Virginia's urgent lesson: Democrats' down-ballot enthusiasm gap

Virginia’s elections this year are more than a bellwether for 2022’s federal midterms. They are a rallying cry for Democrats to focus on down-ballot candidates. State legislatures are growing in power and are ground zero in the fight for our democracy. After two productive trifecta years, Virginia Democrats have lost the governorship and the House. Understanding how the legislative majority was lost is critical to righting the ship and building legislative power next year, when thousands of state legislative races will decide the future of crucial issues from voting rights to abortion access.

Two points are clear from the post-election data. First, the Democratic enthusiasm gap we identified between the top and bottom of the ticket in the 2020 elections returned in 2021. Second, a large differential in roll-off between Republican and Democratic candidates may have cost the House majority: 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 received 60,000-plus more votes than did his party-mates running for state legislature, whereas Governor-elect Glenn YoungkinGlenn YoungkinActivists preparing for midterms with abortion as a key issue Northam 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 MORE received 2,973 fewer votes than Republican state legislative candidates. This likely indicates significant ballot roll-off between the top and bottom of the Democratic ticket, and virtually zero roll-off for Republicans. 

The bottom line? Democrats lost the House majority by just 733 combined votes in the three tightest districts.

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Enthusiasm/awareness gap: Before the election, there were warning signs for Democrats and a call to learn from 2020’s down-ballot losses: Beware the enthusiasm gap. Unfortunately, what we saw in 2020 occurred in Virginia — an enthusiasm or awareness gap between the top and bottom of the Democratic ticket. 

In 2020, we saw a significant enthusiasm or awareness gap between voters for top and the bottom of the ticket Democrats. In Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and Pennsylvania, Republicans running for state legislature received a higher percentage of the vote total than former President TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE (by an average of 3.51 percent). In all of those states, Democrats running for state legislature received a lower percentage of the vote total than President BidenJoe BidenMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Dole in final column: 'Too many of us have sacrificed too much' Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 MORE (by an average of 2.86 percent). This gap also can be expressed as a lack of “coattails” for down-ballot candidates from up-ballot party-mates. 

This year, we observe a similar pattern: State legislative Democrats got a lower percentage of the total vote than McAuliffe (47.54 percent v. 48.64 percent, respectively, a difference of 0.99 percent), while Republican state legislative candidates got a higher percentage of the total vote than Youngkin (51.56 percent to 50.57 percent, respectively, a difference of 1.1 percent). 

In 2020, these findings indicated that Biden lacked coattails. In Virginia, McAuliffe lacked coattails that could have helped down-ballot Democrats. This is further evidence that the Democratic Party must develop and support inspiring top-of-the-ticket candidates, because they often drive resources, attention and down-ballot votes.

Roll-off/ticket-splitting: Republican state legislative candidates also outperformed Youngkin in vote total. This indicates that Republicans experienced very little roll-off and did a more effective job of firing up their electorate to vote in all races than did Democrats. 

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That difference in roll-off may have been devastating. Ballot roll-off refers to the phenomenon where people vote for top-of-ticket candidates but don’t vote for candidates farther down the ballot — e.g., voting for governor but not state legislature. If roll-off contributed to Democrats’ state legislative outcomes in Virginia, we would expect Democratic legislative candidates to have received significantly fewer overall votes than Democrats at the top of the ticket. 

Indeed, we did see this. On the Democratic side, 63,666 fewer people voted for state legislative Democrats than voted for McAuliffe. On the Republican side, 2,973 more people voted for Republican state legislative candidates than voted for Youngkin. This suggests that, while thousands of McAuliffe voters likely “rolled off,” virtually no Youngkin voters did. In fact, those 2,973 GOP state legislative voters must have either not voted for governor or voted for McAuliffe. Just among contested state legislative races, Republican candidates received 8,975 more votes than Democrats. Together, these data suggest that Democrats could have held onto the House with just a little less roll-off. Democrats likely will have lost the majority by just 733 votes across the three tightest districts (Two candidates are seeking recounts and a third race was tight). 

It’s possible, though unlikely, that ticket-splitting might have contributed to the outcomes of the Nov. 2 election. Since there are 2,973 more votes for Republican state legislative candidates than for Youngkin, some people who voted for Republicans down-ballot may have either voted for McAuliffe or not voted for governor. But this number of votes would not have affected the outcome of the gubernatorial election, and there is no evidence of ticket-splitting that would have helped Democratic state legislative candidates.

The “red wave” we saw in Virginia was not limited to Youngkin’s performance compared to McAuliffe’s. It was also a reflection of enthusiasm for Republican state legislative candidates. In some places, that enthusiasm may have even outpaced the top of the ticket. This is critical for Democrats to remember going into next year, when state legislative races across the country doubtlessly will be decided on similarly small margins.

Midterms start now — time to focus down-ballot: Importantly, we’re focusing on what happened, not why. Democratic stakeholders will need to detangle the “why” by examining the resonance of Democratic messaging, the impact of misinformation, the strength of field programs and other factors. 

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But Democrats cannot overlook these results. We know that midterm performance is generally a reflection of out-party enthusiasm and motivation. That is why the out-party tends to do better in midterm elections. Next year, Democrats will need to out-motivate and out-enthusiasm Republicans to buck historical trends, hold the federal trifecta and — critically — make gains in state legislatures. To do so, Democrats must beware the enthusiasm gap and work tirelessly to reduce roll-off. In 2022, we have the opportunity to learn from 2020 and 2021, develop bold, effective messaging and field programs, and support candidates that inspire people to vote all the way down the ballot.

Gaby Goldstein is co-founder and senior vice president for strategic initiatives at Sister District, which works to build progressive power in state legislatures. Follow her on Twitter @gaby__goldstein.

Mallory Roman is associate director of research at Sister District Action Network. Follow her on Twitter @MalAdapts.