VA Gov Race: Is it really that close?

By Lee Cleveland, Polls and Trends - October 3, 2021

Even if you don’t live in the Old Dominion, the outcome of the 2021 Virginia governor’s race will likely be of tremendous significance if you’re entrenched in national politics.


The 2021 Virginia governor’s race is considered a) a bellwether for where the country sits politically and b) an early indicator of what’ll lie in store for the midterm elections next year. As a result, it will be watched closely by experts, pundits, and candidates nationwide.

With just a month from the election, many news outlets are reporting a close race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who served as governor from 2014 to 2018, and Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin. In fact, a few are even calling it a toss-up thus far.

Is the race really that close?

Maybe.

But, let’s not forget the same was said four years ago when Virginia’s current governor, Ralph Northam, faced Ed Gillespie, a well-known, relatively moderate candidate who had previously served as Republican National Committee chairman. We assumed the race would be a nailbiter but Northam went on to win by a commanding 8.9 percentage points, far outperforming projections.

Northam vs Gillespie – 2017

Heading into Election Day, the Real Clear Politics (RCP) aggregate of top pollsters had Northam ahead by just 3.3 percent.

So, how’s polling this year via roughly the same outlets?

A month out, McAuliffe’s lead is even wider than Northam’s was during Election Week 2017.

McAuliffe vs Youngkin – 2021

Moreover, Trafalgar Group, notorious for its hard-right lean, had the Democrat, McAuliffe, ahead in its most recent poll released in late August. The projection is identical to their poll result for Northam vs Gillespie four years ago (Northam – 47, Gillespie – 46).

Usually, if a Republican candidate is positioned for an upset, she/he is ahead in Trafalgar Group’s polling.

Obviously, there have been GOP candidates who were ahead in their polls and lost. However, due to Trafalgar Group’s strong conservative bias, it’s very rare for a Democrat who is ahead in their poll(s) to lose.

In races deemed close, I always find Trafalgar Group’s numbers first because, to their credit, they’ve impressively called some Republican upsets. And if a Republican has any chance whatsoever to win, she/he will be ahead in their polls.

If Youngkin creeps ahead in Trafalgar’s final poll for this race, it won’t necessarily mean an upset is in store. It will mean, however, a Youngkin win is within the realm of possibility. But, until that happens and as long as McAuliffe is ahead in RCP polling, he should be sitting pretty.

The One Caveat to McAuliffe vs Youngkin

At this moment, the only thing that could make this race close – or produce an upset – is voter apathy on the Democrats’ end.

Republicans, especially those who believe limitations shouldn’t be imposed on people who refuse to get vaccinated against the coronavirus or wear a mask, will turn out in high percentages across the commonwealth.

Will Democrats turn out, especially given President Biden’s big slide in approval this past summer?

And how many would-be McAuliffe voters won’t be motivated enough to vote now that Donald Trump is no longer president? Four years ago, a lot of Democrats were energized to go to the polls because they believed a vote against the Republican candidate was a vote against Trump.

In terms of citizens’ preference, McAuliffe vs Youngkin is probably not close at all. The real question is: How many of those who’d prefer to see McAuliffe become governor again want it bad enough?

Will they take the time to vote?

If you’re a Democrat, has your motivation to vote in an off-year election changed since Trump is no longer in The White House and Biden’s approval ratings have fizzled?

Prediction: McAuliffe by 5.6

McAuliffe vs Youngkin: The Latest

Tags: 2021 Virginia Gubernatorial Election, glenn youngkin, terry mcauliffe