In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Polonius asks the famously moody Dane what he’s reading. Hamlet replies: “Words, words, words.” If Polonius asked me, I’d say, “Numbers, numbers, numbers.” Of course, he can’t ask me. For one thing, he got stabbed to death in Act III, Scene IV, and he’s kind of fictional anyway. But the election we just had was quite real, and here are some of the numbers that matter.
1. Virginia had record turnout for a gubernatorial election. Turnout was up 15% from four years ago was up in ways that obviously benefitted Republicans more than Democrats. Anyone who thinks that a high turnout automatically benefits Democrats is wrong and this election proves it. The question is always who turns out, and this year Republicans did a better job of ginning up a high turnout than Democrats did. We’re indebted to the Virginia Public Access Project for these numbers. Here’s the percentage of registered voters who have voted in the past six gubernatorial elections:
2021: 54.9% (Republican Glenn Youngkin won)
2017: 47.6% (Democrat Ralph Northam won)
2013: 43.0% (Democrat Terry McAuliffe won)
2009: 40.4% (Republican Bob McDonnell won)
2005: 44.9% (Democrat Tim Kaine won)
2001: 46.4% (Democrat Mark Warner won)
Pretty much everything you want to know about why this election turned out the way it did can be explained somehow through turnout (and the shape of the electorate it produced). VPAP has a nifty visual that shows how turnout was higher than 2017 across the board but was much higher in Republican localities than Democratic ones.
2. Was McAuliffe really a bad candidate? I said he was. Other commentators said so, too. The numbers don’t absolve him of losing a race that Democrats thought they should have won, but they also paint a somewhat more forgiving picture. McAuliffe won 1,579,532 votes – and might win some more once the late-arriving mail ballots are counted. That’s more than any other Democratic candidate for Virginia governor has ever won. The only problem for him was that Glenn Youngkin won even more – 1,658,647.
For context, four years ago, Ralph Northam polled 1,408,818 votes and won the election. At that time, Republican Ed Gillespie posted the highest totals ever for a Republican candidate for governor in the state – 1,013,354.
Some of that is a factor of a state that’s gaining population year by year. Some of it is also a product of which side does the better job of exciting its base. In 2017, Democrats were more excited than Republicans. This year, Republicans were more enthusiastic than Democrats. McAuliffe, though, didn’t depress the Democratic base, since his vote totals were higher than any other Democrat before him. He just didn’t excite Democrats (or independents, for that matter) in the way a Democratic candidate needed to. Here’s another way to think about these numbers: In 2017, Virginia Democrats did a better job of motivating presidential-year voters to come back out in an off-year gubernatorial election. In 2021, Virginia Republicans did the same thing.
In 2020, Joe Biden won 2,413,568 votes in Virginia to Donald Trump’s 1,962,430. The Republican ballot fall-off from 2020 to 2021 was 303,783 votes, but the Democratic ballot fall-off was 834,036votes. That’s why Youngkin won. What could McAuliffe have done to retain more of those Biden voters, or were they retainable at all? How many were voting for Biden simply to get rid of Trump but had no interest in seeing Democrats at every level of government? Could any of the other candidates who sought the Democratic nomination have done a better job of motivating those voters? That’s unknowable, of course, but something Democrats will surely debate. McAuliffe reminds me of his buddy Hillary Clinton. In 2016, Democrats weren’t really interested in considering other alternatives; they were dead-set on nominating her and reaped the rewards, such as they were, that November. Virginia Democrats this year didn’t seem much interested in considering alternatives to McAuliffe. Now they have a situation where they’ve been wiped out and have no obvious candidate for governor in 2025. Now there’s a number!
3. This was the third closest governor’s race in Virginia history. Based on the numbers so far, Youngkin’s margin was 2.39%. That’s just a decimal point closer than 2013, when McAuliffe defeated Ken Cuccinelli by 2.4%. The closest governor’s race in Virginia was in 1989, when Democrat Douglas Wilder defeated Republican Marshall Coleman by 0.4% – a contest that involved a recount. The second closest was 1973, when Republican Mills Godwin defeated independent Henry Howell by 1.4%.
Now, all that’s based on a percentage basis. This is basic math: As the numbers become bigger (and the electorate has grown over the years), a 2.39% margin today is not what it was in years past. In terms of raw numbers, Youngkin’s margin now stands at 79,115. votes. That’s a wider margin than McAuliffe won by in 2013 when he won by 56,435 votes. In 1973, Godwin won by 14,972 votes. In 1989, Wilder won by 6,741 votes.
4. Third-party candidate Princess Blanding did not make a difference. She was a left-wing campaign, so the popular assumption was that any votes she drew, she’d take out of McAuliffe’s totals. That’s not really the right way to think about third-party candidates, though. If Blanding hadn’t been on the ballot, would her supporters have voted at all? We don’t know. If they wouldn’t have, then her votes didn’t come from anybody. They only came from McAuliffe if those voters would have cast a ballot for him instead. In any event, none of it mattered. Youngkin topped 50% – barely – so Blanding didn’t tip the race to him. Some had speculated she might poll as high as 5%, but certainly in the 1% to 2% range. She did neither. She finished at 0.69%. That’s kind of a major bust. Since 1965, we have had 10 other third-party candidates for governor who finished with a bigger percentage of the vote than she did, including an actual Nazi in 1965. The most successful third-party candidate was segregationist William Story in 1965 (and no, he he wasn’t the Nazi), who polled 13%. Story is the only third-party candidate to finish in double digits. The second best was Libertarian Robert Sarvis at 6.5% in 2013, third best was former state Sen. Russ Potts at 2.2% in 2005. Blanding polled 22,548 votes, fewer than Libertarian Clifford Hyra won four years ago.
5. Montgomery County now has no legislators. The county will still have legislators who represent it in Richmond, of course. But the legislature will have no Montgomery County residents sitting in either chamber. The county is split between two state Senate districts, both of whom have senators from the Roanoke Valley – Democrat John Edwards of Roanoke for one side of the county, Republican David Suetterlein of Roanoke County for the other. The county is split among three House of Delegates districts. One is represented by Joe McNamara, R-Roanoke County, who was re-elected. The other two seats were previously held by Montgomery County residents – Republican Nick Rush and Democrat Chris Hurst. Rush retired and was replaced by Republican Marie March, who lives in Floyd County. Hurst was defeated by Republican Jason Ballard, who lives in Giles County. This is a long way from the days when there were multiple Montgomery residents in the General Assembly at the same time, with both Ward Teel (Republican) and Joan Munford (Democrat) in the House and Madison Marye (Democrat) in the state Senate. Some, such as Montgomery County Supervisor Sara Bohn, had asked the Virginia Redistricting Commission not to split the county so it could elect one of its own. Republican maps proposed uniting all of Montgomery in a single state Senate district (along with neighboring localities to make the math work out), but Democrats proposed splitting it again so they could unite Democratic voters in Roanoke with Democratic voters in Radford and Blacksburg. The commission couldn’t agree on maps, so now the task will fall to the Virginia Supreme Court. Montgomery County appears to be the largest locality in the state that won’t have a resident in the legislature come January. What will they think about a county with nearly 100,000 people who doesn’t have a single one of those in the General Assembly?
6. Keep Confederate statues, elect Black candidates. Three Virginia localities – Mathews, Middlesex and Nottoway counties – all voted on whether to move their Confederate statues. All said no – 80.1% in Mathews, 77.3% in Middlesex, 67.8% in Nottoway – yet at the same time each county voted to elect a Black woman as lieutenant governor. In Mathews, the vote for Republican Winsome Sears was 72.2%, in Middlesex it was 66.3%, in Nottoway it was 64.8%. Now let’s look at the raw numbers. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that every Democratic voter voted to move the statue, even though we know that’s probably not the case. In Nottoway, 1,890 people voted for Democrat Hala Ayala for lieutenant governor and 1,717 voted in favor of moving the statue. That means the thesis can’t be true because obviously not every Democratic voter voted “yes” on moving the statue. Sears took 3,489 votes in Nottoway while 3,621 voted to keep the statue. Youngkin took 3,496 votes in Nottoway, if you’re curious, so there was almost no ballot drop-off between the white candidate for governor and the Black candidate for lieutenant governor. That also means that even if it was a nearly party-line vote on the statue, then a) some Democrats voted to keep it and b) an awful lot of people voted for both the statue and Sears at the same time and saw no contradiction in the two votes. Now, you can argue (correctly) that Nottoway voters didn’t really have a choice because neither candidate for lieutenant governor was white. However, this isn’t the first time that Nottoway has elected a Black candidate. In 2019, it elected Robert Jones as sheriff with 66% of the vote in a three-way race. Sometimes life on the ground is more complicated than it appears to the talking heads on TV.
7. The polarization of the electorate accelerates. Four years ago, there were only five localities where one candidate hit 80% or more of the vote. Democrats did that in Charlottesville and Petersburg; Republicans did that in Bland, Scott and Tazewell counties. This year there were 16 localities that crossed the 80% mark – the same two for Democrats but now 14 for Republicans. Of those 14 localities, one was in Southside (Appomattox County, 80.3%), one in the eastern foothills of the Blue Ridge (Patrick County, 82.2%) and the other 12 in Southwest Virginia (Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Grayson, Lee, Scott, Smyth, Russell, Tazewell, Wise, Wythe). Lee topped out at 87.6% for Youngkin. As I pointed out yesterday, Lee is a county that two decades ago voted Democratic in the governor’s race. (So were some of these others.)
We’ve always had political differences – Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a whole musical out of some of them with “Hamilton.” What’s new, at least in our lifetimes, are the stark geographical divides we’re seeing. These kinds of splits can’t be healthy for the country. Youngkin needs to be governor of Charlottesville (82.9% Democratic) and Petersburg (84.9% Democratic) as much as he needs to be governor of Lee County. Likewise if McAuliffe had won, he would have had to be governor of those 80%-plus counties as much as he would have been governor of Democratic localities. I worry about how we will reconcile these differences in the years ahead. How can a locality that votes 80%-plus Democratic begin to understand what motivates a Republican office-holder, except as caricature? Same for voters in one of those 80%-plus Republican counties when it comes to Democrats. It’s one thing if the other side wins. We’ve always had elections where the other side wins, just different sides from time to time. But it’s quite another if that other side seems to be so alien, culturally speaking.
Democrats think we’d have been better off if they had won. Republicans think we’ll be better off since they won. I’ll let them sort that out. All I know is we’d be better off if we had more counties that were 50-50 and fewer than were 80-20. In the long run, those might be the real numbers that matter.