Glenn Youngkin at a rally in Roanoke County before the election. Photo by Dwayne Yancey

On a purely practical level, the best thing about Donald Trump no longer being in office is we don’t have to deal with every ridiculous thing he has to say.

Still, the former president said something recently that demands a response, if only for the historical record.

Brandon Jarvis of The Virginia Scope cites a recent radio interview in which Trump claimed credit for Glenn Youngkin’s victory as governor last year. “He wrote me a beautiful letter thanking me and all,” Trump said. “I will tell you that right up front. He was very nice, but Youngkin would not have won the race – not even close.”

This isn’t the first time Trump has made this claim – he did so in November, right after Youngkin’s victory.

Trump was wrong then and he’s wrong now – and the fact that he’s repeating this ridiculous claim means he’s likely to do it again. And again. Before that fiction takes root in anybody’s mind, let’s pull a Barney Fife and nip it in the bud.

There are lots of reasons why Youngkin won the governor’s race last November – I cited nine of them in the aftermath of the election – but Trump isn’t one of them. Indeed, one of those nine reasons I cited is that Youngkin skillfully distanced himself from Trump and another is that, because of that distancing, Democrats were unable to tie Youngkin to Trump the way they had hoped to do. It’s absurd to now believe that Trump – who took 44.4% of the vote in Virginia in 2016 and 44.0% in 2020 – could somehow magically produce a majority for Youngkin, a candidate who went out of his way to avoid affiliation with Trump, but we live in times where people believe many absurdities.

Now, just because I believe those things doesn’t make them true, so let’s do something old-fashioned and turn to actual facts. Quaint, yes, I know.

First there are two big-picture observations:

First, Republicans could have nominated candidates for governor who were more closely identified with Trump – they did not. They could have nominated Amanda Chase, who billed herself as “Trump in heels.” They could have nominated Pete Snyder, who boasted endorsements from many in Trump’s orbit. Instead they nominated Youngkin. He was certainly no Liz Cheney but he didn’t do much to align himself with Trump, either. Same with the attorney general’s nomination: Chester Smith was far more Trumpy, but Republicans nominated Jason Miyares instead. Trump himself made no endorsement in any of those races. Of course, that hasn’t stopped Trump from claiming credit for Youngkin’s nomination, but Trump is simply wrong. Youngkin won the nomination on his own.

Second, the best evidence of Trump’s influence on Virginia politics – and his negative effect on Republican fortunes in the Old Dominion – comes here: Before Trump, Republicans held a seemingly impregnable two-thirds majority in the House of Delegates. As soon as Trump became president, that red wall crumbled. Democrats picked up 15 seats in the 2017 elections to pull nearly even in the House, and in the 2019 elections they won six more to take the majority for the first time since the late 1990s. As soon as Trump left office, what happened? Virginians gave the House majority back to Republicans – along with all three statewide offices. Put another way, when Trump was in office, Virginians punished every Republican they could. Once he was safely out of the White House, they felt safe voting Republican again.

Would Youngkin have won if Trump had still been in the White House last fall? Recent history says no way. Democrats, who weren’t sufficiently enthused over the prospect of Terry McAuliffe 2.0, would have voted at higher levels than they did just to send a message. One of the main political trends that happened under Trump was that suburban voters increasingly realigned into the Democratic column. With Trump gone, we saw some – though not all – of that vote return to something we might call normal.

Let’s look at some actual numbers.

Youngkin won with 50.58% of the vote to McAuliffe’s 48.6% – a bare majority but a majority nonetheless and one that had eluded other Republicans in Virginia since 2009.

In numerical terms, Youngkin’s margin was 63,688 votes.

How did Youngkin do this? Two main ways: He regained lost ground in the suburbs and generated larger-than-usual turnout in rural areas.

Let’s look at those suburbs first, then we’ll get to the rural areas. Specifically, let’s zeron in on some of the biggest localities to see how the Republican vote has fared in the elections just prior to Trump, during the Trump era, and then in the first election after Trump.

Loudoun County

2013 governor: Cuccinelli 45.2%

2014 Senate: Gillespie 49.1%

2016 president: Trump 38.2%

2017 governor: Gillespie 39.5%

2018 Senate: Stewart 34.7%

2020 Senate: Gade 38.1%

2020 president: Trump 36.5%

2021 governor: Youngkin 44.17%

Prince William County

2013 governor: Cuccinelli 43.7%

2014 Senate: Gillespie 47.5%

2016 president: Trump 36.5%

2017 governor: Gillespie 37.8%

2018 Senate: Stewart 33.0%

2020 Senate: Gade 35.7%

2020 president: Trump 35.6%

2021 governor: Youngkin 42.2%

Fairfax County

2013 governor: Cuccinelli 36.1%

2014 Senate: Gillespie 40.2%

2016 president: Trump 28.6%

2017 governor: Gillespie 31.2%

2018 Senate: Stewart 26.9%

2020 Senate: Gade 30.0%

2020 president: Trump 28.0%

2021 governor: Youngkin 34.7%

What we see in these three examples is that the Republican share of the vote plunged during the Trump years – and that Youngkin, in the first post-Trump election, was able to return that vote to something close to the pre-Trump levels. Trump was simply poison for Republicans in the suburbs – particularly the Northern Virginia suburbs.

Of course, Youngkin matching Ken Cuccinelli’s 2013 vote share in those counties wasn’t enough to secure victory. After all, Cuccinelli lost and Youngkin would have, too, if it hadn’t been for that bigger-than-usual voter turnout in rural Virginia. (For details on just how bigger-than-usual, see this previous column, but here are a few examples for those not inclined to click through: In Democratic-voting Petersburg, turnout didn’t budge; it was 38%, the same as it was in the governor’s race four years prior. But in Russell County, turnout surged by 15 percentage points, from 37% to 52%, and those “extra” voters sure weren’t Democrats.)

That raises a legitimate question: Did Trump help motivate that big rural Republican turnout?

No – with one important asterisk.

No, because Trump never did any of the things he could have. He endorsed Youngkin, sure, but he didn’t seem to put much effort behind that – and Youngkin’s campaign surely didn’t want him to. Trump mostly kept his mouth shut about the campaign, which was exactly what Youngkin needed him to do.

The asterisk comes only because we should note that while suburbs aligned away from Republicans during the Trump years, then swung back, most rural areas became more decisively Republican under Trump.

Now, maybe they’d have done so under any Republican president – they’ve certainly been trending that way – but we have no alternative universe to test. All we know is that under Trump, rural areas did become more Republican, and that obviously helped Youngkin – but that’s an indirect effect, not a direct one.

Since I cited Russell County earlier, let’s use that as our example:

2013 governor: Cuccinelli 64.8%

2014 Senate: Gillespie 60.7%

2016 president: Trump 77.7%

2017 governor: Gillespie 76.7%

2018 Senate: Stewart 71.3%

2020 Senate: Gade 75.1%

2020 president: Trump 81.3%

2021 governor: Youngkin 84.8%

What we see here is that Russell County became decidedly more Republican under Trump, but then became slightly more Republican after he left office. In this case, we need an even bigger picture. In the 2001 governor’s race, Russell County voted 60.4% for Democrat Mark Warner, so what we’ve seen is a county that over the past two decades has swung from 60.4% Democratic to 84.8% Republican. Trump clearly accelerated that trend but certainly didn’t cause it, so I don’t think we can say that rural areas went so heavily for Youngkin because of Trump. We can’t write Trump completely out of the picture – maybe if Trump had never happened, the Republican share of the vote in Russell County would be lower – but it’s clearly been swinging Republican on a steady basis for years now. Here’s a two-decade look at the Republican vote in Russell County:

2000 president: Bush 46.9%

2000 Senate: Allen 50.1%

2001 governor: Earley 38.9%

2002 Senate: Warner 82.6% (no Democratic candidate that year)

2004 president: Bush 53.2%

2005 governor: Kilgore 55.2%

2006 Senate: Allen 48.8%

2008 president: McCain 55.6%

2008 Senate: Gilmore: 33.3%

2009 governor: McDonnell 62.4%

2012 president: Romney 67.7%

2012 Senate: Allen 64.5%

2013 governor: Cuccinelli 64.8%

2014 Senate: Gillespie 60.7%

2016 president: Trump 77.7%

2017 governor: Gillespie 76.7%

2018 Senate: Stewart 71.3%

2020 Senate: Gade 75.1%

2020 president: Trump 81.3%

2021 governor: Youngkin 84.8%

My point here is that I’m very reluctant to give Trump much credit for Youngkin’s rural turnout. The big shift from Russell being a Republican-leaning but still competitive county to a decidedly Republican county came during the Obama years. Before Obama, Democrats still sometimes won in Russell County. After Obama, Republicans never posted less than 60% and often higher. Whether that was because of the so-called “war on coal” or something else, others can debate. All I know is the numbers I see. Trump deserves some credit – or blame, depending on your point of view – for lifting that into the 70% and 80% range, but that might have happened anyway. Now, that’s the share of the vote, which is different from the size of the actual turnout, but I see no evidence that Trump inspired the large rural turnout in 2021. This is now opinion rather than numbers, but my sense is it was a combination of enthusiasm for Youngkin and disapproval of how Democrats had governed when they had the majority in Richmond. Voters outside rural areas have a hard time grasping just how important gun rights – which Democrats restricted – are with rural voters. And Democrats’ emphasis on so-called social justice issues fall completely flat with many rural voters. Attribute that to racism if you want, but remember that in much of Southwest Virginia, “diversity” is an alien concept. In Russell County, the white percentage of the population is 97.6%. In Dickenson County, it’s 98.3%. Democrats have spent a lot of energy talking about issues that may be important to society at large but feel irrelevant to large parts of rural Virginia, simply from a demographic point of view. If their candidates aren’t talking about issues that matter to those rural voters, Democrats shouldn’t be surprised when those voters cast their ballots for somebody else. We can’t rule Trump out of the equation in the rural vote altogether, but Democrats factor into it, mostly as a negative integer. (As an aside, I am disappointed that Youngkin hasn’t done more to repay his political debt to rural voters. He’s not gotten involved in the push for state funding for school construction, for instance, something that would make a big difference in many of the counties that voted for him. Instead, he’s endorsed a state role in helping build a football stadium for the Washington Commanders – that seems like something McAuliffe would have done. But I digress.)

The Virginia Scope quotes Sean Kenney, former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party and now a writer for the Republican Standard, as saying, “Trump isn’t wrong here. If Trump had opposed Youngkin or been cool to his candidacy that would have upended the entire election.”

I don’t dispute that. In fact, I agree with that.

Trump helped Youngkin by keeping his mouth shut – there was just enough of an endorsement to keep his people in line, and just enough silence from him, and distancing from Youngkin, that Youngkin was able to win back those suburban voters who had recoiled from Trump. But that’s also a strange kind of help: “Nice little nomination you have there, be a shame if anything happened to it.”

The credit (if that’s how you see it) for Youngkin’s victory doesn’t lie with Trump for laying low, it lies partly with Youngkin, who ran a masterful campaign, and partly with Democrats, who ran a poor one and misjudged the times. When you dig into the numbers, it’s clear that Virginians weren’t voting for Youngkin because they thought he was some secret Trump acolyte, they were voting for him because they thought he’d be a normal Republican.

Trump is basically being his narcissistic self. He sees another Republican who has won and wants to claim credit for it. We shouldn’t be surprised: The rooster always claims credit for the dawn. 

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.