Ralph Northam
Voters in Virginia elected Democrat Ralph Northam governor over Republican rival Ed Gillespie. Credit: Virginia Sea Grant\Flickr

Before the polls opened in Virginia yesterday, Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight went over what the polling data indicated might happen and admitted that it was hard to say. On the Democratic side, the average of polls showed a dead heat but there were a couple of surveys that showed a large lead for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam over former Rep. Tom Perriello. Overall, the quality of the late polling wasn’t particularly high.

Here’s what Enten wrote about the Republican contest:

Most analysts believe that [Ed] Gillespie, who was the Republican nominee for Senate in 2014, will make it to another general election. The polling has been limited, but Gillespie has led in every poll but one by 15 percentage points or more. However, Change Research’s poll actually has [Corey] Stewart ahead 42 percent to Gillespie’s 41 percent. The poll is an outlier, but in a low-turnout open primary (where some nominal Gillespie supporters may decide to cast a vote in the Democratic primary) Stewart may benefit from an enthusiasm edge. Remember, this is the state where Eric Cantor shockingly lost his primary in 2014, even as the polls had him ahead.

In the end, averaging the polls gave us approximately the opposite of the actual results.

Northam, Ralph 303,541 56%
Perriello, Tom 239,505 44%
Gillespie, Edward 160,100 44%
Stewart, Corey 155,780 43%
Wagner, Frank 50,394 14%

Both Northam and Gillespie owe their victories to voters in the northern suburbs and more generally to the more populous and diverse blue parts of the Commonwealth.

One thing that is immediately noticeable is a large turnout disparity between the two parties, with many more people casting votes on the Democratic side. Part of this may have been precisely because the polls were wrong and indicated that the more competitive race would be on the Democratic side. But, be that as it may, the greater interest in the Democratic primary is a solid indicator that Northam begins the general election with a strong advantage. At NBC News, Chuck Todd & company argue that Virginia isn’t a purple (competitive) state anymore:

One way to look at the closer-than-expected Gillespie-vs.-Stewart race is that Trump’s wing of the party is on the rise; this is no longer your Bush 43 party in which Gillespie served. The other way is that GOP moderates fled the party, with Northern Virginia Republicans voting in the Democratic contest (Virginia voters can pick which primary they want to participate in). “There’s a new name for the voters most people thought of as VA’s moderate Republicans a few years ago: Democrats,” observed the Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman. “VA is not a swing state,” he added. Indeed, Republicans have now gone 1-9 in major Virginia statewide races (for president, governor, U.S. Senate) since 2004.

I think this analysis is very premature. The Democrats definitely have an advantage but they should have had advantages in states like Maryland, Massachusetts, Vermont and New Hampshire where they recently lost gubernatorial elections. Almost no one predicted that Ed Gillespie would put such a scare into Sen. Mark Warner, but look at the 2014 results of their campaign:

Mark Warner (inc.) 1,073,667 49.15%
Ed Gillespie 1,055,940 48.34%

What should worry Gillespie is that he did best in areas of the state where he is going to get slaughtered in November. In the Republican areas of the state, most of the voters went for the guy who was trying to out-Trump Trump by celebrating the heritage of the Confederacy. Gillespie will need all their votes but it won’t be that easy for him to get them:

…Democrats today hold a unity event with Northam and Perriello, while Republicans aren’t unified. “There is one word you will never hear from me, and that’s ‘unity,’” Stewart told supporters, per the Washington Post.

The fact that President Trump currently has a job approval rating in Virginia in the thirties is another problem for Gillespie. While he’s positioned fairly well to make his case with moderates, he is going to have to figure out a way to mobilize the Stewart voters without any help from Stewart. Northam will have Perriello stumping for him which should help him vacuum up some of his downstate support.

Having interviewed Perriello for our current issue, I am disappointed that we won’t get to see him put his strategies and messages to use in a general election. I haven’t been able to do more than a cursory analysis of the election returns yet, but there are some indications that Perriello succeeded in making inroads into some of the more rural and exurban parts of the state. It appears that Northam’s overwhelming support from elected Democrats was convincing to the primary voters as he rolled up huge margins in the areas represented by Democrats. I wish we could have seen this experiment play out on a more neutral playing field.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com