What Virginia's early vote tells us about a tight-as-a-tick governor's race

Nearly three-quarters of a million Virginians have voted ahead of the closely watched race between former Gov. Terry McAuliffeTerry McAuliffeNortham announces final steps in clearing, ceding area where Lee monument stood Judges uphold GOP win for Virginia state House seat, cementing party control of chamber To empower parents, reinvent schools MORE (D) and former Carlyle Group chief executive Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinNortham announces final steps in clearing, ceding area where Lee monument stood Judges uphold GOP win for Virginia state House seat, cementing party control of chamber Georgia becomes ground zero for 2022 elections MORE (R), a contest that will provide a critical read on the political mood ahead of next year’s midterm elections. 

Polling in the race is unanimous: Almost no matter the model a pollster uses to divine which voters will show up, McAuliffe and Youngkin are tied. It has been more than a month since any survey showed one candidate with an advantage outside the margin of error; the last six public surveys give McAuliffe an average advantage of 0.8 percentage points — effectively nothing.

Early voting isn’t much more help. Voters in Virginia do not register by party, making it impossible to know whether more Democrats or more Republicans are showing up to cast their ballots.

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But what is certain is that early voting in the commonwealth, long a holdout against trends of allowing access to the ballot box before Election Day, is here to stay. 

After the Democratic-controlled legislature expanded access to early voting ahead of the 2020 elections, Virginia voters are beginning to adopt the practice far more widely than ever before. Four years ago, just 190,000 people cast early ballots; already this year, nearly four times that many people have done so.

Both Democrats and Republicans maintain exhaustive records on voters, allowing each side to model rough estimates about where they stand when the polls open on Election Day. Interviews with modelers tracking the vote for both Democratic and Republican clients show a few things that are known — and some critical unknowns — ahead of next week’s election.

Democrats begin with an edge

When the polls open on Election Day, more people will have already cast ballots for Terry McAuliffe than for Glenn Youngkin. That isn’t new, veteran data experts say: The habits built up over years by voters in various parties and demographic groups mean Democrats almost always win the early vote, while Republicans almost always win the vote on Election Day.

“The Democrats, just by nature of their behavior, turn out earlier in the time when they’re allowed to. Therefore, it’s typical for some lead to get built up heading into Election Day,” said Mark Stephenson, a Republican modeler who is monitoring the Virginia totals. “Just the behavior of our voters is a lot of them still like to vote on Election Day. After all, Trump won Election Day votes in Virginia by 25 points.

The question, then, becomes how much of an advantage can Democrats build up, and will it be enough to survive the Republican votes that come in on Election Day — whether Democrats have built a dike big enough to withstand the red tide.

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Tom Bonier, who runs the Democratic data firm TargetSmart, estimates that 54.7 percent of those who have cast ballots already are Democratic voters and 30.4 percent are Republican voters. That’s a bigger advantage than President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE built in 2020, when early Democratic voters outnumbered early Republican voters by a 9-point edge. 

But the overall share of voters casting early votes is likely to be lower than the share who did so in 2020. 

Last year, the 2.8 million early votes cast represented almost 63 percent of total ballots cast. This year, the total early vote — likely to land somewhere around 850,000 votes — is probably going to wind up as closer to a third of total ballots cast.

So McAuliffe has probably built a higher wall among early voters, but the Election Day wave is going to be taller than it was last year.

Turnout will be down from 2020

No surprise here. Total turnout in Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial elections is typically less than two-thirds of the total turnout from the previous year’s presidential contest — and it can fall to nearly half the prior presidential year, like it did in 2009, when total votes cast equaled just 53 percent of the 2008 election.

Early voter turnout this year is about half what it was a year ago, signaling another precipitous drop ahead.

But Republicans got the message last year, after Biden built such a big lead in the early vote.

“Glenn Youngkin has continually encouraged Virginians to vote early and the campaign has focused its efforts on the early vote because the best way to win back the Commonwealth and ensure Virginia has safe communities, a rip-roaring economy and that parents have a voice in their child’s education is to vote early for Glenn,” said Macaulay Porter, a Youngkin campaign spokesperson.

Democrats say early voting is ticking up in the last few days, a sign of their late momentum.

“Due to expanded early voting locations and hours over the past week we have seen a meaningful jump in the daily early vote totals, with over 310,000 ballots cast since last Monday,” said Christina Freundlich, a McAuliffe spokeswoman.

Northern Virginia is turning out (relatively) huge

About a third of all early votes this year have been cast in the Washington, D.C., media market, the engine that has driven Virginia’s shift from red state to purple battleground to blue bastion.

Bonier’s model shows a higher share of those Northern Virginia voters are likely Democrats (64 percent) than were in either 2020 (54.5 percent) or 2017 (57 percent).

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“We’ve also seen early voting from Democrats jump in places like Loudoun, Prince William and Chesterfield counties, which tells us that Democratic voters there who backed Joe Biden in 2020 are now turning out to vote for Terry,” Freundlich said.

But Northern Virginia has played an unusual role in this year’s elections: It includes Loudoun County, the epicenter of the debate over school curriculum and critical race theory that has taken over the statewide conversation and starred in advertising paid for by both Youngkin and McAuliffe’s campaigns.

Has Youngkin made inroads among voters who turned out to vote against former President TrumpDonald TrumpBiden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package Trump calls Milley a 'f---ing idiot' over Afghanistan withdrawal First rally for far-right French candidate Zemmour prompts protests, violence MORE but who might be drifting back to the right? His campaign believes so: Youngkin models show he is performing better than Trump in Loudoun County and also in important regions like Virginia Beach and Henrico and Chesterfield counties.

"There’s areas in Northern Virginia that are probably doing what they want them to be. I’m not convinced those people are all voting for Terry McAuliffe,” Stephenson said.

Black voters are showing up

Black voters have cast about 11.5 percent of all early ballots so far, according to Bonier’s model, significantly higher than the 8.2 percent share of the electorate they made up in the 2017 early vote. And those who have showed up are more likely to be Democrats than they were four years ago.

White voters still make up the overwhelming majority of early voters — 82.3 percent — but their share is down 3 percentage points from four years ago. Diving deeper, the drop-off among white voters appears to be coming from those who do not have a college education, voters who were more likely to vote Republican in recent years.

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But again, history is an imperfect guide at best. Are those college-educated white voters, who voted overwhelmingly against Trump, going to feel the same way about the fleece-clad Youngkin? McAuliffe’s paid media has aimed to create an inexorable link between Trump and Youngkin, and exit polls particularly among those voters will illustrate whether that strategy worked.

Younger voters aren’t

Twice as many voters between the ages of 18 and 29 have voted in 2021 than voted early in 2017, 43,700 versus about 21,000 four years ago. But that represents a steep drop-off in vote share — the youngest voters represent just over half the share of the electorate they did in 2017.

“Overall turnout growth in this age group has not kept pace with the rest of the electorate,” Bonier wrote.

On the other end of the spectrum, voters 65-74 and over 75 represent higher shares of the electorate than they did four years ago. 

In the 2020 presidential contest, the youngest voters backed Biden by a nearly 2 to 1 margin, while those over 65 backed Trump by 9 points. That, Bonier says, is a “potential concerning sign” for his party.

Biden is a drag

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The polls that show a tied race at the top of the ticket also show Biden consistently underwater in Virginia. Just this week, Biden’s approval ratings stand at 42 percent in a Suffolk poll, 41 percent in a Virginia Commonwealth University poll, and 41 percent in an Emerson College poll.

"Some good news for them is that Biden’s numbers are not that good in the state right now,” Stephenson said. “The fact that we don’t have party registration, there are a lot of independent voters from a modeled standpoint that should be much more Youngkin leaning than they were in 2020."

So what do we know?

When the polls open Tuesday morning, it’s pretty safe to say that more people will have voted for McAuliffe than for Youngkin. It’s also safe to say that, on Tuesday itself, more people will vote for Youngkin than McAuliffe.

How high is the Democratic dike? How big is the Republican wave? For those answers, we have to wait for the polls to close and the votes to be counted.