Three lessons from the Virginia elections

Posted on November 3, 2021

The 2021 election results must be seen as a wake-up call for progressives. At this point, we have the most information about Virginia. While there’s a lot to say about the respective campaigns, here are three quick lessons backed up by data:

(1) Republicans won because of turnout

No doubt some voters switched from one party to the other. But that’s not the main reason conservatives won.

Virginians turned out for this election in record numbers. More than 3.3 million (nearly 60 percent of registered voters) voted in 2021 compared to 2.4 million (42 percent) in 2019 and 2.6 million (48 percent) in 2017, the last time a governor was elected. Odd-year elections typically generate a fairly low turnout. In comparison, 4.5 million (75 percent) of registered Virginians voted in the 2020 presidential election.

Recently, commentators have been comparing Joe Biden’s 10-point victory in 2020 to Terry McAuliffe’s two-point loss in 2021. But there’s a big difference in who turned out to vote.

In 2021, about 74 percent of voters were white while only about 67 percent were white in 2020. And in 2021, only about 10 percent were aged 18-29 while nearly 70 percent were aged 45 and up. Compare that to 2020 when 20 percent were aged 18-29 and only 56 percent were 45 and up. Clearly, there was a substantial change in demographics favoring conservatives.

It’s not that our progressive voters didn’t show up, they did. It’s that conservatives turned out in historic proportions for an odd-year election. The makeup of the electorate decided the matter.

(2) Conservatives were motivated by fantasy; progressives were discouraged by reality

Conservatives were energized to vote because they’ve been led to believe outrageous lies.

  • More than two-thirds of Republicans (68 percent) believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump. The percentages are even greater among Republicans who most trust Fox News (82 percent) and essentially universal among those who most trust OAN and Newsmax (97 percent).
  • Incredibly, 30 percent of Republicans agree with the statement “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” That rises to 32 percent among those who trust Fox News and 40 percent of those who trust OAN and Newsmax.
  • One in four Republicans (26 percent) are QAnon believers, including the claim that: “The government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.” Really.

If you don’t understand why the right wing emphasizes matters like Critical Race Theory, “riots” at Black Lives Matter protests, banning books, or the sex of Mr. Potato Head, it’s to drive turnout. And it works.

Progressives, on the other hand, are all-too-aware of the realities that the economy remains sluggish while President Biden’s Infrastructure and Budget Reconciliation bills linger unresolved in a Democratic Congress.

According to the Battleground Poll, sponsored by the Georgetown University School of Public Policy, Americans’ approval of Joe Biden’s job performance fell from 52 percent in June 2021 to 45 percent in October. But here’s the key. There is no difference in how Republicans have viewed Biden; they hated him equally in June and October. And there is little difference among Independents.

It is Democrats who account for the problem, specifically “liberal Democrats” whose view of Biden changed from 96 percent favorable and 2 percent unfavorable in June to 84 percent favorable and 14 percent unfavorable in October. Common sense says those recently disillusioned folks didn’t vote for Republicans in 2021, they simply failed to show up. (See pages 51-52.)

(3) The polls were accurate in Virginia

The FiveThirtyEight average of polls just before Election Day found the Republican candidate for governor ahead by one percent. He won by two percent, well within the margin of error. (That’s not true in New Jersey, but we’ll address that in a later blog.)

As you no doubt recall, polls were inaccurate in 2016 and even more so in 2020. In both cases, Trump and the GOP got substantially more votes than predicted. The Virginia polls were accurate in 2021, even though pollsters didn’t change their procedures from 2020 to 2021.

The fairly clear reason behind polling mistakes in 2020 is that there’s a segment of extreme Trump followers who refuse, more than average Americans, to answer polls. That makes perfect sense.

So, it seems that these particular super-rabid Trumpers, who did vote when Trump himself was on the ballot in 2016 and 2020, but not in 2018, did not turn out in the 2021 Virginia election. This is both good and bad news. On the good side, it suggests they may not show up in 2022. The bad side is that Republicans were able to win without them.