Political commentators (like me) spent much of the fall obsessing over how well Glenn Youngkin might do in the suburbs. Would he be able to win back suburban voters who deserted Republicans during the Donald Trump years?
The answer is yes, he won back some of them – although he vowed to win Loudoun County, which became ground zero in the culture wars over schools, and he never came close to that. Maybe that claim was just campaign hyperbole anyway. Nonetheless, Youngkin’s ability to compete in the suburbs is an important story, one that holds lessons for both Republicans and Democrats nationwide. It may not be the most important story coming out of the election, though. The most important story might be Youngkin’s unexpected ability to generate even more votes out of rural Virginia. Democrats had thought Republicans had maxed out their numbers in Southwest and Southside. Turns out, they hadn’t, and that’s one of the reasons why Republicans, and not Democrats, will be running the state’s top three offices for the next four years.
Now it seems everybody is writing about this “rural surge.” I’ve written about it. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has written about it. Former Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, in an opinion piece we published, has written about it. Even The New York Times has written about it, warning that the Virginia election raises “raise a foreboding possibility for Democrats: that the party had simply leased the suburbs in the Trump era, while Republicans may have bought and now own even more of rural America.” It quotes a Democratic congressman from Minnesota making the case that Democrats need to focus on “geographic equity” in the same way they focus on racial equity. It quotes a data analyst who has studied voter behavior and says that Republicans could run even better in rural areas in the years ahead unless Democrats figure out a way to arrest their party’s free fall: “In rural America the bottom for the Democratic Party is zero. I am serious about this.”
Whether Democrats will even try to figure out a message for rural voters, what that message should be and whether it might work are all topics for another day. Today it’s simply this: Youngkin’s ability to run stronger in the suburbs is important but the massive rural turnout is why he’s now governor-elect.
Let’s try to quantify this, shall we?
The unofficial numbers (now that late-arriving mail ballots have been counted and added in) show Youngkin polled 1,663,035 votes, McAuliffe 1,596,907. That’s a margin of 66,128 votes.
Where did those 66,128 votes come from? Well, technically, everywhere, right? But we also know that voter turnout – which hit record levels for a gubernatorial election in Virginia – was up more in Republican-voting areas than it was in Democratic-voting areas. (Once again, we’re indebted to the Virginia Public Access Project for putting these numbers together.) In Petersburg, voter turnout was unchanged – 38% turnout in both the 2017 gubernatorial election and this one. But in Russell County, the voter turnout surged by 15 percentage points, from 37% to 52% – and those extra voters sure weren’t Democrats. In fact, the Democratic vote totals in Russell and much of Southwest Virginia actually fell, which meant Republicans produced even greater margins across the region. There’s another way to measure that increase, too. While the turnout was up by 15 percentage points, the growth rate from 37% to 52% actually represents a 40.2% increase in turnout. That was the highest growth rate for any locality in the state, according to figures compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project.
Not to belabor the point, but let’s just show how much turnout was up in Southwest Virginia. In Tazewell County, voter turnout was up by 13 percentage points – from 37% to 50%. Same in Dickenson County, where turnout rose from 34% to 47%. In Norton, turnout was up by 11 percentage points – 37% to 48%. In Wise County, 38% to 48%. In Buchanan County, 30% to 40% (and in the Bull precinct, turnout soared 77%, the highest increase any any individual precinct in the state, according to VPAP).
These kind of turnout spikes weren’t confined to the coal counties, either. We see the same phenomenon all across Southwest Virginia. In Grayson County, turnout jumped from 45% to 58%. In Galax, 37% to 49%. In Floyd County, 51% to 64%. In Craig County, 48% to 63%, another gain of 15 percentage points. These turnout trends continued across Southside: Franklin County went from 49% to 62%. Mecklenburg County went from 40% to 53%. In Amelia County, 50% to 64%. In Appomattox County, turnout bolted from 48% to 63%, another 15 percenter. In Powhatan County, it went from 55% to 70%.
Many Democratic localities had higher turnout than Republican ones – turnout often tracks with education, as do election results these days – but their relative percentages didn’t change much. Falls Church went from 61% to 64%. The “extra” votes that brought Terry McAuliffe (607 above Democrats four years ago) were nearly wiped out by the collapse of the Democratic vote in Lee County (422 below four years ago). Norfolk, another strongly Democratic locality, didn’t show much enthusiasm for this year’s Democratic ticket. Turnout rose from 43% to just 44%. That meant 721 “extra” votes for Terry McAuliffe over what Ralph Northam won four years ago. That vote gain was more than wiped out by the vote swings alone in Buchanan County, where Democrats lost ground and Republicans grew turnout – an effective gain of 1,793 Republican votes in one sparsely populated rural county. In Roanoke and Danville, turnout bumped up from 40 to 45%. However, in Portsmouth, another Democratic stronghold, turnout actually declined, from 46% to 44%. Enthusiasm was not a problem for Republicans, particularly in rural Virginia. (A thought experiment: Notice how low the turnout in parts of rural Virginia typically is, relative to their suburban counterparts. Now imagine if these all 40ish% turnout rural localities voted at the same 64% turnout rate that Falls Church does. If they did we’d have some different election results in other years, too. Just sayin’.)
In Loudoun County, which became ground zero for the campaign in many ways, turnout was up from 49% to 56% – a respectable increase but nothing like the double-digit gains we saw in Southwest or Southside. Of course, even a small percentage point increase in a county that size still produces a lot of votes, so here’s where we need to pivot from percentages to raw numbers, since that’s how elections are actually decided.
In Loudoun County, Youngkin polled 25,071 more votes than Republican Ed Gillespie did in 2017 – and even though Gillespie lost, he won more votes than any other Republican candidate for governor in the history of Virginia, so that’s why he’s the baseline. Next door in Fairfax County, Youngkin polled 34,970 more votes than Gillespie. In a close election, every vote counts, and Youngkin is surely grateful to have all those “extra” votes. But together they still add up to 60,041, short of his final margin of 66,128. They alone did not account for his margin of victory.
Now let’s look downstate.
In Bedford County, Youngkin generated 10,339 more votes than Gillespie did.
In Campbell County, 5,422.
In Amherst County, 3,300.
In Lynchburg, which isn’t rural but is part of the geographical argument I’m making here, 2,708.
In Appomattox County, 2,077.
Add all those up and that’s an “extra” 23,846 votes for Youngkin out of the Lynchburg metro alone, nearly as many as he squeezed out of Loudoun County. Loudoun got all the attention but the Lynchburg metro was just as significant in terms of his victory and without all the fuss.
Let’s keep going.
Franklin County produced 5,780 “extra” Republican votes for Youngkin.
Henry County, 3,825.
Martinsville, 187. (OK, Martinsville’s pretty Democratic).
Patrick County, 1,626.
Pittsylvania County, 5,842.
Now where are we? Add those numbers in with the Lynchburg metro, and between the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge and U.S. 29 there were 42,349 “extra” votes for Youngkin. That’s not all of his margin either but we’re getting close. Once again, everybody was focused on Loudoun County but who noticed how much more enthusiastic Southside was?
Or Southwest? The individual numbers are small but, cumulatively, they do add up.
If we want to hopscotch around, just to make the math easier, it’s not hard to find a handful of rural counties whose “extra” votes account for Youngkin’s margin.
We’ve already noted Bedford County – 10,339 “extra” votes is a big deal by any counting system. So are the 5,872 from Pittsylvania and the 5,780 from Franklin and the 3,825 from Henry.
And then we have:
Augusta County, 8,979.
Rockingham County, 8,885.
Roanoke County (which isn’t rural but sure isn’t part of the urban crescent, either), 7,505.
Washington County, 5,148.
Montgomery County, 4,501.
Botetourt County, 4,101.
Tazewell County, 3,672.
Wise County 3,061.
Right there, we’re at 71,708 – more than Youngkin’s statewide margin – and that’s not counting any of the smaller localities that added a 1,000 extra votes here or 2,000 extra votes there.
Now, these are a lot of numbers, but they show the math that undergirds this fundamental point: Youngkin is electorally indebted to those of us outside the urban crescent, and there ought to be some payback beyond simply knowing we’ll be free of the phantom menace of critical race theory. I’d prefer to reframe the point this way: Youngkin will be governor because of the votes of people in parts of the state that haven’t always enjoyed the same economic prosperity as those in the more affluent parts of the state. What’s he going to do about that?