criticizing McAuliffe’s veto because her son had to read an explicit book in a college-level high school English course. (The ad doesn’t mention the title, but it was Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning “Beloved,” a novel dealing with the horrors of slavery.) 

This could pay off for Youngkin, too, as USA Today/Suffolk found that 50 percent of likely voters thought parents should have more influence on school curricula than school boards, while 39 percent said school boards should have more influence. Fox News’s recent poll also found likely voters trusted Youngkin more on education, a shift from two weeks earlier when its poll found McAuliffe narrowly ahead on the issue, while the Washington Post/Schar School survey found the candidates running even on the issue even though voters had previously trusted McAuliffe more than Youngkin in their early September poll.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe has continued to score better on COVID-19. Virginians are more likely to support vaccine requirements for professions such as teachers and health care workers, and in most polls have said McAuliffe would handle the pandemic best. However, The Washington Post/Schar School’s final survey suggested — to Youngkin’s potential benefit — that the coronavirus has become a less pressing issue since September, as education and the economy clearly led the way as the top issues for likely voters, while the pandemic faded to a distant third.

But McAuliffe isn’t just campaigning on the pandemic; one of his chief approaches has been to link Youngkin to former President Trump to motivate Democrats and keep independent voters at an arm’s length from Youngkin. McAuliffe has played up Trump’s endorsement of Youngkin and used Youngkin’s opposition to vaccine and mask mandates and the Republican nominee’s support for supposed “election integrity” efforts that question the validity of the 2020 election as evidence that Youngkin is a chip off the old Trump block.

Having won only 44 percent of the vote in Virginia in both 2016 and 2020, Trump has a fairly toxic brand in the commonwealth. And in California’s recent election, Democrats’ efforts to link radio host Larry Elder to Trump do appear to have helped turn out Democrats to defeat the attempt to recall Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom. However, Youngkin doesn’t have Elder’s history of controversial, Trump-esque statements to attack, and California is a far bluer state than Virginia, so Trump-based attacks may not be enough for McAuliffe to edge out Youngkin.

An illustration of the state of New Jersey within an election ballot oval

Is New Jersey’s gubernatorial race competitive?

It may be positioned in a smaller typeface below Virginia on the Election Day marquee, but the New Jersey gubernatorial election could prove more interesting than we might have expected a few months ago. The contest between incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy and Republican Jack Ciattarelli, a former state assemblyman, had mostly simmered on the backburner as Murphy held polling leads of more than 10 points in nonpartisan polls up through August. However, as Biden’s ratings have tumbled, polls suggest the New Jersey contest might be a bit closer than it was before, although Murphy remains a substantial favorite to win. 

Last week, a survey from Monmouth University — which calls New Jersey home — found Murphy leading by 11 points among registered voters, with the incumbent leading by 8 to 14 points in its likely voter model — a smaller advantage than in Monmouth’s previous polls (9 to 19 points). Additionally, a Stockton University poll found Murphy ahead by 9 points among likely voters, while a Fairleigh Dickinson University survey of registered voters put Murphy up by 9 points, but the pollster didn’t release a likely voter figure. But another recent nonpartisan survey, from PIX 11/Emerson College, found a closer contest with Murphy ahead by about 4 points among likely voters.4 The latest Monmouth and Emerson polls found Murphy remains more popular than not, however, as Monmouth put his approval at 52 percent and his disapproval at 39 percent, while Emerson found 49 percent had a favorable view of the governor versus 47 percent who had an unfavorable impression.


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Those surveys suggest that Murphy retains a meaningful edge, but they also contain some warning signs for the Democrat. Monmouth’s poll found Biden’s approval rating among New Jerseyans had fallen to 43 percent, while his disapproval rating stood at 49 percent — this in a state Biden carried by 16 points in 2020. And while Monmouth’s polling has consistently found Murphy with strong ratings regarding his handling of COVID-19, the latest poll showed the issue has become less pressing to voters, whereas issues like taxes, as well as jobs and the economy (mirroring a similar trend in Virginia), have become more important. 

Murphy doesn’t really have an edge over Ciattarelli on those issues either, as the two candidates ran even on whom voters trusted more to handle jobs and the economy in Monmouth’s polling, with more voters saying they trusted Ciattarelli than Murphy on taxes. Emerson’s poll also showed that 51 percent of voters felt taxes should be the top priority for the next governor, which could work to Ciattarelli’s advantage.

Still, Ciattarelli has an uphill battle ahead of him to actually win, not only because Murphy remains relatively popular and New Jersey is a blue state, but also because his side has fewer resources to work with. Although both candidates took public funding, which severely limited the personally wealthy Murphy’s ability to self-fund, outside groups supporting the incumbent governor have vastly outspent those backing his GOP opponent.

While the campaigns of Murphy and Ciattarelli have each spent around $12.5 million, pro-Murphy independent committees have spent $18.4 million, compared with just $2.7 million by pro-Ciattarelli groups. Most of the spending on Ciattarelli’s behalf comes from the Republican Governors Association, but notably the RGA hasn’t spent much more than it did on behalf of the Republican nominee for governor in Murphy’s initial race back in 2017. That, along with the polling data, still shows Ciattarelli is an underdog — but perhaps he’s not quite as far out of the race as it once seemed.

An illustration of the states of New Jersey and Virginia within an election ballot oval

What else is at stake in Virginia and New Jersey

Both Virginia and New Jersey have more on the line on Tuesday than just their governor’s races, though. Virginians will also be voting for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and what happens at the top of the ticket in the gubernatorial contest will likely have a strong effect on the results in those races. That’s because recent elections have seen very little split-ticket voting, so the two parties have won similar vote shares across all three contests. 

As a result, the party that wins the governorship will likely also win the other two positions, both of which Democrats currently hold, although an extremely tight election could produce a split-ticket result. We have limited polling to work with for the lieutenant governor and attorney general races, but the numbers we have seen suggests they are also quite close.

But regardless of the results, some history will be made in Virginia’s statewide down-ballot contests. For starters, its lieutenant governor race will produce the state’s first female lieutenant governor, as Democrat Hala Ayala, a member of the House of Delegates from northern Virginia, faces Republican Winsome Sears, herself a former delegate from the southeastern part of the state. And the pair constitute a historic matchup, as Ayala is a woman of color who identifies as Afro Latina and works in cybersecurity, while the Jamaican-born Sears is a Marine Corps veteran and remains the only Black Republican woman to ever be elected to the House of Delegates

Meanwhile, the race for attorney general will either produce the state’s first AG to win three consecutive terms since the 1940s or the first Latino to hold the office. Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring is seeking his third consecutive term after abandoning an anticipated gubernatorial run following the Democratic Party of Virginia’s turbulent 2019, when Herring admitted that he’d worn blackface at a party as a college student in 1980. (This came out after reports revealed Gov. Ralph Northam had posed in a racist photo for his medical school yearbook in the 1980s and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faced sexual assault allegations.) But in order to pull this off, he’ll first have to defeat Republican state Del. Jason Miyares, who is Cuban American and a lawyer by trade.


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Virginians will also elect the 100 members of the House of Delegates, the lower chamber of the state legislature. (The 40-seat Virginia Senate isn’t up again until 2023.) As things stand now, Democrats hold a 55-to-45 edge in the House, but some Democratic-held seats that the party captured in 2017 and 2019 are competitive and could now flip back to the GOP in a more Republican-leaning environment.

Furthermore, because of the delayed release of census data due to COVID-19, Virginia is holding its state House elections under the lines drawn after the 2010 census instead of a new map reflecting the population changes in the 2020 census. As such, Republicans might stand to benefit because much of the House map was originally drawn to heavily advantage the GOP. Additionally, the old lines don’t account for the disproportionate population growth the more Democratic-leaning areas have experienced over the past decade, especially in Northern Virginia.

Finally, New Jersey also has its legislative elections on Tuesday, but there’s not much drama there. Democrats hold a 25-to-15 advantage in the state Senate and a 52-to-28 edge in the General Assembly. There’s little reason to think their majorities in either chamber are under threat.

An illustration of the US Capitol Building within an election ballot oval

The parade of special elections continues

There are also three special elections for Congress taking place on Tuesday. The two general elections in Ohio — one in the dark-blue 11th District, one in the solidly red 15th District — are uncompetitive,5 although the winning candidates’ margins will give us more data about whether Democrats or Republicans are outperforming expectations so far in the 2022 election cycle. 

But the primary phase of the special election in Florida’s 20th District looks like a jump ball. The South Florida district, left vacant by the death of former Rep. Alcee Hastings in April, is extremely blue, so the winner of the Democratic primary is all but guaranteed to win the January general election. However, 11 Democrats are on the ballot, and at least six could plausibly win the nomination. 

No polls have been conducted since July, but health care executive Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick is leading the money race, having raised $3.8 million through Oct. 13 — $3.7 million of it from her own pockets. Broward County Commissioner Barbara Sharief has pulled in $895,000 and has also been endorsed by neighboring Democratic Rep. Lois Frankel and a former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Broward County Commissioner Dale Holness, a close ally of the late Hastings, has also raised $584,000. State Sen. Perry Thurston ($458,000) and state House Minority Leader Bobby DuBose ($419,000) round out the top five fundraisers. Finally, state Rep. Omari Hardy has pulled in only $172,000 but has earned a national following online for his progressive activism.

As always, there are some ideological divisions in the race: For instance, Cherfilus-McCormick (who has the endorsement of 2020 presidential candidate and author Marianne Williamson) and Hardy (who has the endorsement of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee) are pitching themselves as progressives, while Sharief has called herself a “fiscal moderate and a social progressive.” But the race has largely avoided devolving into a proxy war between the left and the establishment. Instead, issues such as U.S. policy toward Haiti (the district is home to many Haitian Americans) have taken center stage.

An illustration of two donkeys within an election ballot oval

Several mayoral races are progressive-moderate showdowns

If you’re looking for left-vs.-establishment proxy wars, though, the nation’s mayoral races have you covered. At least five major cities will choose between a progressive and a more moderate Democrat to be their next mayor.

  • In Boston, polls have put City Councilor Michelle Wu around 30 points ahead of City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George. Wu, a protegée of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, while Essaibi George is more closely aligned with Biden and former Mayor Marty Walsh (who left city hall to become Biden’s secretary of labor). Either Wu or Essaibi George would be the first woman and the first person of color to be elected mayor of Boston, a city with a sordid history of racism but that has become majority-minority.
  • The mayor’s office is also open in Seattle, where former City Council President Bruce Harrell is going head-to-head against current City Council President Lorena González. Progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal have lined up behind González, while Harrell was regarded as more business-friendly during his time on the council. Harrell has taken the more moderate (though still pretty liberal) positions in this race, too, and he led González in the most recent poll, 48 percent to 32 percent. González also stumbled in the home stretch when she put out an ad in which a white rape survivor accused Harrell, who is Black and Japanese, of not taking sexual-abuse allegations in city government seriously. Harrell denounced the ad as racist, and González eventually agreed to stop airing it.
  • By contrast, there’s no clear favorite in the race to be the next mayor of Cleveland; the two polls we’ve seen have both been within the margin of error, with around 40 percent of voters undecided. The contrasts in the race are sharp: City Council President Kevin Kelley is a 53-year-old white moderate with the endorsement of outgoing Mayor Frank Jackson, and nonprofit executive Justin Bibb is a 34-year-old Black progressive who has never before run for office. One of the biggest issues in the race has been Issue 24, a ballot measure to create a civilian commission to oversee the Cleveland police. Bibb supports it, while Kelley opposes it.
  • Passions over policing are still high in Minneapolis, too, where Mayor Jacob Frey will face voters for the first time since the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests that engulfed the city. With Minneapolitans also voting on local ballot measures to give the mayor’s office more power or take the police department out from under its control, the campaign has become a referendum on the best way to ensure public safety. Frey has opposed previous efforts to defund the police and attempted to keep the police-reform ballot measure off the ballot, while his two most prominent opponents, community organizer Sheila Nezhad and former state Rep. Kate Knuth, support the measure and say Frey didn’t do enough to reform policing before Floyd’s death. Nezhad and Knuth have even formed an alliance, encouraging their supporters to rank the other second under Minneapolis’s ranked-choice voting system (and not to rank Frey at all). The only poll of the race gave Frey 44 percent, Nezhad 25 percent and Knuth 10 percent in the first round, but the poll was conducted by Frey’s supporters, so it’s very possible the race is closer than that.
  • Buffalo is smaller than the other cities here, but its mayor’s race has big drama. Back in June, union representative and democratic socialist India Walton shockingly upset four-term Mayor Byron Brown, 52 percent to 45 percent, in the Democratic primary. But Brown refused to give up his campaign: After a failed attempt to make the November ballot as an independent, he is waging a write-in campaign to keep his job. As Walton’s only opponent, Brown is getting support from local conservatives; some prominent Democrats, such as Gov. Kathy Hochul, have also conspicuously failed to endorse Walton, although she’s received backing from others, such as Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. As hard as winning a write-in campaign is, Brown may be forming a winning coalition: A recent Emerson College poll of likely voters put Walton at just 36 percent, while 54 percent volunteered that they were voting for Brown.

It doesn’t break down cleanly along ideological lines, but the campaign for mayor of Atlanta is also worth your attention. With Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms shockingly forgoing a second term, polling shows former Mayor Kasim Reed and City Council President Felicia Moore leading a 14-person field. Concern over rising crime has provided an opening for Reed, whose administration was marked by low crime rates but also several scandals, to make a political comeback. But while Reed is the best-known candidate in the race, he is also the most unpopular, and Moore has also echoed his pledge to hire more police officers, so he is hardly the only choice for voters looking for someone tough on crime. The campaign has also gotten exceptionally nasty, with Moore opponents sending anonymous text messages with her personal phone number and Reed opponents accusing him of corruption by photoshopping him into a prison jumpsuit. (Reed’s attorneys have claimed he is not the subject of the federal investigation into city hall corruption.) If no candidate receives a majority on Tuesday, the top two finishers would face off in a Nov. 30 runoff.

An illustration of a thumbs up and thumbs down within an election ballot oval

Ballot measures are the icing on the cake

In odd-year elections, ballot measures are often some of the most interesting races to watch. Unfortunately, 2021 is a bit of a down year for them — perhaps the lingering effects of the pandemic, which also slowed ballot-measure campaigns in 2020. But there are nevertheless a few worth watching — most obviously, three constitutional amendments over voting rights in New York.

Proposal 1 would change the state’s complex redistricting process to make it easier for the ruling party to pass its desired maps. New York has a bipartisan redistricting commission, but it’s only advisory in nature: The legislature has the final say in either approving the commission’s proposals or simply imposing its own. Under current law, when the legislature is controlled by a single party (as it is currently, by Democrats), a two-thirds supermajority is required to pass any maps. Proposal 1, however, would lower this threshold to a simple majority to pass one of the commission’s maps and a 60 percent majority to impose its own.

Practically speaking, this may not make a huge difference to the current redistricting process, since Democrats already enjoy two-thirds supermajorities in both chambers of the legislature. But it could be the difference between a minority party having a seat at the table in future redistricting cycles, and it could also allow current Democrats to gerrymander the state even if they have a few dissenters within their ranks.

Members of the Minneapolis Police Department monitor a protest on June 11, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Further down the ballot, New Yorkers will find Proposal 3, which would eliminate the requirement that people register to vote 10 days before an election, and Proposal 4, which would eliminate the requirement that voters provide an excuse to vote absentee. With voting access increasingly a hot-button partisan issue, New York has gotten a lot of attention for how restrictive its voting laws are, especially for a blue state. Democrats have been working to liberalize them since taking full control of state government in 2018, but because many of New York’s voting restrictions are enshrined in the state constitution, they couldn’t eliminate them right away. 

If these amendments pass, the legislature would be able to pass a law allowing people to register to vote on Election Day (which is one of the most powerful election reforms for increasing turnout) and would not need to renew a temporary law (expiring at the end of the year) that added “risk of contracting … a communicable disease like COVID-19” to the list of acceptable excuses for voting absentee.


Whew! That’s a lot of elections — and if you made it this far, you’re probably the kind of person who will be interested in our live blog of the results. Starting Tuesday morning, join us as we discuss all the elections at stake and, come evening, dissect the results.

Footnotes

  1. President and U.S. Senate in 2012; governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2013; U.S. Senate in 2014; president in 2016; governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in 2017; U.S. Senate in 2018; and president and U.S. Senate in 2020.

  2. Partisan lean is the average margin difference between how a state or district votes and how the country votes overall. This version of partisan lean, meant to be used for congressional and gubernatorial elections, is calculated as 50 percent the state or district’s lean relative to the nation in the most recent presidential election, 25 percent its relative lean in the second-most-recent presidential election and 25 percent a custom state-legislative lean.

  3. As of 5 p.m. Eastern on Sunday.

  4. Including undecideds who leaned toward a candidate.

  5. The primaries, which you might remember from August, were much more interesting.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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