What I'm watching for in Virginia on Tuesday | No. 168 — October 31, 2021

The governor’s race will be a good test of the impacts of education polarization on partisan turnout in off-year elections

Happy Sunday, all. Thanks for joining me for another issue. In this week’s email I preview the most important potential takeaway from the race for Virginia’s next governor on Tuesday and go over some of my articles on the fight over Build Back Better, geographic polarization since 1872, and the future of the Democratic Party.

First up: Virginians go to the polls on Tuesday to elect their next governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, and all members of the state’s lower legislative chamber. The governor’s race, which has naturally sucked up most of the national media attention to Tuesday’s contests, is looking like a pure toss-up. As I wrote for The Economist this past Thursday, it looks like Terry McAuliffe (the Democratic candidate) had a clear edge until a few weeks ago, but the momentum now is clearly with Glenn Youngkin (the Republican). I wouldn’t bet either way.

There will be much to learn from the results of the contest. For one, since vote swings from the last governor’s race are typically predictive of how many votes the party in power will lose at the mid-terms, the margin for McAuliffe over Youngkin (the Republican and first-time candidate) can be used to rather precisely predict how many seats the Democrats will lose in the House and Senate in 2022. Here is a chart Twitter user Jason Pipkin, who blogs about elections, shared with me last week:

But that’s old news. More intriguing, Tuesdays’s election also provides us with an opportunity to test an important hypothesis. Because the Democrats made such large gains with college-educated white voters between 2008 and 2020, and because those voters are also the likeliest to turn out during mid-term elections, many prognosticators have reckoned Joe Biden and his party might not face so large a backlash as Barack Obama did in his first mid-term. Back then, educated white voters were much more favorable towards Republicans, so the mid-term electorate was naturally much better for them. The opposite was true for the backlash to Donald Trump in 2018, when educated whites and suburbanites led the charge against him.

The evidence so far suggests the theory has legs. The chart below shows how voting behavior by race and education levels changed from the 2018 California governor’s election to the recall election earlier this year (courtesy of the San Francisco Chronicle). The increasing education polarization among white Californians counteracted governor Gavin Newsom’s losses with Black and Hispanic voters. In fact, the results of the two elections came out exactly the same — up to a decimal point!

Exit polls in Virginia on Tuesday will help us test whether these patterns will hold true across the country. If so, the Democrats may do a little better than expected in next year’s mid-terms — so long as turnout and vote shares with Black and Hispanic voters remain roughly the same. That is, of course, a huge “if.”

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What I wrote last week

Last week was a busy one for me at The Economist. I wrote four articles, all of which I am rather pleased with so I hope you’ll read them:

  • First, I wrote about the way education polarization, ideological sorting, and the nationalization of politics have contributed to the Democrats’ structural disadvantage in American politics, especially in the Senate. I argue these three factors are the products of durable, long-term trends in both America and abroad that will be very hard to undo — harder, in my opinion, than many Democratic strategists seem to think.

  • I also wrote about the results of a polling model I built for the Virginia election. The model is Bayesian and tries to adjust for consistent firm-level biases and systematic differences between polls that do and do not adjust their samples to be politically representative — eg by weighting on partisanship, past vote or some such. We think polls that do are less susceptible to partisan nonresponse bias and, therefore, more reliable on average. This worked well for us during the California recall (though past performance is not a guarantee of future results).

  • Third, I analyzed the last 11 months of polls from The Economist and YouGov and found a surprising decline in the share of registered voters who identify as Democrats. The decline looks like it’s coming mainly from moderates, who have become more likely than conservatives or liberals since January to stop affiliating with one of the major parties. If this is verified by other polling or election results, it ought to be a cautionary tale for those progressive strategists who think doing popular things (like Joe Biden and the Democrats have arguably been doing) can win them support among cross-pressured and independent voters. That may be the right strategy, but it has limited returns.

  • Finally, I took over the paper’s US politics newsletter this week to write a longer letter to readers about geographic polarization, why demographics don’t explain all of it, and what it means for the future of US politics. (Hint: it ain’t good, folks.)

On the book front, you will be happy to hear that STRENGTH IN NUMBERS is through its first round of copy edits and has been checked to make sure I haven’t libeled any of you. You’re welcome!


Thanks for reading

That’s it for this week. Thanks so much for reading. If you have any feedback, you can reach me at this address (or respond directly to this email if you’re reading in your inbox). I love to talk with readers and am very responsive to your messages.

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