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McGlennon breaks down Virginia gubernatorial race

  • Down to the wire:
    Down to the wire:  William & Mary Government Professor John McGlennon says the Virginia gubernatorial race will "provide a great talking point" ahead of the 2022 midterm and 2024 presidential elections.  Stephen Salpukas
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As one of only two states with gubernatorial elections in 2021, many eyes will be on Virginia on Nov. 2, Election Day. Recent polling data has shown a close race between Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin. To break down the race and its possible impact, W&M News spoke to William & Mary Government Professor John McGlennon, an expert on elections. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.  

What are the polls telling us about the gubernatorial race in Virginia?  

As of Oct. 19, if you average all the results of the polls, it shows McAuliffe has about a three-percentage point lead, and that's been fairly consistent among likely voters. Likely voters are generally defined as people who have voted in several of the last elections and are ready to go ahead and vote again in this election, whether they're enthusiastic or not.   

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In terms of the polling at this point, I think it's a little surprising to some people that McAuliffe doesn't have a larger lead given the general tendency of Virginia to move in the Democratic direction. But I think we have to understand that a lot of that tendency in Virginia was driven by dislike for President Donald Trump in the Commonwealth, which produced a 10-point lead for Joe Biden last time.   

I think one of the things that we have to understand about polling in Virginia, like polling nationally, is that people are wondering how accurate those surveys actually are. Pollsters themselves have had to sit down after the last couple of elections and ask, ”What are we missing? Are we sure we're really getting an accurate read on how Virginians or Americans are thinking about various issues?” So the polling industry has gone through a lot of change recently to try to make sure that their results are an accurate reflection of what's happening in an electorate that's very polarized, divided by party.   

How do you see this election turning out in Virginia?  

Well, I think that the key questions are going to be related to turnout, and there's not that much persuasion going on in this election campaign. There's a relatively small number of voters who really don't know which way they'll wind up on Election Day. It's more a matter of trying to get your own committed supporters to recognize the importance of the election and to show up either before Nov. 2 or on Election Day itself. And I think the real unknown is how many people are going to show up on Election Day because of the drop in early voting participation. Will that be made up substantially by more people feeling comfortable enough to show up at their polling places on Election Day?

For Glenn Youngkin, I think the issue is can he actually break through among suburban voters who've shifted so sharply to the Democrats in recent years? He's put a lot of effort into it, but he's been hampered somewhat by the fact that those voters who were not particularly supportive of Donald Trump keep getting reminded of Mr. Trump's role, mostly by the McAuliffe campaign, but also by the former president himself, who has interceded in the election several times.   

In terms of the Democrats, what they've got to do is convince their voters that having defeated Donald Trump was not enough, that McAuliffe needs them to show up at the polls in order to continue the Democrats’ agenda here in Virginia, which they've only been able to put in place in the last two years as they won control of both the General Assembly and the governorship for the first time in a couple of decades.   

What might the Virginia race this year tell us about either national party for midterms in 2022 and the next presidential election in 2024?  

I think it's going to provide a great talking point. We're one of only two states in the country that are electing governors this year. They are the only statewide elections of consequence going on, so virtually every time we have a Virginia gubernatorial election, there's a lot of focus on it. I think that both sides will look to it for clues in terms of what they've done right or wrong, what kind of opportunities or challenges they might have for the midterm elections, and that's why you're seeing a lot of investment by the national parties in trying to influence this race for governor. But by and large, the midterm elections will not be determined solely by what's happening in Virginia. They're going to be determined by the degree to which the president is able to get his agenda through Congress, by the satisfaction that people feel about where they are economically and whether they think that there needs to be some kind of division of power in Washington between the Democrats and Republicans with President Biden continuing in office until 2024 at least, and the Republicans making the argument that they need to have control of at least one house of Congress in order to keep things balanced.   

Why do elections in Virginia tend to hold such national interest year after year?  

Virginia does attract a lot of attention in our gubernatorial elections, and I think there are really two reasons for it in comparison to even New Jersey, which holds elections at the same time. The first is that we are one of only two states having these statewide elections, which are different than big city elections or suburban elections. Those often are dominated by local issues and by the concerns that don't necessarily touch on partisanship or have constituencies that lean strongly one way or the other. So Virginia and New Jersey are both going to attract inordinate attention because they're the biggest games in town.

But Virginia in particular attracts attention because of our unique role as a state that does not allow a governor to seek consecutive reelection. And that means that it's always an open seat and no incumbent advantage exists and no real incumbent drag exists on the parties as they approach the gubernatorial election. It provides for a kind of more even playing field. And it is one of the few races out there of significance, so naturally folks who are gearing up for the next set of elections will see this as an opportunity to talk a lot about what they can read in the tea leaves.   

Virginia is among a number of states that have expanded voting access. How do you see those new laws playing a role in this election?  

I think that the expansion of opportunities for people to vote early and to cast ballots by mail has had significant effects in Virginia, driving up our participation rates. At one time Virginia lagged behind the rest of the nation in terms of voter participation, in part because we do have these off-year elections for significant offices.

Presidential elections always draw huge crowds, but breaking through all the clutter on television and in the news media, and just in your day-to-day life to get to folks to focus on a contest for the governorship and General Assembly is a very difficult task. You make that task a lot easier when you give people options for how they can cast their ballots, and it's proven very popular. People really love the opportunity to go out and vote early and take care of it without having to worry about whether they're going to be available during those 13 hours of on Election Day itself, so we've seen huge jumps in the number of people participating.

Just in comparison to 2017, as a result of the reforms that have been made in election laws, we've already doubled the number of people who voted early or by mail, and that number is bound to increase significantly, so I would certainly not be surprised to see four or five times as many people voting early and maybe even more than we would have seen in 2017. And that means that the parties, because they know who's already voted, and they can get that information on a daily basis, they focus their attention on the voters who haven't yet cast their ballots, and all of that additional attention will stimulate more participation.  

Does this election cycle hold any greater significance than other off-election years?  

I think it does in the sense that we really were not sure what impact we would see coming out of a period of time in which there was enormous energy and activity in both political parties organized around Donald Trump.

Now party polarization had already started long before that. We really began to see this kind of split that is motivating voters primarily by dislike for the other party back as far as the year 2000, maybe even a little bit earlier. But we saw an enormous jump in numbers of people participating, candidates running for office, donations to candidates by individuals. All of those factors were driven by a kind of grassroots desire to influence the outcome of elections in ways that they haven't in decades. And as a result, when we think about this particular election, there are a lot of unanswered questions about whether voters were really just focused on dealing with the question of whether President Trump would continue in office, or whether there would be some other factor that would replace it. And in this case, I think we're going to get a clue to that on Nov. 2, as we see whether McAuliffe is able to hold Virginia strongly in the Democratic column, or whether Glenn Youngkin can make the argument that he's a different Republican who's able to provide an alternative to the Democrats, especially to suburban voters who are the most recent converts to the Democrats.   

Any final thoughts? 

Being at a university like William & Mary, one of the things that again becomes a subject of interest is participation among students. They have proven to be a very important voting bloc in part because they had such low levels of participation previously. Even though in the last election for governor here, young people voted at only about a 35% rate across the Commonwealth, that was double where they had been previously, and increasing by that amount just really made their voices much stronger in the electoral process, and with the fact that they still have a long way they could go, the opportunity for young people to influence politics, I think, is very much evident in Virginia and all across the country.