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The late Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld gave us a lasting phrase: “unknown unknowns.”
It came from a Defense Department briefing about the prospect of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”
Some at the time ridiculed Rumsfeld and the British-based Plain English Campaign awarded Rumsfeld its Foot in Mouth Award, although the conservative Canadian commentator Mark Steyn called the statement “a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter.” I’m inclined toward the latter interpretation.
The concept of “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns” actually comes from the world of science; in his autobiography, Rumsfeld said he first heard those phrases from a NASA administrator. Today, I shall apply this concept to our upcoming elections. There are lots of things we know — who’s running, what the electoral histories of the districts are, how much money has been spent and where. But there are lots of things we don’t know — and won’t know until all the votes are counted. For instance, we don’t truly know how much the Dobbs decision on abortion will motivate Democratic voters and we don’t truly know how much the parental rights issue will motivate Republican voters. Here are some others:
1. What will voter turnout be?
While this election cycle has the largest number of offices on the ballot, it traditionally has the lowest voter turnout. The presidential election in 2020 saw 75.08% of Virginia’s registered voters go to the polls. The gubernatorial election in 2021 had a 54.9% turnout. Last year’s congressional midterms saw 49.28% of registered voters cast ballots. By contrast, the last comparable cycle to this one — 2019 — had 42.4% of registered voters go to the polls, and that was high. In 2015, the turnout was just 29.1% and in 2011, it was 28.61%.
The 2019 turnout was elevated because of Democratic reaction to the presidency of Donald Trump; Democrats that year won control of both the House of Delegates and the state Senate. What will it be this year, when Trump is out of office (although not out of the picture)? Will turnover stay high, as it was four years ago, or will it revert to its pre-Trumpian norms?
I don’t know that we can say a high turnout benefits Democrats and a low turnout benefits Republicans because it all depends on who turns out to vote — in the 2021 governor’s race, the highest-voting localities were Republican ones, some of the lowest voting were Democratic ones. So just who does turn out to vote this year? Hold on; that’s one of the unknowns we’ll get to.
2. What percentage of voters will vote early?
In this cycle four years ago, we didn’t have early voting the way we do now. That means we don’t have a direct year-to-year comparison. In 2019, Virginia saw 6% of registered voters cast absentee ballots, but they were of a more traditional sort of absentee voting. In 2020, when the pandemic hit and early voting became a “thing,” 59% of voters cast ballots that way in the presidential election. Since then, the percentage of early voting has declined but remained relatively high — 36.1% in the 2021 governor’s race, 32.8% in last year’s congressional midterms.
Some Republicans still fret about an early voting window they think is too wide, but the marketplace reality is that many voters like early voting. We’re Americans. We like convenience, and early voting is convenient. We know how many early votes have been cast; the Virginia Public Access Project has been updating those figures on a daily basis. What we don’t know is what percentage of the total vote this will be. Based on the past two elections, it seems safe to guess that maybe a third of those voters who do vote will cast their ballots early — but we don’t know that for a fact.
Here’s what we do know. As of Tuesday, 570,562 Virginians have voted early. For the sake of argument, let’s say that about one-third of Virginians will vote early this year. We still have some early voting days left, so we can expect those numbers to move higher as the deadline approaches, but if early voting stopped today and that accounted for one-third of the total vote, then the total turnout would be about 1,711,686. That would only slightly exceed the 1,509,864 people who voted in 2015 and would be well below the 2,383,646 who voted in this cycle four years ago. That suggests a fairly normal turnout election for this cycle, which would be low compared to other cycles, but we don’t know for sure. And once again, for emphasis, it ultimately depends on who is voting, which brings us to the next unknown.
3. Who is voting early?
The early voting percentage has been useful to know because Democrats have generally been more enthusiastic about voting early than Republicans have, so a strong early vote would seem to suggest a strong Democratic trend. However, we have a wild card this year in that Gov. Glenn Youngkin has campaigned hard for Republicans to vote early. His goal isn’t to simply move Republicans from voting on Nov. 7 to the early voting period, he wants to use early voting to ramp up Republican voting in general — a smart move as he tries to replicate the shape of that 2021 turnout in a non-gubernatorial year.
That means what we really want to know is whether a higher percentage of the early vote this year is Republican. Since Virginia doesn’t register voters by party, we really can’t say for sure. However, VPAP has employed a firm called L2 Political, which has used some black magic (also known as “math”) to run some estimates. It concludes that, yes, we are seeing more Republicans vote early this year — that the past two years the share of Republican voters in the early vote was 30.7% and 31.3%, while this year it’s 38.7%.
That finding raises another question: Will that be enough? Once again, we really don’t know yet. We must remember that these are statewide elections, these are 140 separate elections. The district with the heaviest early vote is Senate District 26, which stretches from Hanover County to the Chesapeake Bay. It’s also a strongly Republican district (64% for Youngkin two years ago), so I must conclude that much of the early vote there is Republican — but that won’t really help the party because Sen. Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County, ought to win that race easily anyway.
I am much more curious about the strong early vote next door in Senate District 24 on the Peninsula, a highly competitive district (51% for Youngkin two years ago, but 50.1% for Democrats a year ago) where state Sen. Monty Mason, D-Williamsburg, faces a fierce challenge from Republican Danny Diggs. That Senate district overlaps with two House districts that are also seeing a strong early vote. The House district with the biggest early vote is House District 71, where Del. Amanda Batten, R-James City County, faces Democrat Jessica Anderson. Who’s driving the early vote here? Is it Democrats or Republicans? Now consider this: The House district with the second-biggest early vote is House District 69, which is almost wholly within Senate District 24 — and is where Republican Chad Green is unopposed. Does this suggest a big early vote there for Republicans? Or are these still Democrats coming out to vote for Mason, even though they have no House candidate to vote for?
4. How many first-time voters will we see?
And, a corollary, who will they be voting for? VPAP’s math wizards — probably dressed in dark cloaks and waving slide rules over a pot of boiling algorithms while mumbling strange equations — tell us that 6.4% of early voters through Oct. 24 were first-time voters. Democrats are hoping for a lot of first-time voters — young adults motivated by the Dobbs decision. However, VPAP estimates that 38.5% so far appear to be Republicans versus 26.9% Democrats, while the party affiliation of 34.6% can’t be determined. If I were a Republican, I’d be encouraged by those numbers and if I were a Democrat, I’d be concerned. But we really don’t know. We also don’t know from this data where these first-time voters are. If they’re in swing districts, that’s significant. If they’re coming out to vote in non-competitive districts, it doesn’t really matter this year (although it does build a base of support for future statewide elections).
5. What are parties telling their own people that the public doesn’t see?
Keep in mind that these elections are the classic “base elections.” A few weeks ago I moderated a campaign forum that Cardinal News and the Blacksburg Library sponsored between House of Delegates candidates Lily Franklin, the Democrat, and Chris Obenshain, the Republican. Both are fine candidates who represent their respective parties quite well. They are also diametrically opposed on many key issues. Afterwards, a voter asked me if I thought there were really people trying to decide between the two. My answer was no — I can’t imagine too many voters who are still trying to decide where they stand on such polarizing issues as abortion and guns. Instead, I think each candidate is speaking to a different group of undecided voters. Franklin is speaking to Democratic-leaning voters who are undecided about whether to vote for her — or vote at all. Likewise, Obenshain is speaking to Republican-leaning voters who are undecided about whether to vote for him — or vote at all. The winner there, and statewide, will be which side does the better job exciting its own base of supporters.
With that in mind, there’s a lot of campaigning we simply don’t see because we’re not on the right lists. I don’t vote in party primaries so I don’t get any mailings targeted to those who have voted in Democratic or Republican primaries — the most likely voters of all. And because I’m not on those primary lists, I don’t get the texts and phone calls trying to determine what issues I might care about, which, in turn, would prompt follow-ups to say that this candidate feels such-and-such a way about that issue. I’m not suggesting that either party is saying anything secretive or duplicitous — just that we don’t fully know what they’re saying to their own base, we only see what they’re saying to the general public.
6. What don’t we know about?
This is the biggest “unknown unknown” of all. What are voters really thinking that polling hasn’t discerned yet? And that’s what makes elections so exciting — well, exciting for observers like me, nerve-wracking for those involved in them. Come next week this time, we’ll know the answers to all these questions.
In this week’s West of the Capital:
Every Friday I send out a free newsletter about politics in the state, from a western perspective. Sign up for that and our other free newsletters. This week I’ll look at:
- An easy way to follow the election returns on Tuesday night
- Should Rep. Abigail Spanberger seek re-election before she runs for Congress?
- Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland County, recommends a song, so I also recommend three of my favorite election songs.