The State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.
The Virginia State Capitol. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

We learned some things this week.

We’re just not quite sure what they mean — and won’t know until November.

Two events this week offered some insight into what voters are thinking. One was the referendum in Ohio where voters rejected a proposal to make it more difficult to amend the state constitution, a vote that was seen as a proxy fight for an upcoming referendum on whether to pass a constitutional amendment to guarantee access to an abortion. The other was a poll from Virginia Commonwealth University into what issues Virginians see as the most important as we head into an election that will fill all 140 seats in the General Assembly.

These two seemingly unrelated events overlap in one important way: Both address the degree to which abortion rights will be an issue this year and beyond in the wake of last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision to overrule Roe v. Wade and return the regulation of abortion to the states.

Let’s deal with the Ohio results first, then we’ll delve into the VCU poll.

The question was a simple one, but fraught with implications: Should Ohio raise the threshold for a constitutional amendment from a simple majority to a supermajority of 60%? 

In a vacuum, this is a fascinating philosophical question: How easy or hard should it be to change a state constitution? One argument is that majority rules. The other argument is that when it comes to changing the fundamental rules, there should be more than just a mere majority — there should be a broader consensus. I can see liberals and conservatives taking different sides of that question depending on the circumstances. In this circumstance, it was liberals who were on the simple majority side and conservatives on the supermajority side. 

The immediate reason: the upcoming November referendum on that abortion rights amendment. Conservatives wanted to make it harder for that to pass. There are good reasons to think it might: Kansas and Kentucky, both solidly Republican states, have in the past year rejected proposed constitutional amendments that would have set the legal grounds to make abortion access more difficult. Ohio is a Republican state these days — a Republican governor, a Republican state legislature, and one of the Buckeye State’s two U.S. senators is a Republican — but less so than Kansas and Kentucky. If those states have referendums that wind up on the abortion rights side, Ohio probably will, too — at least that’s been the prevailing theory on both sides. 

When we look at the Ohio vote geographically, we see what is now a typical pattern: Urban areas voted on the liberal side of the question (“no” to the proposed supermajority amendment), while rural areas voted on the conservative side of the question (“yes”). If you want to look at it this way, you can: Rural areas wanted to make it harder for urban areas to change the constitution — and failed. Or this: Rural voters, now a minority, wanted to make it harder for the majority to enact rules they disagree with. Of course, you can also view it the other way around: Urban voters made it clear they didn’t want a rural minority to exert a veto power they can’t otherwise earn at the ballot box.

In Ohio, we saw the same wide disparities in voting patterns that we do in Virginia. In rural Putnam County in the northwest part of the state, 81.8% voted “yes.” In urban Cuyahoga County (Cleveland), 78.2% voted “no.” 

For those who are curious (I’ll assume many of you are), it’s harder to amend Virginia’s constitution than it is Ohio’s. Ohio has a provision to allow citizen-initiated referendums — that’s how the proposed abortion rights amendment has gotten on the state’s fall ballot. In Virginia, all proposed constitutional amendments must first go through the General Assembly (twice, with an election in between, to sample two different legislatures) before going to the voters. Consequently, we have relatively few constitutional amendments and many of those that do make it to a fall ballot are pretty technical in nature — which is also why most pass by wide margins.

Interestingly, if Virginia had a supermajority rule like the one Ohioans just rejected, the two most prominent constitutional amendments that would have failed the test would have been conservative ones, not liberal ones.

In 2006, Virginians approved a constitutional amendment declaring that the state would not recognize same-sex marriage. That amendment — often called the Marshall-Newman amendment after its two sponsors, then-Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, and state Sen. Steve Newman, R-Bedford County — has been rendered moot by the subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage. However, the language remains in the state constitution, so if a future Supreme Court were to change its mind, then same-sex marriage would again be abolished in Virginia. With a supermajority rule, that amendment would not have passed in Virginia: The measure received 57.1% of the vote.

Another victim of a supermajority rule would have been the 2000 constitutional amendment that guarantees a right to hunt, fish and harvest game. It passed with 59.9% of the vote, which would have been just shy of Ohio’s proposed 60% threshold. In Ohio, conservatives wanted a supermajority to try to block a liberal amendment. In Virginia, conservatives would be better off with the current simple majority rule.

Politics is full of ironies.

And now we come to the VCU poll, formally called the Commonwealth Poll from the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs. The first part of this poll came out last week and dealt with how voters felt about certain politicians; I examined some of those findings in a column earlier this week. Specifically, the poll showed that Gov. Glenn Youngkin would beat President Joe Biden in a hypothetical matchup in Virginia — partly because young adults, a key voter bloc for Biden last time around, would switch to Youngkin.

The second installment of this poll offers some insight as to why that switch might take place: inflation. 

The poll asked voters what they feel is the most important issue facing Virginia today. The answers:

Inflation: 36%.

Education: 18%.

Women’s reproductive rights: 13%.

Gun control: 12%.

Crime: 6%.

Tax burden: 3%.

These top-line numbers are interesting but only tell us so much. For instance, let’s assume that those who list inflation as a problem are inclined to vote against Democrats, since our current president is a Democrat and most economic problems get laid at the foot of the president, rightly or wrongly, no matter who it is. If those voters were going to vote Republican anyway, though, then this figure isn’t very important. If some of these are voters who otherwise might be Democratic voters, then this figure assumes much more importance. 

So just who is most concerned about inflation? Young adults.

Once we start dissecting the poll for subsets of voters, the numbers become smaller, so we need to be cautious about drawing too many conclusions. Still, here’s what I notice: The age cohort most concerned about inflation are those ages 18-24 and they are very concerned. In that age group, 50.6% cite inflation or the cost of living as the biggest issue. It’s not hard to imagine why: These voters probably have the least amount of money and also haven’t seen this kind of inflation before. This is a very new experience and they don’t like it, not one bit. By contrast, older voters are a lot less concerned about inflation. Among those 45-54, just 27.3% say inflation is their top concern. Among those 65 and older, just 28.5% cite inflation. Frankly, that surprises me, since many of those voters are on fixed incomes (although to some extent, we’re all on fixed incomes, right?). 

Despite those variances, inflation is the top concern for every age cohort — it’s just a lot more pronounced among younger adults. This is why I suspect Republicans will be hammering inflation hard this fall (although this is really more of a national issue than a state issue) and why Democrats ought to be concerned (those young voters, so crucial for them in past elections, have soured on Biden and inflation is likely the reason why).

In my previous column, I suggested that this enthusiasm among young adults for Youngkin might disappear once they found out his views on abortion. Nationally, young adults are generally seen as strong supporters of abortion rights — our Republican governor is not. He’s proposed banning most abortions after 15 weeks but has been decidedly silent on whether he’d support further restrictions if he had the chance, which a Republican-controlled General Assembly might give him.

This poll, though, shows that young voters don’t seem that concerned about abortion. Only 16.9% of voters 18-24 said that women’s reproductive rights were their top concern. Among those 25-34, that figure dropped to 7.9%. 

Another way to look at these poll results is by gender. Among the women surveyed, women’s reproductive rights showed up as only the third-biggest concern. Inflation was first at 30.7%, education second at 21.1% and women’s reproductive rights at 15.4%. We can assume that if someone is concerned about inflation, they’re against it; nobody is pro-inflation. With education, it’s hard to tell what that figure means. Both sides arguing over what’s taught in schools are concerned about education; they just view it in two different ways. In any case, the fact that women’s reproductive rights ranks so low — both among young voters, and among women — seems a danger sign for Democrats. Meanwhile, the Ohio results (along with the previous results in Kansas and Kentucky) suggest the opposite — that abortion might be a strong motivator for some voters. One difference is that voters may vote differently on a single-issue question than they do in an election with candidates who have positions on multiple issues — and personalities and histories that may make them more likable or less so.

Now, I must caution, as anyone writing about polls should always do, that polls are merely snapshots in time. Opinions change, and one of the roles of a political campaign is persuasion. Democrats will no doubt emphasize abortion rights this fall. That might well have the effect of making these voters feel differently — that this is a pressing issue and they should come out to vote accordingly. Or it could be that those Democratic appeals don’t move young voters or even female voters the way Democrats hope and think they will.  Overall, these VCU results —and the prominence of inflation as an issue — tell me the ground this fall in Virginia is presently more receptive to Republicans than to Democrats.

These also aren’t the only issues out there. The poll also asked voters’ preferences for what to do with the state’s budget surplus: tax relief (the preferred Republican position) or more spending on projects such as building and repairing schools (the preferred Democratic position). On that question, young adults were the age cohort most emphatic about spending (63%) and the least interested in tax relief (31.8%). Overall, voter preferences trended toward spending (48%) rather than tax relief (43%). That’s also expected to be a key campaign issue this fall. Ultimately, it depends on where these voters are. If all the tax relief voters are in districts that will go Republican anyway, that won’t help them; they need some of those voters in swing districts. Ditto for Democrats and those who want more spending.

Many voters may find themselves facing what pollsters call “cross-pressures” — they’re on the Democratic side on one question but the Republican side on another. Imagine, for instance, those voters who say they’re concerned about inflation (something Republicans will talk up) but also think the budget surplus should be spent (something Democrats will emphasize). How will they react, especially once some other issues (such as abortion rights and who knows what else) are stirred into the mix?

We’ll see. That’s what elections are about.

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