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Three reasons Youngkin is likely performing better than polls say in Virginia

Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin
Greg Nash

The midseason political event of the year is the near-impossible to predict race between two men who question the tools of the republic to decide their own fate. Virginia’s mid-midterm elections appear to be headed for yet another contentious overtime.

Both Terry McAuliffe (D) and Glenn Youngkin (R) have basic doubts about our ability to hold elections. McAuliffe, in the voice of a professional partisan, rejected George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 and initiated a DNC “investigation” into his victory in Ohio in 2004. Youngkin supports an “election integrity task force” for the commonwealth, where an audit reaffirmed the 2020 election results.

But why get caught up in that? We all know both candidates are reflecting their primary voters’ “we’re-in-it-together” hatred of losing. As someone who has worked in politics for 25 years and knows these folks, you will find no greater competitor than someone who puts his or her name on a ballot. Deep down, both these guys know that George W. Bush won twice, and Trump once.

Who will win in Virginia? Any pollster worth their crosstabs should tell you they don’t know. It’s too close. All of the latest polls are tied or within the margin of error. It shouldn’t be that way, which is why Youngkin has the edge. He shouldn’t be this close.

For a GOP candidate with the former president’s endorsement — and McAuliffe’s constant reminder of it — we’re likely missing some of the Trump effect in our polling. This is the non-response bias that keeps me up at night as a pollster — the notion that those who answer our questions, particularly in contentious races, are somehow different than those who don’t.

It would not surprise me if Youngkin is ahead at this point, and that he wins in November. 

Three reasons:

Core message

Youngkin has focused most of his campaign on education, which is an extremely savvy move for a first-time candidate. While most elections don’t turn on education, this time it might. Parents have been upset with the closing of schools and limitation of activities. Some parents are furious over masks and critical race theory. 

Youngkin has said that he will leave masking decisions up to parents, not school systems. Moreover, he is for parents making decisions on virtually all educational issues, an empowering message. McAuliffe, instead, stands with institutions and unions. While McAuliffe is right on masking, standing against parents is a very bad message, which he’s handled very badly.

Handling opposition research

Youngkin has been masterful at countering opposition research hits, which have been the core of McAuliffe’s campaign. Shot: Youngkin plays footsie with 2020 truthers. Chaser: McAuliffe did it twice.  Shot: Youngkin wants Texas-style abortion rules in Virginia. Chaser: Youngkin said in a debate he would shorten the period when a women can get an abolition to where a fetus feels pain, which is about two to four weeks less than it is now. Shot: Youngkin is against masks. Chaser: Youngkin wants parents to decide, not school boards.

In each of these cases, Youngkin mitigates the damage of the attack, and — in some cases — returns fire more powerfully. While Youngkin is a newbie to politics, he’s campaigning like a pro.

Voter enthusiasm

Finally, first-time candidate Youngkin has far stronger voter enthusiasm than the lifetime political hack and retread governor McAuliffe. The commonwealth allows governors to return for another run after four years, but it’s generally a bad political look for the party. 

Democrats have been in power here for several years, and it’s resulted in a fair amount of corruption and far-too-left of center policies for this purple state. Trump twice masked it as a blue state, but it’s really not. Virginia is two states, north and south, and the counties that go blue and red roughly split. Being the change candidate in this environment fuels enthusiasm.

There’s literally nothing new and exciting about McAuliffe. Democrats are fighting with each other just up the road in Washington, deadlocked on policy, and Virginia’s candidate is unusually tied to the party. A sign of a lack of enthusiasm for Democrats: McAuliffe admitted on a recent call that Biden is unpopular here.

There are other signs — or lack of them. Drive around Loudoun County, the most up-for-grabs one in the commonwealth, and you will have to search for a McAuliffe yard sign. Yes, yard signs are overrated as a persuasive political tactic, but they reflect voter enthusiasm. This is not upstate or downstate. This is right in the middle, and McAuliffe is invisible, while Youngkin is everywhere. If you are a low-information voter, you could be excused for thinking that there is only one name on the ballot. McAuliffe has run a negative campaign, while Youngkin has a set of policies that are coherent and different.

While both candidates apparently have their qualms about democracy, Team Youngkin has deployed the tools of modern political campaigns much more effectively. Campaigns in purple states matter, and it’s more likely than not that Virginia will become one again in November.

Michael D. Cohen, Ph.D., is CEO of Cohen Research Group, a leading political, public affairs, and corporate research firm. He publishes the award-winning Congress in Your Pocket suite of mobile apps and teaches graduate courses at Johns Hopkins University on research methods, political campaigns, and public policy. He is the author of “Modern Political Campaigns: How Professionalism, Technology, and Speed Have Revolutionized Elections,” published this year by Rowman & Littlefield.

Tags 2021 Virginia governor election 2021 Virginia gubernatorial election Glenn Youngkin opinion polling Terry McAuliffe Virginia Virginia governor's race voter enthusiasm

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