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What's Going on at 538?

Prediction Time: Who Wins in Virginia?

AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Virginians are going to the polls today, and here's one easy prediction: Republican Glenn Youngkin will easily win the ballots being cast on Election Day itself. Right-leaning voters tend to vote on the big day, while left-leaning voters have gravitated toward early and mail-in voting options – which the Democratic Party tends to emphasize more. As we've been saying, the core question about the final outcome tonight is whether Youngkin's haul of freshly-processed ballots can catch up with and overtake the lead Democrat Terry McAuliffe has built and banked over the course of the last month-and-a-half (Virginia's early voting started September 17, which is absurdly early, in my opinion). Can he pull this off? Will he pull this off? 


The answer to the former question is yes. The public polls show a statistically deadlocked contest, with Youngkin ever so slightly ahead. If the polling average is approximately accurate – which is a big "if" given prominent misses in recent years, including in Virginia – Youngkin has a real shot at pulling together the coalition he needs to prevail. The latest survey out of the race, released yesterday, gives the GOP nominee a narrow advantage, but within the margin of error. This poll was in the field this past Wednesday to Saturday: 

This result is very much in line with the nail-biter status of the race, as well as the growing conventional wisdom that Youngkin has pulled ahead as a very slight favorite over the closing stretch. But that second, key question remains. Yes, Youngkin theoretically can win at this stage, but will he actually pull it off? Let's return to the "clash of fundamentals" I've discussed previously. What McAuliffe has going for him is that Virginia is no longer a blue-ish purple state; it's become a purple-ish blue state. Republicans have not won a single statewide race over the past dozen years, despite a few close shaves. During the last five years, the state has lurched even further left. In that sense, this race is a home game for McAuliffe. The fundamentals of the new Virginia electorate favor him and his party. On the other hand, all the other fundamentals of the race are falling Youngkin's way. The momentum. The national environment, including the president's unpopularity. Virginia's long history of (almost always) voting in the party opposed to the recently-inaugurated president. And an apparent enthusiasm gap between the two parties' respective bases. A few vignettes in a New York Times piece published over the weekend help illustrate the dynamics at play: 

The size and atmosphere of dueling events during the last weekend of campaigning before Election Day on Tuesday reflected the trends in the most recent polls. Mr. Youngkin, the Republican candidate, greeted crowds of more than 1,000, while Mr. McAuliffe, the Democrat, hustled through sparsely attended events from morning to night...“I’m a Hillary-Biden voter,” said Glenn Miller, a lawyer from McLean, as he walked into a Youngkin rally in southern Fairfax County on Saturday night that drew more than 1,000 people. He explained his tipping point: Working from home and hearing his teenage daughter’s teacher make a comment during a virtual lesson about white men as modern-day slaveholders. “There are a lot of people like me who are annoyed,” he said, adding that he was able to vote for Mr. Youngkin because he did not associate him as a Trump Republican. “My problem with Trump was I thought he was embarrassing. I just don’t think Youngkin is going to embarrass me or the state.

At the Youngkin events, it was unclear how many people were voters like Mr. Miller, the former Biden supporter now voting for the Republican. Many said they were committed Republicans, and the crowds were more diverse than Republican events typically are. In the Washington suburb of Chantilly, John and Linda Torres of Herndon stood in a parking lot as the crowd of several hundred returned to their cars after a Youngkin rally. Ms. Torres held a Youngkin yard sign and a handful of stickers that read “Latinos for Youngkin.” The couple said they both voted for Mr. Trump, but also for Mr. Obama. They said they disliked Mr. McAuliffe’s stance on vaccine mandates as well as his insistence that Mr. Youngkin was making a problem where one doesn’t exist by criticizing how race is taught in some schools. “I know some people say, ‘Oh, it’s all made up.’ But it’s real,” said Mr. Torres, 41, a veteran.

That last quote is a stinging rebuke of the McAuliffe/Obama "phony culture war" line. And it's all encouraging, anecdotally, for Team Youngkin. Having attended and observed the Republican nominee's final rally in Loudoun County last night, it's clear that there's real engagement and passion on the ground. On the flip side, however, Democrats say they're feeling encouraged by early voting data: "'We are substantially leading on the early vote, but we cannot take our foot off the gas,' Mr. McAuliffe told a crowd on Saturday in Norfolk...He and his allies took it as an encouraging sign that more than 1.1 million of Virginia’s 5.9 million registered voters had cast ballots as of Sunday morning." I've heard from various sources that as of a few days ago, the Youngkin people were fully acknowledging that they were trailing among the early votes, based on their projections. However, those same models of the electorate suggest that Youngkin is running several points ahead of his early vote targets and benchmarks to remain viable. My analysis for weeks has been that Youngkin needs to achieve strong GOP turnout all across the state, win independents and late-deciders by significant margins, and hope for underwhelming or so-so Democratic turnout, with some sliver of defections into his camp.  

On those fronts, it appears as though he's on track heading into election day. But these models are an imprecise science, and other campaigns' data operations have felt confident about their standing heading into election night, only to suffer devastating losses (see Romney '12, Clinton '16). The only thing I feel absolutely certain about saying is that the Youngkin crew needs to hope and pray that all right-leaning Virginians who haven't yet submitted ballots show up and vote today. Republicans have virtually no margin for error in a blue state like Virginia. A handful of hopeful polls cannot breed complacency, or McAuliffe will win. As for my prediction, nearly everything I've seen, heard, and read leads me to conclude that the moment is ripe for a Youngkin victory. I'd say there's a 50 percent chance that Youngkin wins by 1-3 points. I'd also say there's a 20 percent chance that he wins by a larger margin. And I would guess that there's a 30 percent chance that the deepening blueness of the state is too much to overcome, and McAuliffe survives the scare with a win. 


I do think that it might be instructive that one of Virginia's Democratic US senators, who ran on Hillary Clinton's ticket, is grousing about his party's inability to pass the (not terribly popular) Biden agenda before the Virginia election, about which he seems to be worried

If Youngkin wins tonight, it's safe to say that all the neon signs pointing to that result have been blinking brightly for weeks. If McAuliffe wins, that will feel like curtains for the statewide GOP in Virginia, at least for quite some time. The Democratic president is highly unpopular, voters are lopsidedly unhappy with the direction of the country, McAuliffe is running a nasty, dishonest, dyspeptic campaign, and swing voters are swinging to Youngkin. If all of that is not sufficient for a guy like Youngkin – who is running a smart and capable campaign – Virginia will have planted its flag as a firmly blue state, to the extent that Democrats are more or less invulnerable in statewide races. We'll know very soon if that's the sort of place Virginians want to live in. 


Parting thought: There was a fair amount of attention paid to the size and enthusiasm of Youngkin's 8 am rally in very blue Alexandria, Virginia, on Saturday. What interested me more, though, is the fact that it happened at all. Youngkin's camp has operated in a very strategic and disciplined manner. They are obviously hoping to make some inroads in heavily-Democratic areas, but is taking the time to schedule a rally in a liberal hotbed really worth it? They've concluded that it is. Would they have allocated their most precious resource as such if they didn't feel like they are on pace to hit their marks, and want to run up the score? Hmmm. I'll leave you with a sharp elections expert's back-of-the-envelope sign posts for Youngkin: 

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