Republican leaders are crowing about Tuesday’s election in Virginia. They’re crediting the victory of their gubernatorial nominee, Glenn Youngkin, in part to a backlash against “critical race theory”—a term that Republicans have distorted to mean any statement, particularly in schools, that talks about racism and offends some white people. “Parents are getting more and more engaged at the local level, concerned about things like critical race theory being rammed down their kids’ throats,” said Rep. Steve Scalise, the House minority whip, at a Republican press conference on Wednesday. “That was rejected last night.”
Scalise is partially correct. Youngkin cultivated CRT as an issue and exploited it throughout the campaign. He falsely asserted that it was being taught in “all schools across Virginia.” He complained that it labeled white people as oppressors and Black people as victims, and he promised to ban it from public schools. He provoked a backlash against CRT, and the backlash helped him win. But it wasn’t a backlash of parents. It was a backlash of white people.
Surveys conducted before the election showed that Democrats were vulnerable to attacks over the way public schools treated race. In July, shortly after Youngkin began to raise CRT in speeches, the American Principles Project, a conservative organization, commissioned a poll to test the issue. It found that when CRT was framed in Youngkin’s terms—teaching “white children that they are oppressors” and teaching “minority children that they are victims”—a two-to-one majority of likely Virginia voters, 58 percent to 26 percent, said it shouldn’t be taught in schools. When the poll described Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe as soft on CRT, he lost support. When the poll informed respondents that Youngkin had promised to ban CRT, he gained support. These shifts—measured by how many respondents said the information made them more or less likely to vote for each candidate—were about 10 percentage points.
In August, the APP poll was backed up by another survey, this time from the left. This survey of likely voters in Virginia, conducted by Change Research for Crooked Media, found that 68 percent of independents and 52 percent of undecided voters said the teaching of CRT in schools posed a threat to the state. A narrow majority of undecided voters, when presented with Youngkin’s anti-CRT message, said it was a convincing reason to support him. The pollster’s report concluded: “Messaging about Youngkin never allowing critical race theory to be taught in Virginia schools was the most effective pro-Youngkin message among all voters and undecided voters.”
Academic and media surveys confirmed that the issue was a net plus for Youngkin, particularly among independents. These questionnaires didn’t put any spin on CRT; they just asked about “critical race theory.” In a mid-September Emerson College poll, independents favored banning CRT, 50 percent to 32 percent. In a late September Fox News poll, independents opposed teaching CRT in schools, 50 percent to 16 percent. The Fox News poll found that CRT, unlike other cultural issues raised by the right, didn’t just appeal to white non-college voters. It also resonated with white college graduates, who opposed teaching CRT in schools, 44 percent to 25 percent. (Fox News polls, unlike the network’s partisan programming, are scrupulous and well regarded.)
Published polls in Virginia didn’t explore whether the attacks on CRT, unlike cruder appeals to white resentment, were particularly effective in luring upper-income suburbanites back to the GOP. But national polling suggests they probably were. In a YouGov/Yahoo! News survey taken last month, 79 percent of voters with annual incomes above $100,000 said they had heard of CRT, versus just 43 percent of those making under $50,000. Among those higher earners, 39 percent said that children shouldn’t be exposed to CRT in school, while 29 percent said they should. (The rest were unsure or unfamiliar with the topic.)
For Youngkin, CRT was a useful way to attract Virginians who had supported Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election. In the Emerson poll, 31 percent of likely Virginia voters who had supported Biden favored state laws against teaching CRT. In the Crooked Media poll, 35 percent of likely Virginia voters who had cast ballots for Biden in 2020 but were planning not to vote for McAuliffe said CRT was a threat. And every survey indicated that the issue was cutting against McAuliffe. In the Emerson poll, two-thirds of respondents who favored a ban on CRT supported Youngkin. In the Fox News poll, nearly 80 percent of respondents who opposed CRT were for Youngkin.
By October, CRT had become highly salient. In a CBS News survey, 62 percent of likely Virginia voters said “school curriculums on race and history” were a major factor in their choice for governor. That was higher than the percentage who said taxes or mask policies were a major factor, and it wasn’t far below the percentage who said the same about crime or the economy. Among independents, the percentage of likely voters who cited racial curricula as a major factor was 61; among white college graduates, it was 56. And the rising salience was bad news for McAuliffe: Among voters who viewed this issue as a major factor, he was losing by 20 points.
As a wedge issue, CRT was working. But it wasn’t working by appealing to parents, as Republicans pretended. It was working by appealing to white people. In the Fox News poll, white respondents opposed the teaching of CRT by 24 percentage points, but parents opposed it by only five points. That’s because many parents aren’t white, and the poll’s nonwhite respondents were twice as likely to favor CRT as to oppose it. When Republicans talk about a parental backlash against CRT, they’re not talking about all parents. They’re talking about white parents.
Surveys taken by Monmouth University in August, September, and October show that during these months, Youngkin gained ground among white voters but not among voters of color. On one question that was tested repeatedly—“Who do you trust more on race relations issues?”—white voters moved toward Youngkin, while Black voters moved toward McAuliffe. But the most telling question in the Monmouth series wasn’t explicitly about race. It was “Who do you trust more on education and schools?” On that question, from August to October, Youngkin gained 12 percentage points among white voters, relative to McAuliffe. That was twice the size of his gain among all voters on the same question, and it was three times the size of his gain among independents.
The racial concentration of this movement toward Youngkin was one sign that CRT, as an ethnic appeal, was working. Another sign was that his 12-point improvement among white voters on education was bigger than his improvement among white voters on any other issue, including jobs, taxes, and law enforcement. Youngkin’s gains on education were concentrated among white people, and his gains among white people were concentrated in education. In fact, on the question of “who do you trust more on education,” the gap between white voters and Black voters grew more in those two months than did the gap between Democrats and Republicans. Race, not party, was driving the polarization.
The network exit poll, released on Nov. 2, showed the same pattern. Youngkin got 62 percent of the white vote and 13 percent of the Black vote, a gap of 49 points. But among voters who said parents should have a lot of “say in what schools teach”—about half the electorate—he got 90 percent of the white vote and only 19 percent of the Black vote, a gap of 71 points. The idea that parents should have more say in the curriculum—Youngkin’s central message—had become racially loaded. And the loading was specific to race: Other demographic gaps for which data were reported in the exit poll—between men and women, and between white college graduates and whites who hadn’t graduated from college—get smaller, not bigger, when you narrow your focus from the entire sample to the subset of voters who said parents should have a lot of say in what schools taught. Only the racial gap increases.
The exit poll didn’t ask voters about CRT, but it did ask about Confederate monuments on government property. Sixty percent of white voters said the monuments should be left in place, not removed, and 87 percent of those voters went to Youngkin. That was 25 points higher than his overall share of white voters. The election had become demonstrably polarized, not just by race but by attitudes toward the history of racism. All the evidence indicates that Youngkin’s attacks on CRT played a role in this polarization.
So, yes, there was a backlash against “critical race theory” in Virginia. And, yes, it helped Republicans win. Their strategy of hyping, distorting, and attacking CRT worked. But it didn’t work by appealing to parents. It worked by appealing to race.