You may have heard about the poll released last week that showed Gov. Glenn Youngkin beating President Joe Biden in a hypothetical matchup in Virginia.
If not, you are now.
The poll — officially the Commonwealth Poll from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University — may be important in ways far beyond that headline.
Republicans, gather ’round with beating hearts for what I’ve found buried deep within this poll. Democrats, you may want to stock up on your blood pressure medicine before reading the rest of this — giving thanks, of course, for the Affordable Care Act and Virginia’s expansion of Medicaid.
Let’s run through the basics, then we’ll look at the interesting parts.
The Commonwealth Poll tested three possible matchups in Virginia: Biden against former President Donald Trump, Biden against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Biden against Youngkin, who, of course, isn’t a candidate, but seems to be the darling of some big Republican donors who don’t like the candidates they have.
Biden topped Trump, 43% to 40%.
Biden and DeSantis are tied at 41% apiece.
But then Youngkin polled ahead of Biden, 44% to 37%.
These numbers shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s always risky to compare two different polls — which might have different methodologies and different ways of asking questions — but these numbers generally match up with what a Roanoke College poll found in March.
That March poll from Roanoke College found:
Biden topped Trump, 47% to 45%.
DeSantis topped Biden, 47% to 44%.
But Youngkin polled ahead of Biden, 54% to 39%.
Here’s my take on those numbers: Biden is in trouble, but the one thing he has going for him are unpopular Republicans.
I find it difficult to believe that Trump would beat Biden in Virginia. This is a state that’s voted Democratic for four presidential elections in a row, with the Democratic share gradually increasing. Trump in 2016 polled just 44.4% in Virginia, and just 44% in 2020. That’s the lowest percentage for any Republican presidential candidate in the state since Richard Nixon took 43.4% in 1968 and still carried the Old Dominion because it was basically a three-way race with George Wallace as the third-party candidate taking nearly a quarter of the vote. In a more conventional two-way race, you have to go back to Tom Dewey in 1944 — 42.6% — to find a Republican running weaker in a presidential election in Virginia.
Biden does seem weak — a Democratic president ought to be polling better in a four-in-a-row Democratic state — but there’s no evidence that Trump has expanded his support, nationally or in Virginia. My bet would be that a Biden-Trump rerun (God help us, please) would wind up with Biden carrying Virginia, simply because voters are more repelled by Trump than they are by Biden.
The tie with DeSantis seems to confirm two things: Biden’s weakness, but also DeSantis’ weakness. Notice that DeSantis had a slight lead in the March poll from Roanoke College. That was also when DeSantis was riding higher in the national polls. At one point, he was nearly tied with Trump among Republican voters; since then he’s collapsed, losing nearly two-thirds of his support. I suspect a Biden-DeSantis race would wind up the same way in Virginia as a Biden-Trump race, with Biden winning, not because voters are enamored of his performance, but because of voters who just can’t stomach the Florida governor. I also suspect such a contest would be closer than a Biden-Trump rerun.
That’s why the Youngkin-leads-Biden number is so fascinating. I discount the numerical differences between the 54%-39% margin in the Roanoke College poll in March and the 44% to 37% margin in the VCU poll that was conducted in mid-July. I’m wary of making those kinds of cross-poll comparisons. Some polls do more, or less, to encourage people to give an answer. The main point is more directional: Youngkin had a healthy lead over Biden in both polls, well outside the margin of error.
Virginians know both these men, and in both polls, when given a choice between the two, they chose Youngkin — even with the state’s history of going blue four times in a row.
If we take the 2020 results and flip Virginia into the Republican column, that wouldn’t change the outcome. However, these poll results suggest that if Youngkin were somehow the Republican nominee, he might be able to flip other states as well. That’s the essence of Youngkin’s appeal to some Republican donors. They’re fed up with Trump, they don’t like DeSantis, but they want someone — anyone — who can win. Youngkin might just win. His biggest challenge wouldn’t be a general election against Biden, it would be getting the nomination in the first place when Republican voters seem dead set on nominating someone who faces felony charges in three different courts (and might well face them in four, once that investigation in Georgia wraps up). Someday, generations from now, future Americans will look back and wonder how the party of law and order and the party of family values came to adore such a man, but that day is not today.
For those pushing a Youngkin-for-president bid, the really exciting news isn’t in the top-line numbers, it’s deeper in the data. Who is saying they’d vote for Youngkin who isn’t saying they’d vote for Trump or DeSantis?
Here’s one answer: younger voters.
Voters 18 to 24 really hate Trump: They go for Biden over Trump 46.2% to 32.9%.
They’re not keen on DeSantis, either: They go for Biden over DeSantis 45.4% to 32%.
They basically see Trump and DeSantis as interchangeable and don’t like either one.
But if the choice is Youngkin versus Biden, look what happens. The Commonwealth Poll shows Youngkin winning that age group, 42% to 35.6%.
If I were talking up a Youngkin campaign — and I’m not, I’m just calling attention to the data I see — I’d be waving this number around all over the country.
Maybe the numbers involved here are too small to draw too many sweeping conclusions but the fact remains: The outcome among young voters switched when the choice became Biden or Youngkin. Here’s why this is important: Young voters were a key part of Biden’s coalition in 2020. Voters 18 to 29 (which is how other polls slice the age cohorts) came out in unprecedented numbers, and they voted overwhelmingly for Biden — 59% to 35%, according to the Pew Research Center. Young voters were the age cohort most enthusiastic about Biden (or at least the most anti-Trump) and by some measures made the difference for him in some key swing states. TIME magazine wrote in 2020 about “How Georgia Pulled Off Unprecedented Youth Voter Turnout.”
No wonder we see some Republicans trying to find ways to tamp down voting by young adults. Idaho and Ohio have passed laws not to recognize student ID cards as a form of identification at the polls. North Carolina is looking at doing the same. A proposal in Texas would ban campus polling places. (All these states have Republican legislatures, by the way.) This spring, a Republican strategist told a meeting of donors in Nashville that the party should mobilize to roll back election laws that make it easier for young people to vote, such as on-campus voting, same-day registration or automatically mailing ballots to voters.
This poll suggests that’s a misguided strategy if Youngkin were the nominee. (It would be curious to see what the numbers would be like for, say, former Ambassador Nikki Haley or South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, but the poll didn’t ask about them.)
These numbers both surprise me and don’t surprise me. Over the past year or so, we’ve seen lots of reporting that younger voters are souring on Biden.
“How Biden lost the support of young Americans.” — FiveThirtyEight
Setting aside policy questions, it’s easy to see why younger voters might not identify that much with an octogenarian president. These numbers might also explain Biden’s push to forgive student debt — that’s presumably a popular move with the younger voters he needs to energize next year.
Another question on the poll concerns Biden’s handling of the presidency. More voters 18-24 disapprove of the job Biden is doing (56.4%) than approve (32.2%). Perhaps more telling, 27.4% of young adults strongly disapprove of Biden while only 0.7% strongly approve. There is simply no enthusiasm for Biden among this age group, at least in this poll.
These poll numbers suggest that younger voters pick Biden over Trump or DeSantis by wide margins simply because they detest those two Republicans — but that distaste is more personal than political. A Youngkin vs. Biden campaign would offer Republicans to make a generational argument — much the same one that John Kennedy made in 1960, that it’s time for a new generation of leaders. Curiously, DeSantis (44) is younger than Youngkin (56) but doesn’t really act like it.
It’s possible that this poll is simply a reflection of first impressions and, in a presidential campaign, younger voters might recoil from Youngkin as his views become more widely known. For instance, Youngkin favors restrictions on abortion but polls show that young adults are the age cohort more emphatic about keeping abortion legal in most or all cases. Still, if Youngkin were the nominee, and this poll is indicative of larger trends, Republicans might wish they weren’t trying to cut back on youth voting — they’d want a lot more of it.