Republican Glenn Youngkin mobilized voters concerned about education and race, while making small gains with suburban voters and other key groups to help his party rebound from Donald Trump’s poor showing in Virginia last year and win the governor's race.
The former private equity executive's victory came even as Trump remains broadly unpopular in the commonwealth. Youngkin managed to keep Trump at arm’s length without angering Trump's base. A year after Democrat Joe Biden dispatched Trump in Virginia by 10 percentage points, it was Youngkin’s supporters, not Democrat Terry McAuliffe's, who were more fired up — 74% of them said they were “extremely” interested in the election, compared with 63% who voted for McAuliffe, according to AP VoteCast.
Here’s a snapshot of what matters to voters, based on preliminary results from AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 2,500 voters in Virginia conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.
BIG COMEBACK BUILT ON SMALL GAINS
Both Democrats and Republicans pulled together familiar coalitions. Men, rural and small town voters and white evangelicals were squarely in Youngkin’s corner, while McAuliffe was the choice for Black voters, moderates, and voters under 45. Women were only slightly more likely to back the Democrat than the Republican, 53% to 46%.
But small shifts added up to make a difference for Youngkin. In 2020, voters ages 45 and older split about evenly between Biden and Trump. This year they were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe, 55% to 45%.
Youngkin also performed better with suburban voters, a group that helped Democrats win elections across the country during the Trump era. Last year, about 6 in 10 suburbanites in Virginia backed Biden. A year later, Youngkin, who lives in a northern Virginia suburb, was competitive with McAuliffe with those voters, earning the support of 49% of them.
In recent elections, Democrats have built a sizable edge with voters who have college degrees. McAuliffe still won those voters Tuesday, but only narrowly, as Youngkin closed the gap compared to 2020.
He performed somewhat better than Trump among white voters — both men and women. White voters made up 72% of the electorate and backed Youngkin over McAuliffe, 60% to 40%. Youngkin also appeared to make inroads with Latino voters, who closely divided between Youngkin and McAuliffe.
The governor's race was seen by some as a test of Biden's standing so far. The president and his wife campaigned for McAuliffe in the state, as did other top Democrats. Three-quarters of voters said negotiations in Washington over Biden's governing agenda were an important factor in their vote.
Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points last year. Now, 47% of Virginia’s voters approve of Biden’s job performance, while 53% disapprove — a split similar to U.S. adults nationwide in recent AP-NORC polling.
While McAuliffe leaned on his party for help, Youngkin didn't campaign with Trump or other GOP leaders. The political newcomer started the campaign with a blank slate on policy and cast himself as an affable, suburban dad. McAuliffe called him a “Trump wannabe" — and Trump endorsed Youngkin — but it doesn't look like all Virginia voters bought it.
While Trump was unpopular with a majority of voters, half had a favorable opinion of Youngkin. About 4 in 10 have an unfavorable opinion of the candidate.
About half said they have a “very” unfavorable opinion of Trump, but only about 3 in 10 said the same about Youngkin.
Close to half of Virginia voters said Youngkin supports Trump too much, while roughly as many said he supports Trump the right amount. Most Youngkin voters — about 8 in 10 — said the candidate supports Trump the right amount, but about 1 in 10 said he supports the former president too much. About that many said Youngkin supports Trump too little.
MCAULIFFE GETS MORE BLAME FOR ATTACKS
Overall, about half of Virginia voters said they have a favorable opinion of McAuliffe, while about half held an unfavorable view.
In a very contentious race, McAuliffe appears to have taken more of the blame for the tone. Most voters thought the gubernatorial campaign featured unfair attacks from at least one candidate, but voters were somewhat more likely to said only McAuliffe attacked Youngkin unfairly than the other way around. Close to 2 in 10 voters said both attacked the other unfairly.
SCHOOL DEBATE DECISIVE FOR MANY
Schools became a major focus of the governor's race for Youngkin, who localized a debate happening nationwide after McAuliffe said during a debate that parents shouldn't “be telling schools what they should teach.”
A quarter of Virginia voters said the debate over teaching critical race theory in schools was the single most important factor in their vote for governor, and 71% of those voters backed Youngkin.
Most Youngkin voters — about three-quarters — said the public school system in Virginia is focusing on racism too much. Among McAuliffe voters, just over half said the focus is too little, while about a third said it’s about right.
McAuliffe voters had concerns about schools, too — but they were more likely to be focused on COVID-19 precautions. Roughly a quarter of voters identified the debate over handling COVID-19 in schools as most important factor in their vote, and 63% of them backed McAuliffe.
About 6 in 10 Virginia voters support both mask mandates for teachers and students in K-12 schools and COVID-19 vaccine mandates for teachers. Those voters were more likely to be McAuliffe supporters. While the vast majority of McAuliffe voters backed mask mandates for teachers and students and COVID-19 vaccine mandates for teachers in K-12 schools, only about a third of Youngkin backers supported each policy.
Thirty-five percent of Virginia voters said the economy and jobs was the most important issue facing the state, while 17% named COVID-19 and 14% chose education.
Health care, climate change, racism, immigration, abortion and law enforcement were all lower-tier issues.
Voters who ranked the economy and education as the top issues were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe. Voters who identified COVID-19 as the top issue supported McAuliffe over Youngkin. McAuliffe also earned the majority backing of the roughly 2 in 10 who ranked health care, climate change or racism as the top issue.
IS VIRGINIA’S ECONOMY SOARING OR SINKING?
Youngkin, a former private equity executive, often asserted during the campaign that Virginia’s economy was “in the ditch,” but a majority of voters disagreed. Fifty-six percent said the state’s economy is in good shape, compared with 44% saying economic conditions are poor.
Youngkin argued that Virginia’s record budget surplus was the result of overtaxation as he campaigned on a promise to enact substantial tax cuts.
McAuliffe countered that the surplus was due to strong economic growth under Democratic leadership and argued that Youngkin’s opposition to abortion rights and conservative position on LGBTQ issues would hamper efforts to recruit new businesses to the commonwealth.
MORE INDECISION THAN 2020
About 6 in 10 voters say they’ve known all along whom they would be backing the governor’s race. In the presidential race last year, three-quarters of Virginia voters said they knew all along whom they would back, though about as many decided in the last few days.
About 3 in 10 voters now say they decided over the course of the campaign, and they slightly preferred Youngkin over McAuliffe, 55% to 45%.
CONTINUED SKEPTICISM ABOUT THE VOTE COUNT
Although Virginia experienced no major issues with its vote count in 2020, only about half of voters in Virginia are “very confident” that the votes in the election for governor will be counted accurately. Another 3 in 10 voters are “somewhat confident.”
Just 19% of Youngkin's voters said they were “very confident” the vote would be counted accurately. That compares with 77% of McAuliffe voters.
Still, overall confidence is stronger among voters now compared with voters in last year’s presidential election: Just 25% then said they were very confident votes would be counted accurately.
AP VoteCast is a survey of the American electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for Fox News and The Associated Press. The survey of 2,655 voters in Virginia was conducted for seven days, concluding as polls closed. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The survey combines a random sample of registered voters drawn from the state voter file and self-identified registered voters selected from nonprobability online panels. The margin of sampling error for voters is estimated to be plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. Find more details about AP VoteCast’s methodology at https://www.ap.org/votecast.
Sara Burnett And Hannah Fingerhut, The Associated Press