July 15, 2021 — A new Trafalgar Group poll was released this week on the 2021 Virginia governor’s campaign, and the results supported data from two other pollsters that we analyzed in June.
The Trafalgar numbers (July 8-10; 1,104 likely Virginia voters, combination live interview and online) give former Virginia governor and ex-Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe a slight 47-45 percent edge over retired hedge fund CEO Glenn Youngkin (R) in a political contest that is much closer than analysts would have foretold at the very beginning of this election cycle.
The Trafalgar results were consistent with those found in June from WPA Intelligence (June 2-6; 508 likely Virginia voters, live interview) and JMC Analytics (June 9-12; 550 likely Virginia voters, live interview). In those surveys, McAuliffe held leads of 48-46 percent (WAPi) and 46-42 percent (JMC). Therefore, we see virtually no change within the five-week period, which has to be considered good news for underdog Youngkin.
None of the three polls published a geographic segmentation, which would have been interesting since Youngkin must hit certain benchmarks in the state’s most populous areas if he is to score an upset. All of these regions have been moving decidedly Democratic in the most recent elections.
Alternatively, if we look at the most competitive previous election result, one that elected McAuliffe, we can begin to pinpoint how the current race must form and if we are to see a Republican upset.
The first clue that a close race might develop came in this year’s Democratic primary held on June 8. Turnout, when compared with the 2017 primary that nominated current Gov. Ralph Northam in a lightly competitive race, reached 542,858. This year, the Democratic participation number fell by more than 34,000 voters to 508,616. This may suggest a lesser enthusiasm factor within the Democratic base for McAuliffe’s rerun campaign.
While it is typical in almost every other state to see candidates and incumbents run multiple times for statewide office, Virginia is the only entity in the country that maintains a one-term limit for its governors, hence McAuliffe is breaking with political tradition even though he sat out an election cycle.
In McAuliffe’s 2013 race, a contest where he scored a tight 47.7 – 45.2 percent statewide victory over then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R), we see various benchmarks that Youngkin must exceed in the state’s three main metropolitan areas, Washington, DC’s Northern Virginia suburbs, the Tidewater region, and the votes coming from the state capital city of Richmond and its suburbs, to be successful in 2021.
Eight years ago, McAuliffe tabulated a 56.7 – 37.9 percent margin in northern Virginia, defined for purposes of this report as the city of Alexandria, Arlington and Fairfax counties, Fairfax City, Falls Church City, Fauquier and Loudoun counties, Manassas and Manassas Park cities, and Prince William and Stafford counties. Obviously, building such a Democratic lead from this region gives the party nominee a vote cushion large enough to carry him or her through the rest of the state. To win in 2021, Youngkin will have to break 40 percent in this voting segment.
The Tidewater region, consisting of the cities of Chesapeake and Hampton, Isle of Wight and James City counties, Newport News, Norfolk, and Portsmouth cities, Suffolk County, Virginia Beach and Williamsburg cities, and York County, broke 53.2 – 40.7 percent for McAuliffe in 2013. Here, Youngkin will have to perform much better than barely breaking 40 percent, more likely reaching 42-44 percent while equaling Cuccinelli’s strong performance in the rural areas.
The Richmond area, consisting of Chesterfield County, Colonial Heights city, Henrico County, and Petersburg and Richmond cities, gave McAuliffe a whopping 60.6 – 29.3 percent cushion. Youngkin will have to score into the 30s from this central Virginia segment to have a reasonable chance of winning the race.
The early polling suggesting a close Virginia governor’s race is interesting but seeing the geographic segmentation from future polling will give us a better indication as to just how serious Youngkin’s challenge will become.