Next Thursday, America once again goes the polls. Or a few bits of it do, which hold so called ‘Off-year’ elections between four year Presidential cycles and the two year Congressional cycle.
The highlight of these ‘Mid-Mid-Terms’ is undeniably Virginia, being the only statewide race which is really competitive. For a few decades Virginia has been trending steadily more blue and shouldn’t really be a sweat for the Democrats to hold, but sweating bullets is precisely what Democrats are now doing.
The Democrat candidate is Former Governor Terry McAuliffe, who ran the state from 2013-2017. Virginia doesn’t allow Governors to run for re-election, so he had to step down in 2017 for a cycle. After a surprisingly close win in 2013, his successor won by 9% in 2017 and Joe Biden swept the state by 10%, the first time any Presidential candidate won the state by double digits since Bush Senior in 1988*. He faces Republican Glenn Youngkin, a private equity executive running for office for the first time.
So with a proven winner as candidate and Democrat Presidential candidates having won the state at every Presidential election since 2008, the trend is very much on their side. And yet, the polls are not so friendly.
After holding a narrow but consistent lead for months, McAuliffe is now neck and neck with his opponent. 538’s polling average puts him literally tied with Youngkin, RealClearPolitics even has Youngkin leading by 0.9%. Recent polls have mostly been very small McAuliffe leads from non-partisan pollsters and small Youngkin leads from Republican ones – but a big exception is Fox News. They, in the polling world, are considered broadly non-partisan and a good quality pollster and have Youngkin 8% ahead in their final poll. Outlier or oracle? Time will tell.
As a result, bookies have adjusted the odds of a Republican upset all the way from almost 10/1 a few months ago down to roughly 6/4. I think that’s slightly too far.
Republicans certainly have a real shot, particularly given Joe Biden’s sagging approval ratings. But winning Virginia would be quite the feat. It has swung Democrat of late for a reason, it is one of the most educated states in the country with more white degree-holders than almost anywhere else. This group has shifted nationally from Republicans to Democrat a lot and over decades**, and give Democrats a big advantage.
A decade of continuous wins have also created a Democratic party with a strong ‘Get Out the Vote’ infrastructure in the state. This may have helped them beat the polls last time, in 2017, when the Democratic candidate won by 9% despite polling averages having him only 3% ahead.
I may be embarrassed by this in a matter of days, but I think McAuliffe is still a decent favourite. The early voting data isn’t out of line with recent elections, and we’ve seen a number of false dawns for both parties in longshot states. If his odds get any closer to evens than they currently are (4/6 at Ladbrokes, even higher at the exchanges) he is definitely worth a punt.
Democrats should certainly be worried. Not only could Youngkin win, but any McAuliffe victory is likely to be well under the 9-10% margins Democrats have been posting in the state of late. If that’s reflective of the national picture (and national polls and approval ratings certainly suggest it would be) then even a narrow Democrat win would indicate we are on course for Republicans to retake the House (and perhaps the Senate) in the Midterms next year.
*(He actually won by just over 20%, it was quite the performance)
**(Exact comparisons are difficult given exit polls used to split education into college graduate and post-grad, which are now lumped together, but as recently as 2004 the combined graduate pool was split equally compared to Biden’s 12% lead among them, and the trend pre-2004 is very visible also in historical numbers. Splitting out white graduates is a more recent development, but shows the same trend.)
Pip Moss posts on Political Betting as Quincel. He has bets on McAuliffe winning by over 2.5%. You can follow him on Twitter at @PipsFunFacts