On Tuesday night, two hours after polls closed in Virginia, Donald Trump took credit for the GOP’s anticipated victory. “It is looking like Terry McAuliffe’s campaign against a certain person named ‘Trump’ has very much helped Glenn Youngkin,” Trump gloated. “Thank you to the MAGA voters for turning out big!” Half an hour later, GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel lauded the former president as the hero of the night. “President Trump continues to be a huge boost for Republicans across the country,” she declared.
This is a logical spin to put on the Virginia result, if you’re trying to pump up your party and manage a narcissist’s ego. But if McDaniel and others feature Trump in next year’s elections based on the conclusion that he was an asset in Virginia, they’ll be sorry. Polls show that he was a significant liability. Youngkin won this race not because of Trump, but despite him.
It’s true that Trump has a lot of supporters, and many turned out for Youngkin. In the network exit poll, 42 percent of people who cast ballots in the Virginia gubernatorial race said they had a favorable view of the former president, and they voted almost unanimously for Youngkin. But these people were outnumbered by the 54 percent of respondents who expressed an unfavorable view of Trump. If that majority had voted for McAuliffe with anywhere near the same degree of unanimity, Youngkin would have lost. Instead, the Republican won by peeling away one of every six anti-Trump voters.
Pre-election polls in Virginia showed the same pattern. President Joe Biden’s favorable rating was about 50-50, but Trump’s favorable rating was consistently negative by about 15 percentage points. In the most recent Fox News poll that asked about Trump and Biden, taken in mid-October, independents viewed Biden unfavorably by nearly 10 points, but they viewed Trump unfavorably by 25 points. As for Trump’s base—voters who express a strongly favorable view of him—they’re outnumbered two-to-one in Virginia by voters who express a strongly unfavorable view of him.
A survey taken two weeks ago by Cygnal, a Republican firm, illustrates the extent to which Youngkin relied on the anti-Trump vote. In that poll—which found that the Republican candidate had surged to a tie—McAuliffe was getting only 3 percent of his support from voters who expressed an unfavorable view of Biden. Youngkin, by contrast, was getting 16 percent of his support from voters who expressed an unfavorable view of Trump. Without those anti-Trump voters, Youngkin would have trailed badly.
When you measure the anti-Trump vote by how people voted in 2020, as opposed to the former president’s favorable ratings, you get the same result. In every survey of likely or actual voters taken in Virginia this year, people who said they had cast ballots for Biden in 2020 outnumbered people who said they had cast ballots for Trump. The margins ranged from 6 to 10 points. So how did Youngkin win? On average, in these polls, Youngkin got more than 7 percent of Biden voters, while McAuliffe got only 2 percent of Trump voters. Biden voters, not Trump voters, were decisive.
The simplest way to measure the Trump effect is to put the question to voters directly. In late October, a Washington Post/George Mason University poll asked likely voters in the gubernatorial race how Trump’s endorsement affected them. Only 9 percent said it made them more likely to support Youngkin. Four times as many, 37 percent, said it made them less likely to support Youngkin. Among independents, the ratio was 30 points to 7. Among suburbanites, it was 39 to 8. Even in ostensibly pro-Trump constituencies—rural voters and white people without a college degree—the effect was negative. Likewise, in a CBS News poll, 47 percent of Virginia voters said Youngkin supported Trump’s ideas and policies too much, while only 13 percent said Youngkin didn’t support them enough. Among independents, the numbers were almost identical.
Youngkin’s victory doesn’t vindicate the national GOP, either. In the CBS News poll, 70 percent of McAuliffe voters said they were backing him to support the national Democratic Party, while only 63 percent of Youngkin voters said they were backing him to support the national Republican Party. Half of McAuliffe’s independent voters said they were siding with him to support the Democrats, but only 40 percent of Youngkin’s independent voters said they were siding with him to support the GOP. In the exit poll, 15 percent of Virginia voters said the GOP wasn’t conservative enough, but 45 percent said it was too conservative.
McAuliffe wasn’t wrong to tie Youngkin to Trump. He was right, but it wasn’t enough. The real miscalculation is coming now, as Trump and his sycophants in the GOP misread the results. If they seriously believe that the former president was an asset—and are thinking of featuring him in other states in 2022—Democrats should encourage them.