Virginia Democrats must be very frustrated right now.
They see Gov. Glenn Youngkin either rolling back – or trying to roll back – so much of what they hold dear: abortion rights, clean energy mandates, transgender rights. They also see the governor gallivanting around the country on what sure looks like a nascent presidential campaign. And what happens? Youngkin’s approval goes up!
This wasn’t supposed to happen, at least from the Democratic point of view. Many Virginia Democrats last year could not fathom the possibility that Youngkin or any other Republican could win. I remember talking to some Democratic activists last summer who seemed aghast when I said the governor’s race could go either way. They could not believe such a thing. They weren’t alone. Less than a week before the election, then-House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn assured her party that whatever happened with the governor’s race, “the majority is safe” in the House and “it won’t be as close as people think on Election Day.” She apparently thought the Democratic majority was so safe that she left nearly $900,000 in the bank that could have been spent on Democratic campaigns – one reason why she is not only no longer the speaker, she’s no longer the Democratic leader in the House, either.
Virginia Democrats – increasingly concentrated in Northern Virginia and other parts of the state where the party even in a bad year commands 60% or more of the vote – had deluded themselves into thinking Virginia was now a permanently blue state. In hindsight, they had reason to think so: Democrats had won four straight presidential elections in the state (2008, 2012, 2016, 2020). They’d won both U.S. Senate seats, seven of 11 congressional seats and both chambers of the General Assembly. Why should they have taken Republicans seriously? Here’s why: While Virginia has been trending blue (in places), the most recent Democratic wins (such as the Democratic takeover of the General Assembly in 2019) had been boosted by suburban voters recoiling from Donald Trump. Democrats did not count on many of those voters returning to the Republican fold once Trump was out of office and the party fielded a post-Trump candidate. As I’ve documented before, Youngkin returned the Republican vote share in Northern Virginia to pre-Trump levels – while boosting the Republican share, and Republican turnout, in rural Virginia.
Nonetheless, many Democrats seem to have regarded Youngkin as an accident of history – an aberration. They assumed that once Youngkin started enacting Republican policies, Virginians would wise up and rise up – and turn on the governor. Yet just the opposite has happened.
The occasion for these observations is the recent poll by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center that shows Youngkin’s approval rating jumping from 41% in February to 50% now. (See the story by Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt.) It’s always dangerous to compare polls – different methodologies, and all that – but directionally speaking, the CNU poll is in line with an earlier poll by Roanoke College. That poll found Youngkin’s approval rating ticking up from 53% in May to 55% in August. Whatever the actual numbers, the overall point is the same: Here are two reputable polls from neutral sources (there are lots of partisan polls out there) that show that Youngkin’s approval rating is higher than his disapproval rating – and that his approval rate is rising.
To be fair, Youngkin’s approval rating isn’t as high as some Democratic governors have had in the past; at this time in his first year, Ralph Northam was at 59% in the CNU poll. It may be that Youngkin’s approval rating is as high as a Republican can get in Virginia – we’ll see as time goes on. In any case, there’s no evidence to suggest that any of the controversies the administration has triggered with various policy changes have depressed Youngkin’s popularity (unless you want to argue that it would be even higher without such moves).
Furthermore, certain political commentators with long memories (I’m looking in the mirror here) have delighted in writing that the only other time a sitting governor ran for president, his approval ratings cratered – that previous governor being Douglas Wilder in 1991-92. Youngkin has been making national moves much earlier in his term than Wilder ever did and does not seem to have suffered at home the way Wilder did. Clearly, one data point does not a rule make.
If you’re a Democrat, what should you take away from this? Likewise, if you’re a Republican, what should you take away from this?
Parties often learn the wrong lessons – of course, political commentators sometimes do, too.
Here are some possibilities:
1. Youngkin is a Teflon governor.
That was the phrase applied to Ronald Reagan back in the day, coined by then-Rep. Pat Schroeder, D-Colorado. She did not mean it approvingly. Her contention was that Reagan avoided blame for his policies because he had an affable personality and people seemed to like him personally. If you adhere to this belief, then Virginians will eventually sour on Youngkin once they understand the true impact of his policies. One corollary to this: Personality does matter in politics. Given the closeness of the 2020 election, Trump might well have been reelected on the basis of his policies if he hadn’t been so personally obnoxious.
If Youngkin’s approval ratings simply reflect voters who think the governor seems a fine fellow, then there may be little Democrats can do in the interim – just as Democrats couldn’t do much about Reagan’s popularity. However, if you believe in the Teflon theory, then there’s hope for Democrats once Youngkin passes from the scene because the next Republican candidate for governor might not be so well-liked (and the next Democratic candidate for governor might be better-liked than Terry McAuliffe was). This might be the optimistic view for some Democrats; it might also be unwise. That brings us to the second possibility:
2. Virginia is not as liberal as Democrats would like for it to be.
This is the more dangerous scenario for Democrats (but also potentially dangerous for Republicans, too). The numbers that Democrats might want to concern themselves with are not the topline numbers in the CNU poll but some of the deeper numbers. Specifically these: Not surprisingly, Republicans like Youngkin and Democrats don’t. However, among independents, Youngkin’s approval rating is 48%, his disapproval rating 41%. Youngkin is winning independents.
Both parties these days tend to discount independents and sometimes act as if they don’t exist. But they do. Democrats ignore these numbers at their peril. Here are some other numbers from the poll that Democrats ignore at their peril: Independents really don’t like President Joe Biden. Republicans are more uniformly anti-Biden (96%) than Democrats are pro-Biden (78%). But among independents, 59% disapprove of Biden’s handling of the presidency, and only 31% approve.
Independents are a challenge for both parties. The CNU poll finds independents care less about climate change than Democrats do, but more than Republicans do. Same for just about every other issue – abortion, crime, gun violence, racial inequality, you name it. Democrats and Republicans place far different levels of emphasis on each of those issues — with independents in the middle between the two. Independents are likely independents because they don’t fit neatly into either party’s policy views. At the moment, however, Virginia’s independents are tilting toward Youngkin. Democrats might do well to try to figure out why, although they might not like what they find. Here’s one number I notice: There’s one issue and one issue only where independents don’t come down between the two parties but instead care about the same (or perhaps slightly more) than either party. That’s education – 79% of independents say education is very important, compared to 78% of Republicans and 74% of Democrats. Now, it’s quite likely that Democrats and Republicans have very different ideas of what is important about education and what they’d like to change about it, but the fact that independents rank this issue at the same level as Republicans might prompt Democrats to explore further. No party likes to admit they’re wrong, but what if Democrats are wrong about education? What if voters really do object to some books in the school library? What if voters really do want more parental involvement in what’s being taught?
I know there’s a strain of thinking among some Democrats that the reason the party lost in 2021 was that it wasn’t liberal enough – “progressive” enough. In looking at the turnout data, there’s certainly an argument to be made that many Democrats simply weren’t motivated enough to vote in the way that some Republicans were: Turnout in some Democratic strongholds stayed absolutely flat while it was up in much of rural – that is to say, Republican – Virginia. McAuliffe certainly didn’t enthuse a lot of the more left-leaning parts of his party, particularly because of his embrace of natural gas pipelines while he was governor. A more left-leaning candidate might well have energized those voters in a way that McAuliffe did not. However, politics is often like physics, specifically Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal but opposite reaction. A more liberal candidate would have certainly brought out more Democratic voters, but how many independent voters would such a candidate have turned away? There’s no point in rehashing 2021, but Democrats would do well to ponder such a question for 2025. What if voters are closer to Youngkin’s views than a lot of Democrats might wish?
The danger to Democrats may be clear; the danger to Republicans less so. Just as voters may not be as liberal as Democrats think, they may not be as conservative as Republicans want them to be, either.
Democrats misread the mandate of their victories, Republicans could always misread the mandate of theirs by going too far right. We’ll find out more about that when the 2023 General Assembly convenes – with the Republican push for abortion restrictions front and center – and then, ultimately, in the November 2023 elections when all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot. That’s more than a year out, and a lot can change in a year – the midterms could scramble Washington, Donald Trump could get indicted, Vladimir Putin could nuke Ukraine, a million other unexpected things could happen – but here’s one thing Republicans have going for them right now: They have a popular governor to campaign for them. That’s no small thing.