Virginia polls hint at a dug-in electorate

In what has become a critical bellwether of the national political environment the year before a midterm election, former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season BBB threatens the role of parents in raising — and educating — children Virginia's urgent lesson: Democrats' down-ballot enthusiasm gap MORE (D) and former Carlyle Group chief executive Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Parnell exit threatens to hurt Trump's political clout Virginia's urgent lesson: Democrats' down-ballot enthusiasm gap MORE (R) are locked in a neck and neck battle to identify every persuadable voter in a commonwealth that has trended increasingly Democratic in recent years.

But to judge from the public polls, the two men are hunting for a voter who barely exists: Surveys show the race to be Virginia’s next governor is virtually tied, and incredibly stable amid a turbulent political environment in which issues far beyond their control — a raging global epidemic, a chaotic exit from Afghanistan and even a potentially cataclysmic debt default — dominate the headlines.

In survey after survey, McAuliffe and Youngkin seem to be at a virtual standstill. A Roanoke College poll conducted in mid-August showed McAuliffe leading by 8 points; the same survey released this week showed him leading by 7. Monmouth gave McAuliffe a 5-point advantage in late August, and a 5-point advantage in a poll released this week. Trafalgar, a Republican-leaning firm, put McAuliffe ahead by 2 points in early July, and by 1 point in late August.

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Only one poll, conducted by the University of Mary Washington two weeks ago, has showed Youngkin ahead. In that poll, the Republican leads by a 48 percent to 43 percent margin among likely voters, though still within the margin of error.

Republicans say their internal data has showed the race closing, especially in the wake of the chaotic American withdrawal from Afghanistan that kicked off a difficult political stretch for President BidenJoe BidenUS lawmakers arrive in Taiwan to meet with local officials Biden meets with Coast Guard on Thanksgiving Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE. Both the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections have moved race ratings toward Youngkin in recent weeks, though neither sees the race as a runaway.

If those internal numbers are accurate, the GOP polls are seeing something that public surveys are missing.

“Based on all of the polls, it’s a toss-up,” said former Gov. Douglas Wilder (D), who now oversees survey research at Virginia Commonwealth University. Wilder’s latest poll showed McAuliffe leading by 9 points, though with a whopping 23 percent of voters left to decide.

McAuliffe’s slim lead in virtually every poll is a sign to some Republicans that their candidate has a shot to become the first GOP nominee in a dozen years to win the governorship. In 2013, the year he won office, polls showed McAuliffe about 6 points ahead of his rival, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R). McAuliffe won that race by just 2 percentage points.

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Pollsters say the apparently immoveable electorate is a result of a heated political environment that has only become more entrenched on their respective sides.

“It seems that partisan tribalism has deepened so much over the past five years that what we generally talk about as the fundamentals of a race are pretty much etched in stone from day one,” said Patrick Murray, the polling director at Monmouth. He said a similar dynamic is happening in Monmouth’s home state of New Jersey, where Gov. Phil Murphy (D) maintains a stable lead over his Republican challenger.

Those results are reminiscent of California’s recent recall election, in which Gov. Gavin NewsomGavin NewsomApple, Nordstrom stores hit in latest smash-and-grab robberies Ted Cruz ribs Newsom over vacation in Mexico: 'Cancun is much nicer than Cabo' San Francisco DA charges 9 involved in organized retail thefts MORE (D) survived a significant threat to his political career by casting the election as a referendum on the national Republican ticket, and by tying his most prominent rival — radio host Larry Elder (R) — to former President TrumpDonald TrumpFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Giving thanks for Thanksgiving itself Immigration provision in Democrats' reconciliation bill makes no sense MORE.

McAuliffe has tried to invoke Trump repeatedly as a foil in his own race. In a debate this week, McAuliffe mentioned Trump so often that Youngkin joked he had won a bet for those who took the over.

“There’s an over and under tonight on how many times you’re going to say Donald Trump, and it was 10, and you just busted through it,” Youngkin told McAuliffe. “Let’s have Terry McAuliffe vs. Glenn Youngkin, and let’s let Virginia voters decide who they want their next governor to be.”

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Wilder, who has been skeptical of other Democratic nominees ever since he left office a generation ago, said McAuliffe’s strategy is a tough sell in a state where the highly educated electorate prides themselves on independence.

“The public knows who’s on the ballot. They know that it’s not Donald Trump, and the anti-Trumpism I don’t know is going to play out how they think it will,” Wilder told The Hill in an interview. “The people are not stupid enough to think that when they go to vote they are going to vote against Donald Trump. They are not stupid.”

"Terry is running a 24/7 campaign laser focused on the issues Virginians care most about — defeating COVID, creating good jobs, making health care more affordable, and giving every child a world-class education,” said Renzo Olivari, a McAuliffe campaign spokesman. “Meanwhile, Glenn Youngkin is running a hyperpartisan campaign predicated on his four-time endorsement from Donald Trump, and his own stated priorities: banning abortion, pushing anti-vaccine rhetoric and policies based on election conspiracy theories. Virginians should make no mistake: the future of our commonwealth is on the ballot this fall and Terry will win when Virginians show up to vote early this fall.”

Youngkin’s press staff did not respond to requests for comment.

McAuliffe has also criticized Youngkin’s opposition to vaccine and mask mandates in Virginia schools and workplaces, betting hard that the public favors tough action to combat the coronavirus pandemic over a vocal minority who want restrictions to end.

Youngkin, meanwhile, has made education a top selling point, spotlighting McAuliffe’s opposition to bans on critical race theory in the classroom, a hot topic in some Northern Virginia counties where school board meetings have become appointment viewing on cable news channels.

Polls show voters see both the pandemic and education issues as the prime movers in their vote — though jobs and the economy top both.

The most recent Monmouth survey showed more voters trusted McAuliffe to handle the pandemic, by a 41 percent to 28 percent margin. The two candidates were more narrowly divided on the question of who would better handle the economy and education.

Neither Youngkin nor McAuliffe has made significant inroads into the other candidate’s base. About 9 in 10 Democrats back McAuliffe, and about 9 in 10 Republicans support Youngkin. Most surveys show an enthusiasm gap that favors Youngkin — not unusual in an environment in which the opposition party has just captured the White House — but Virginia’s emerging Democratic lean is mitigating any catastrophe for McAuliffe.

“The only room for movement is with independents. We see them moving slightly toward Youngkin, but I don't expect to see major movement. As was true in other recent elections, this will likely come down to turnout,” said Harry Wilson, the polling director at Roanoke. “We see more enthusiasm among Republicans, so that may impact what we see on Election Day.”