On the afternoon of Election Day, when the Twitterverse was starting to fill with Republicans chattering about an imminent victory, I saw a Democratic activist tweet this:
“No R has hit 50.0% of the vote in VA in 12 years – that is both pre-Trump & post-rural D collapse & pre-hard suburban swing & post-hard suburban swing. Who are these magical non-existent voters that have been underground like cicadas that are supposed to carry Youngkin to victory?”
I also noticed that on the day after the election, the tweet had been deleted. Still, it’s a question that many might wonder about. How did Glenn Youngkin (and the rest of the Republican ticket) win in a state where Republicans haven’t won in 12 years, a state that’s been trending more and more Democratic each year?
The answer, like many things in life, involves math. (Sorry.)
In yesterday’s column, I laid out nine reasons why Youngkin won. Those nine reasons all boil down to two big electoral drivers. The first is the one that everybody is talking about: how Youngkin won back some of the suburban voters the party had lost during the Donald Trump years. He flipped Chesterfield County, Chesapeake and Virginia Beach, all of which had (narrowly) voted Democratic four years ago. He didn’t win back Northern Virginia, which has broken more strongly Democratic, but he ran better than other Republicans have. Ed Gillespie took just 31.2% in Fairfax County four years ago. Donald Trump sank to 28%. Youngkin posted just under 35%. In Loudoun County, Gillespie took 39.5%. Trump fell to 36.5%. This year, with Loudoun County becoming ground zero in a culture war over schools, Youngkin pulled the Republican share up to 44.5%. When you’re talking counties of that size, even a small percentage change translates into a lot of votes. Gillespie won 46,396 votes in Loudoun County, Trump 82,088 (smaller percentage but bigger raw vote total because turnout was higher). Youngkin won 70,765 votes in Loudoun.
The Democrat on Twitter who asked about “these magical non-existent voters that have been underground like cicadas” misses the point. It’s not that Youngkin invented new voters; he retained a higher percentage of presidential-year Republican voters in an off-year gubernatorial election. Republicans were simply more motivated by Youngkin (and a lot of other things) than Democrats were motivated by Terry McAuliffe.
Youngkin didn’t just do that in the suburbs, though. He did it across Virginia – and, most especially for my point today, he did that in rural Virginia. As voters have realigned, especially during the Trump years, commentators have often asked whether Republicans were endangering themselves by relying so much on a rural base. Because most rural communities are seeing populations decline (or at least not grow very fast, particularly relative to more diverse metro areas), the question was whether Republicans could really squeeze more and more votes out of a declining part of the electorate.
The answer, in Virginia in 2021, is yes.
Youngkin consistently polled higher percentages across rural Virginia than even Trump had won. He did this the same way he ran better than recent Republicans in the state’s suburbs – he retained a bigger share of the Republican presidential vote than Democrats did. In many localities, Youngkin came within sight of Trump’s vote totals from 2020 while McAuliffe ran below Democratic vote totals in the 2017 gubernatorial election. That’s not a winning combination for Democrats. Youngkin was able to do this because in many rural localities, turnout was higher in 2021 than it was in the 2017 governor’s race; WCYB-TV reports that turnout was up 31% in Southwest Virginia from four years ago. Those sure weren’t Democratic voters coming out to vote in Southwest Virginia. Just as it was Democrats who retained a lot of presidential turnout in 2017, this time it was Republicans.
Here’s one example, but there are many others:
2013: Cuccinelli 3,507, McAuliffe 1,180
2017: Gillespie 5,289, Northam 1,304
2020: Trump 8,365, Biden 1,489
2021: Youngkin 6,369, McAuliffe 877
Ultimately it’s the raw numbers that matter, but the percentages are instructive, too. Cuccinelli took 73.1% in Lee County. Gillespie took 79.2%. Trump last year ran that up to 84.1%. Youngkin drove that this year up to 87.65%. Pending late-arriving mail ballots, Lee appears to have given Youngkin the highest percentage of any locality in the state. Now for the historical context: This is a county that Democrat Mark Warner carried just two decades ago; he won 53.3% in Lee County in 2001. That year there were 2,923 people in Lee County who voted Democratic. This year there were only 877. There’s your rural realignment right there.
Throughout rural Virginia, in particular, we see county after county where Trump hit percentages unheard of last year – and Youngkin made them even higher, as he retained a big chunk of the presidential vote while Democrats did not. Trump took 83.4% in Bland and Scott counties; those were his highest percentages in Virginia. Youngkin pushed those up to 85.6% and 86.9%. This isn’t just a Southwest Virginia phenomenon, either. Southwest Virginia is just noteworthy because in those counties we saw the raw Democratic vote continue to collapse.
Buchanan County is a county that Democrats used to always carry; it was one of the last counties to flip. As late as 2004, it was still voting 54% for John Kerry in the presidential election. But then:
2013: Cuccinelli 3,275, McAuliffe 1,461
2017: Gillespie 3,449, Northam 1,062
2020: Trump 8,311, Biden 1,587
2021: Youngkin 5,078, McAuliffe 903
We’ve seen Democrats decline all across rural Virginia (and large parts of rural America, for that matter). What’s unusual in Southwest Virginia is that the Democratic vote totals in gubernatorial years have continued to decline cycle by cycle (obviously presidential years produce a bigger turnout). If you’re crunching numbers, we’ve seen the raw Democratic vote in Buchanan County drop by 38% since 2013. Mark Warner piled up 3,746 votes in Buchanan in 2001. Obviously the county has seen population decline since then, but that alone doesn’t explain the drop. Only realignment does.
However, in other parts of rural Virginia, we see a slightly different trend, although still not one in Democrats’ favor. Let’s pick Henry County at random (although not completely at random; it’s another rural county that Warner once carried). More recently it’s voted Republican:
2013: Cuccinelli 8,024; McAuliffe 4,558
2017: Gillespie 9,046, Northam 4,895
2020: Trump 16,725, Biden 9,127
2021: Youngkin 12,921, McAuliffe 5,535
Here we see that McAuliffe actually improved upon both Northam’s 2017 performance and his own 2013 performance. Problem is, Youngkin improved even more on the Republican side, so instead of a 3,466-vote Republican margin in 2013 or a 4,151-vote margin in 2017, we now have Henry County giving Republicans a 7,386-vote margin. And this in a county that’s been losing population! Youngkin’s statewide margin currently stands at 70,014, so Henry County alone didn’t make the difference. I suppose I could take the time to add up the “extra” Republican votes in every rural county, but that seems pointless. In a close election, every vote matters – both those “extra” rural votes that Youngkin squeezed out in Southwest and Southside, and all the suburban votes he clawed back in the urban crescent. Victory really does have 1,000 fathers; here it has 70,014. Or 70,015 if you want to be technical.
Still, I can’t help but make two points.
First, Democrats would be better off if they could win just a few more votes in rural Virginia. I see no real prospect of that happening, for lots of reasons. The Democratic Party, as currently constructed, is culturally misaligned with rural Virginia. Democrats will spend far more time figuring out how to get more votes out of Loudoun than out of Lee, and that makes sense: Again, it’s all math. But it still rankles that the party that once made the disparities between rural schools and affluent ones a key part of its identity seems to have completely abandoned those rural areas now that the party is so concentrated in the urban crescent. Once, the biggest advocate for state funding for school construction was a liberal icon, Francis Pickens Miller. Now it’s a rural conservative, state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, and we have Democrats from the most affluent part of the state complaining that underfunded Southwest Virginia schools are somehow inefficient.
That brings me to my second point. Rural Virginia delivered for Youngkin on Tuesday. To what extent is he now indebted to deliver in return? On the one hand, it’s easy for Republican office-holders to write off the region – after all, where else are those voters going to go? (Well, they might just stay at home, but they’re certainly not voting Democratic.) On the other hand, Youngkin seems like a smart guy who understands that he, much like the proverbial turtle on the fencepost, didn’t get there by himself. Once Youngkin is done with all the ridiculous ceremonial stuff – like banning an educational theory that’s not being taught – here are some substantive things he could do to return the favor to rural Virginia, particularly Southwest Virginia. He could endorse Stanley’s call for a bond issue to provide state support for school construction. He could endorse Stanley’s proposed constitutional amendment that would close the loophole that allows the disparities between schools. He could take an idea that Ralph Northam had when he was running, but never delivered on, and transform the University of Virginia’s College at Wise into a research university, with that research focused on renewable energy. He could do a lot of other things to help rural Virginia build a new economy.
Youngkin said he’d be a different type of governor. Here’s an opportunity to prove it.