Virginia Governor

Virginia Governor: A Race That Is Closer Than It Appears

There is no shortage of opinions about the outcome of Tuesday’s gubernatorial contest between Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Republican National Committee chair Ed Gillespie. There isn’t even a lot of (public) agreement within the parties. There are Democrats who are predicting “presidential level” turnout that will hand Northam a significant win, while others believe that the outcome will be very close. There are Republicans who believe that Gillespie is about to score a real upset in a race in which he has trailed in 22 of the 27 public polls released since the June 13 primary (he was ahead in three and two were tied). Other GOP strategists think that Gillespie will fall short, despite gaining some momentum in the last three weeks.

It hasn’t helped that the polls have been all over the place. There were 13 surveys conducted in October that showed outcomes ranging from Northam +17 points to Gillespie +8 points. Northam was ahead in 10 of the polls with leads ranging from four to 17 points. Gillespie had the lead in three of the polls with advantages ranging from one to eight points. There is some agreement within the respective parties that Northam does not have a lead in double digits nor is Gillespie ahead by eight points. In fact, only the most optimistic Republicans believe that Gillespie is running ahead of Northam.

There are some things that we believe to be true about where the race stands today:

  • The current political environment doesn’t favor Republicans. President Trump’s job approval ratings are upside down and often by a lot–in every poll.
  • While Virginia is certainly trending toward Democrats, especially in recent races for Governor and the U.S. Senate, it hasn’t truly become a blue state....yet.
  • Despite Northam’s early dominance in the race, this has been a single-digit race at least since Labor Day. Strategists from both parties who are working on the race contend that it is now within the margin of error. According to the RealClear Politics average of polling over the last two weeks, Northam is ahead of Gillespie by 3.6 points, 46.4 percent to 42.8 percent.
  • And, these same strategists believe that Northam still has the edge going into Election. This doesn’t mean that Republicans are dismissive of the possibility of a Gillespie upset; it’s just not the most likely outcome. Nor does it mean that Democrats don’t fear a Gillespie victory, particularly after their collective experience in 2016, but they don’t think it’s the most likely result.

Democrats’ optimism is driven both by Northam’s performance to date, and a relatively unified party. While some progressive Democrats aren’t happy with Northam’s stance on some issues like his support for the natural gas pipeline, they appear to be sticking with him. In addition, Democratic interest groups representing almost every constituency and issue have gone all-in on this race, knocking on doors, manning phone banks, and producing direct mail. Some have undertaken media efforts ranging from digital ads to television ad campaigns. The result is that Democrats say that they have made significantly more voter contacts than they did in 2013 when Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the Governor’s race.

While some Democrats have expressed pessimism about a Northam victory, it’s really more about fear and is a lingering symptom of the hangover caused by Trump’s victory in 2016. Frankly, it’s hard to find a Virginia Democrat who shares that pessimism/fear.

It’s unclear how united the Republican Party is behind Gillespie. Prince William County Commission Chair Corey Stewart, a Trump booster who lost to Gillespie in the June primary, hasn’t endorsed Gillespie, although he has said some positive things in the past several weeks, praising Gillespie for some of the more controversial aspects of his campaign like his television ads invoking the violent gang MS-13 to attack Northam on his support for sanctuary cities. Trump has endorsed Gillespie via Twitter, but there won’t be a last-minute rally as the President departs for Asia today. Gillespie is likely fine with this as he has walked a fine line on all things Trump. He hasn’t embraced the President, but has said that he would work with him if elected. At the same time, He hasn’t attacked Trump–at least directly–in an effort not to alienate his voters.

However, there is some evidence that Republicans have become more unified in the past few days over a television ad sponsored by Latino Victory Fund, which shows Hispanic children being chased by a pick up truck flying a Confederate flag and bearing a Gillespie bumper sticker. As the spot ends, other minorities join the Hispanic children. There was very little money behind the ad that has since been pulled, but it got a great deal of media coverage and went viral on social media before it was pulled from YouTube. It has become a rallying point for Trump Republicans who now seem more interested in the race.

Republican interest groups have been doing their share of voter contact, and we hear plenty of anecdotal reports of their visibility, but they are historically quieter about publicizing their efforts before an election. This makes it harder to assess the strength of their effort or compare it to what Democrats are doing.

At this point, our sense is that this will be a close race, but that Northam has the edge going into Election Day. Like partisan strategists, we aren’t completely dismissive of the idea that the potential for a Gillespie victory exists; we simply don’t believe it’s the most likely outcome. A close race, though, would assume a rating change to Toss Up as it fits the criteria for such a rating. At the same time, changing the rating suggests that the race has changed in some fundamental way, which we don’t believe is the case. Thus, changing the rating five days before the election would make a statement that is likely to be misinterpreted or overly amplify the reality. It is fair to question whether the race should have always been in Toss Up. In hindsight, that is probably the case, but even we suffer from post-election hangovers.

The inevitable question is what the outcome of this gubernatorial contest will mean for the 2018 midterms. In truth, it might not mean much, though a Gillespie upset would cause panic in Democratic circles and probably give Republicans a false sense of security. The state legislative races, particularly in light of special elections that have taken place around the country, might be more telling. House Editor and Virginia political connoisseur David Wasserman looked at the races for state delegate here.

Image Credit: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via AP, Pool, File