A year after Donald Trump lost Virginia by 10 percentage points, Republican Glenn Youngkin is in a tight race for governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe thanks to shifting support from some key voter groups.
Youngkin has made slight gains with suburbanites, voters 45 and older and voters in households earning $50,000 or less when compared to Trump in his 2020 loss to Democrat Joe Biden, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters. That's helped make Tuesday's race tighter than originally expected, sparking concern among Democrats as they look to the 2022 midterm elections.
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.
SMALL SHIFTS IN SUPPORT
Both Democrats and Republicans pulled together familiar coalitions. McAuliffe is the clear choice of voters under 45, women, Black voters, moderates and college graduates, while men, rural and small town voters and white evangelicals are squarely in Youngkin’s corner.
But small shifts might make a difference for Youngkin. Voters ages 45 and older - a group that split about evenly between Biden and Trump - are slightly more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe.
Youngkin is performing better with suburban voters, a group that helped Democrats win elections during the Trump era by rejecting his brand of politics. Youngkin, who lives in a northern Virginia suburb, is competitive with McAuliffe among suburban voters. Last year, about 6 in 10 backed Biden.
While McAuliffe is still preferred among voters with college degrees, Youngkin has narrowed the gap slightly.
The Republican pulls about even with McAuliffe among voters in households earning $50,000 or less a year. About 6 in 10 voters in lower-income households supported Biden in 2020.
Youngkin also is picking up somewhat more white voters in Virginia, compared with Trump’s standing in 2020 and appears to make inroads with Latino voters, who closely divide 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. Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points last year.
Now, 48% of Virginia’s voters approve of Biden’s job performance, while 52% disapprove - a split similar to U.S. adults nationwide in recent AP-NORC polling. Voters also are roughly split over Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy as well, but they lean more supportive of Biden on COVID-19, 52% approve vs. 47% disapprove, and lean more critical of Biden on the economy, 46% approve vs. 53% disapprove.
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 is unpopular with a majority of voters, about half have a favorable opinion of Youngkin. About 4 in 10 have an unfavorable opinion of the candidate.
About half say they have a “very” unfavorable opinion of Trump, but only 3 in 10 say the same about Youngkin.
About half of Virginia voters say Youngkin supports Trump too much, while close to as many say he supports Trump the right amount. Most Youngkin voters - about 8 in 10 - say the candidate supports Trump the right amount, but about 1 in 10 say he supports the former president too much. About that many say Youngkin supports Trump too little.
MCAULIFFE GETS MORE BLAME FOR ATTACKS
Overall, about half of Virginia voters say they have a favorable opinion of McAuliffe, a former governor and well known Democratic figure. About half hold an unfavorable view.
In a very contentious race, McAuliffe appears to have taken more of the blame for the tone. Most voters think the gubernatorial campaign featured unfair attacks from at least one candidate, but voters are somewhat more likely to say only McAuliffe attacked Youngkin unfairly than the other way around. Close to 2 in 10 voters say both attacked the other unfairly.
Thirty-four 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.
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 say the debate over teaching critical race theory in schools was the single most important factor in their vote for governor, but a similar percentage identified the debate over handling COVID-19 in schools as most important.
Thirty-five percent of Youngkin voters said the debate over critical race theory in schools was most important to their vote, compared with 14% of McAuliffe voters who said the same. Thirty-four percent of McAuliffe voters said the debate over handling COVID-19 in schools was most important to their vote, compared with 19% of Youngkin voters who said the same.
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.
Overall, more voters said the public school system in Virginia is focusing too much, not too little, on racism in the U.S., 43% vs. 31%. Another 25% said the focus on racism is about right.
About 6 in 10 Virginia voters support both mask mandates for teachers and students in K-12 schools and vaccine mandates for teachers.
The vast majority of McAuliffe voters back mask mandates for teachers and students and COVID-19 vaccine mandates for teachers in K-12 schools. Among Youngkin voters, about a third support each policy, while about two-thirds are opposed.
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.
A wide majority of voters in Virginia say they are vaccinated against COVID-19, but McAuliffe voters are more likely than Youngkin voters to say so. About 9 in 10 McAuliffe voters and about 7 in 10 Youngkin voters say they are vaccinated. About 3 in 10 Youngkin voters say they have not received a COVID-19 shot.
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. Roughly 1 in 10 said they were still deciding in the last few days.
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.”
Still, 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.
MAJORITY BACK ABORTION RIGHTS
A majority of Virginia’s voters - about 6 in 10 - say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 4 in 10 say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Even so, a majority of voters fall into the middle, supporting abortion in some instances but not all - a third of voters say abortion should be legal in most cases and about that many say abortion should be illegal in most cases.