Myths and Realities of Virginia’s 2017 Election


    A week has passed since Democrats decimated the Republican Party of Virginia in last week’s elections. This means we’ve been subjected to a week of spin, hot takes, assigning blame, and a casual disregard for reality in an attempt to set a post-election narrative.

    Surely I’ll be accused of the same “spin”, but I wanted to attempt to separate some myth from reality now that the dust has settled.

    Myth: Republican for Governor Ed Gillespie underperformed
    Reality: Gillespie turned out a record number of Republican voters for Governor

    This one is simple. As of this post, 1,175,698 votes have been counted for Ed Gillespie, a high water mark for a Republican candidate for Governor. Bob McDonnell’s vote total of 1,163,523 in 2009 would be higher if adjusted for population growth, but he also won in a double-digit blowout. Gillespie outperformed Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s successful 2013 effort as well, as McAuliffe won the race with only 1,069,789 votes.

    Myth: Gillespie could’ve won by turning out more Trump voters
    Reality: There’s no plausible way for Gillespie to have turned out enough Trump voters to have won in 2017

    This one is a bit harder. 1,769,443 Virginians voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race, so the voters do mathematically exist. The stretch is figuring out a scenario where Gillespie turns out enough of them to beat Northam’s historic vote total, without losing non-Trump voters or inadvertently boosting Democrat turnout.

    To put this into perspective, Gillespie received 66.4% of Trump’s 2016 vote total. Northam, on the other hand, received 1,409,086 votes, or 71.1% of Clinton’s 2016 vote total. Assuming Northam’s votes stay the same, Gillespie would have had to carried 79.6% of Trump’s voters in an off-off-year election to have edged Northam. That’s not a realistic or achievable goal.

    Myth: Corey Stewart could have won by turning out more of the base
    Reality: Gillespie did not struggle with base turnout, and Stewart would’ve done even worse in suburban swing counties

    Let’s start this one off with an anecdotal example — I voted for Ed Gillespie, I voted third-party in 2016, and I would not have voted for Corey Stewart. Gillespie did about half a point better than Donald Trump in Prince William County, where I live, and outran Trump by 2-3 points in counties like Loudoun and Fairfax, huge population centers.

    Given that Stewart lost the primary to Gillespie in a low-turnout affair, it’s difficult to see a scenario where he’s able to activate more voters in the general election. Stewart carried his native Prince William County in June, but lost Loudoun, Fairfax, Arlington, and Alexandria to Gillespie.

    Moreover, Gillespie did trail the Trump vote share in a number of rural counties, but by an average of just under 3 points. A 3 point increase in non-suburban counties would’ve narrowed the race by well under 2 points. Stewart is shackled by the same math as Gillespie, and had no plausible path to victory. It’s likely, given the population of the counties where Gillespie outperformed Trump, that Stewart loses by a higher margin.

    Finally, Gillespie carried Republicans, according to exit polls, by a 95-4 margin. Trump, according to exit polls, only carried Virginia Republicans by an 88-6 margin. Ed Gillespie actually did better than the President when it comes to consolidating the base.

    Myth: This election was not about Donald Trump
    Reality: Yes, yes it was

    Again, we only have exit poll data here, but the exit polls in 2017 were actually too conservative, showing Northam with about a 5-point lead. According to those exits, 1-in-3 voters were casting their ballots to send a message to Donald Trump.

    That’s roughly 850,000 Virginians casting their votes in opposition to the administration, and easily explains how Northam and the Democrat ticket were able to create about 300,000 additional non-traditional off-year voters. This election was a referendum on the President, and we need to draw lessons from that.

    Virginia’s 2017 race was a bloodbath, but it can also serve as a siren call to warn Republicans nationwide what to expect in 2018. We might be able to turn out large numbers of Republicans (as Gillespie did), but we need to find a better playbook to mitigate our losses, because Democrats are going to smash some turnout records.