Does Virginia race hold much deeper problems for Democrats?

Greg Nash, Getty Images,

Since 1977, Virginia has elected a governor of the party opposite the president in his first term. Considering that historical fact, a win by Republican Glenn Youngkin over ubiquitous former Governor Terry McAuliffe should not be much of a surprise. But the Democrats face two serious problems should Youngkin win: 1) losing a race they should win on difficult issues, and 2) confirmation that public polling is significantly underestimating Republican electoral strength.

The first year of a president’s first term is normally dress rehearsal for bad mid-term elections. The party in power is focused on its policy agenda while the party out of power is energized to recover politically.

But Virginia has become markedly more hostile to Republicans. No Republican has won statewide since 2009, and Democratic Presidential candidates have won each contest since 2000, with Trump losing to Biden by over 10-points.

And Democrats must have figured the race would be a cakewalk, nominating former governor and Washington ultra-insider McAuliffe to face an ex-private equity executive who has never run for office before. Just paint Youngkin as a Trump clone and smear him with the typical anti-Wall Street ads and coast to victory, right?

Well, it’s not proving so easy. Youngkin has been hitting McAuliffe on crime issues and has found an effective theme in advocating for parents’ rights against teachers’ unions and cowering school boards. After going through the necessity of embracing Trump during the Virginia GOP convention, Youngkin has treated Trump like a contagious zombie irradiated with plutonium. A Youngkin win would show that Republicans don’t need Trump — they just need to run on the effective issues Youngkin has been exploiting.

Alternately, McAuliffe losing would be a major blow to President Biden and the Democrats. The loss in a solidly Blue state is bad enough, but to lose to a rookie from Wall Street would be really galling. It could also exacerbate the divide between moderates and progressives. McAuliffe is the poster child for insider, deal-making, moderate Democratic politics — he is, after all, a very prominent member of the Clinton-loving Washington elite. Progressives will have a field day ripping the choice of candidate.

More polling problems in store? 

Losing the Virginia governor’s office would be bad, but it is not really fatal. Control of Congress does not hinge on it, and if the state does vote Republican in 2024, it would probably be part of a decisive wave and not a true swing state.

What would be more ominous in a Democratic loss is that their political strength is much weaker than they believe based on public polling. There would be more confirmation that there is a large, hidden conservative/populist vote (or vote that opposes current Democratic Party dogma) that public polling is no longer capturing.

In short, that they are running behind and running blind.

Public polling has taken a well-deserved beating of late. The 2020 public polls missed pretty badly. While most of the attention was on the national presidential poll, the worst results were at the state level. National polls had Trump losing to Biden by an average of 9 points, according to RealClearPolitics (RCP), while his actual loss was half that. But the state polls were far worse.

Some public polls had Trump losing Ohio and Florida by large margins, both states he won (and he won Ohio by 8 points and Florida by 3 points. Trump had multiple close calls in states that the public polls had him losing handily.

Worse for the Democrats was that the polling for down-ballot races was even worse. Quinnipiac and Emerson had Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) losing by 9 points and 15 points, respectively — she won easily. Quinnipiac thought Sen. Jodi Ernst (R-Iowa) would lose —she also won easily. Quinnipiac also had Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) losing — he won by over 10-points. Even states where the polling was relatively accurate, there was a distinct Democratic bias. 

In Virginia, McAuliffe has consistently led in all the polls. The RCP Average has McAuliffe in the lead by an average of 5 points. Only one poll has put Youngkin in the lead. The Republican-leaning Trafalgar Group had Youngkin trailing McAuliffe by 1 or 2 points in their earlier polls; the most recent poll has McAuliffe ahead 48 percent to 44 percent.

If the Virginia polling is as inaccurate as the 2020 state-level polling, Youngkin actually would be in a dead heat or possibly ahead of McAuliffe.

A miss on the McAuliffe-Youngkin contest would be just the tip of a new bad polling iceberg for Democrats. If the national polls understate Biden’s approval at the same level they overestimated his margin in 2020, his “true” approval rating would be down 7 points instead of 3 points, which would be approaching Trump-level unpopularity.

Looking at the way-too-early polling for next year’s Senate races, if the errors from 2020 remain consistent for 2022, Democrats could be truly staring into the abyss. Early polling shows Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) ahead in their races (Grassley far ahead). Potential GOP challenger and sitting Gov. Christopher Sununu in New Hampshire is polling 8 points ahead of incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan. In Georgia, Arizona and Nevada, the strongest potential GOP candidates are 5-points or fewer behind incumbent Democrats.

Democrats are practically guaranteed to lose the House in 2022. Holding the Senate is a much better prospect, with Republicans defending 20 seats. Taking the current polling at face value gives Democrats a chance to add seats — but if the public polling continues to underestimate GOP support, Democrats could be looking at losing three to four seats, which would be a disaster for them.

A liberal-progressive viewpoint is more prevalent than ever in mainstream media and academia. While debating issues and values can be an endless merry-go-round, polling can be proven right or wrong. The inability of these institutions to accurately report public sentiment is a serious problem, and — if it continues — will only further degrade their credibility … and hurt their fellow travelers in the Democratic Party as well.

Keith Naughton, Ph.D., is co-founder of Silent Majority Strategies, a public and regulatory affairs consulting firm. Naughton is a former Pennsylvania political campaign consultant. Follow him on Twitter @KNaughton711.

Tags 2022 midterm elections Biden approval rating Chuck Grassley Democratic control of House and Senate Democratic Party Glenn Youngkin Joe Biden liberal bias Maggie Hassan Marco Rubio Opinion poll polling accuracy Presidency of Joe Biden public polling Susan Collins Terry McAuliffe Virginia Virginia gubernatorial election

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