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How Republicans Swept A Bluish State

Despite what you may have heard, Virginia can still be a purple state. Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated Democrat and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in Virginia’s gubernatorial contest on Tuesday, becoming the first Republican to win a statewide office in Virginia since 2009. As of Wednesday morning, Youngkin led by around 2.5 percentage points — pretty much in line with what pre-election polls showed and good enough to become the Old Dominion’s next governor.

Coming into the election, FiveThirtyEight put together benchmark margins in all 133 of Virginia’s counties and independent cities based on the 2020 election result to provide a road map to show which way the race was trending as the votes came in.1 And we can use those now, with almost all the votes counted, to unpack how Youngkin won. In the near-final analysis, Youngkin prevailed by outperforming those benchmarks in most parts of the commonwealth — and beating former President Donald Trump’s performance in every locality in the state. The map and table below lay out how each county and city voted compared to the benchmarks, and they show the relative breadth of Youngkin’s gains.

Youngkin overperformed across Virginia

Benchmarks for the 2021 governor’s race, based on each city’s or county’s two-party vote margin relative to Joe Biden’s statewide two-party vote margin in the 2020 presidential election, as of 1:45 a.m. on Nov. 3, 2021

Vote margin calculated based on the two-party vote, which uses just the Democratic and Republican vote totals. Together, the share of the statewide vote and the benchmark margins produce a 50-50 tie, so performance relative to these benchmarks could signal which party is performing better on election night.

Sources: Dave Leip’s Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections, ABC News

Performing well in the suburbs, where Trump struggled, is key to unlocking Virginia, and Youngkin made serious inroads in those parts of the state. Take Loudoun and Chesterfield counties, two of the largest suburban counties in the state. Loudoun, which sits outside of Washington, D.C., still went for McAuliffe by about 11 percentage points, but that marked a huge deterioration for Democrats in comparison to Biden’s 25-point edge there last November. This was an example of Youngkin not necessarily needing to win a fairly blue municipality, but doing enough to cut the margins to help his cause overall. Chesterfield, meanwhile, has traditionally been a Republican-leaning county that sits just south of the state capital of Richmond. Biden won it by about 7 points in 2020, but Chesterfield returned to its formerly red ways as Youngkin carried it by close to 10 points.

Conversely, the main areas where Youngkin didn’t improve as markedly (and ran behind our benchmarks) tended to be very red localities in the western part of the state. But Youngkin still won all those strongly Republican places by huge margins anyway, outperforming Trump. And as land, rocks and trees can’t vote, Youngkin’s tremendous showing in the more populous parts of Virginia really gave him his victory on Tuesday.

With the sizable shifts toward the GOP across the commonwealth, Virginia’s result wasn’t just about Youngkin, however. One inescapable fact about this election is that it took place in an environment that was favorable to Republicans. There’s no better indicator of that than President Biden’s poor approval rating, which stood at about 43 percent coming into Election Day in FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker. Republicans were already more likely to show up in reaction to having a Democratic president, and Biden’s struggles likely turned off some independent voters, too, as the exit poll found they went for Youngkin by 9 points, 54 percent to 45 percent.

Youngkin improved on Trump’s performance with white voters (both men and especially women), who also made up a bigger share of the electorate this year compared to 2020, according to the Virginia exit polls. White Virginians accounted for 74 percent of voters, up from 67 percent last year. In particular, Youngkin did significantly better than Trump among white women with “some college or less,” per the exit polls: He carried that group 75 percent to 25 percent, greatly improving on Trump’s 56 percent to 44 percent performance with them.

The simplest way, though, to describe how Youngkin won is basically that he just performed better across the board, and did so via both turnout and vote choice. At least according to the exit polls (which aren’t always reliable, so we’ll be looking at this question in other ways in the coming days), the electorate that turned out in 2021 was older and whiter than the one that turned out in 2020, and more friendly to Republicans in other ways. And Youngkin improved on Trump’s performance with a host of demographic groups across that electorate.


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Overall, just over 3.3 million Virginians cast a ballot, which works out to around 52 to 53 percent of the voting-eligible population -- record turnout for a modern Virginia governor’s race. If the competitiveness of the 2020 presidential election with the highest turnout since women got the right to vote didn’t convince you that Republicans can benefit as much or even more from high-turnout elections than Democrats, perhaps the Virginia election will be the nail in the coffin for the belief that high turnout is only good for Democrats.

The support Youngkin attracted also materialized down the ballot at a similar rate, too, as the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general won nearly identical shares of the vote to Youngkin (as of this writing, only the lieutenant governor race had been projected for the GOP). The similarity in results is unsurprising in a polarized age with little ticket-splitting, and those factors appear to have potentially given Republicans the edge in the Virginia House of Delegates, too, as they led 51 seats to 49 seats in still-to-be-finalized results.

In the wake of this victory, many Republicans are sure to embrace the campaign strategy and chief issues that Youngkin used in his victorious effort. That means trying to straddle being pro-Trump but not so Trump-y that you repel suburban voters, while also talking about “education” and the economy. (For a discussion of how education became an umbrella term that includes race, racism, COVID-19 school closures and more, please check out our election live blog.) The exit polls in Virginia found those were the two most important topics for voters, with Youngkin winning voters who prioritized those issues by a little more than 10 points. This approach is not guaranteed to work for every Republican candidate in 2022, but it could be a useful road map for them.

We can’t know with absolute certainty that the Virginia race is a harbinger of things to come in the 2022 midterm elections, but the result does show how damaging an electoral environment like the current one could be for the Democrats next year. History suggests they, as the party that holds the White House, have a hard road to keep control of Congress in 2022, but the Virginia race demonstrates how even seemingly winnable races could be lost if Biden remains as unpopular as he is now. How much Biden rights the ship of state in the coming months will be critical to determining just how ripe of an environment Republicans have next year.

Footnotes

  1. Put simply, we uniformly adjusted the 2020 margins to comprise a tied, 50-50 race statewide. That way, the county-level margins marked what Youngkin or McAuliffe needed to beat in any particular county or independent city to win overall.

Geoffrey Skelley is an elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

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