Three Takeaways From the Virginia Primary


Virginia Republicans and Democrats selected their nominees for governor and other state and local offices on Tuesday, with Ed Gillespie now set to face off against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the top office. While the Old Dominion race hasn’t drawn the national attention that congressional special elections have amid President Trump’s tumultuous first months in office, the results are nonetheless instructive. Here are some takeaways regarding what arguably is the most important American election this year.

The Republican Primary Was Supposed to be a Snooze, But It wasn’t

The biggest surprise of Tuesday night’s results was Trump-aligned Corey Stewart’s strong second-place finish in the GOP race. Many expected Ed Gillespie, a more establishment-friendly Republican, to win the nomination handily over Stewart (a controversial candidate) and Frank Wagner (who garnered little support in the pre-election polls). Gillespie prevailed, but by little more than a percentage point. So does this primary represent a sea change in Virginia Republican politics?

It’s possible to argue the case both ways.

In the 2016 Republican presidential primary, Virginians were divided relatively evenly between “establishment” and “non-establishment” candidates. Trump won the state with 34.7 percent of the vote, and Ben Carson, another political neophyte, won 5.9 percent. Marco Rubio and John Kasich, the more establishment-friendly candidates, won 31.9 percent and 9.4 percent, respectively.

That puts the clear “outsider”/“insider” tally at 40.6 percent/41.3 percent. You could argue that Ted Cruz’s 16.9 percent of the vote should go into the “outsider” category due to his popularity with the Tea Party, or that his support from church-going evangelicals puts him partially in the more “mainstream” bin. But no matter which way you slice it, both the Trump wing and the Trump-skeptical wing of the GOP have a base in Virginia, and the results of Tuesday’s primary underscore this. 

It’s also possible that this primary could be another sign that the face of the party is continuing to change. During the 2016 election, the strongest demographic predictor of change in the vote since 2012 was college education (especially among whites). It’s possible (though I don’t yet have the data that would prove this conclusively) that some college-educated voters who would normally support a candidate like Gillespie believed that the Democratic primary would be more competitive and chose to vote in that race instead. (Voters could pick a ballot for either party.) While turnout in these primaries is low, this could be part of the pattern of some historically Republican college-educated white voters moving further into the Democratic camp as the Trump era wears on.  

It’s also important not to lose the forest for the trees here – if a few thousand votes were changed, Stewart would have been the Republican nominee. That’s a significant change from just a few years ago, when Gillespie barely lost a Senate race to Mark Warner and many thought that Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush would win the presidential nod.

The Democratic Primary Wasn’t a Rerun of Sanders vs Clinton

Northam beat former Congressman Tom Perriello by double digits Tuesday, securing his place on the general election ballot in November. Northam didn’t just end Perriello’s candidacy on Tuesday – he also ended a problematic piece of conventional wisdom.

Throughout the primary campaign, many journalists and analysts compared the Democratic race to last year’s presidential primary. Perriello played the role of Bernie Sanders – a progressive outsider running a surprisingly effective campaign – and Northam was the establishment-friendly Hillary Clinton equivalent. Sanders’s endorsement of Perriello also reinforced this model.

But there were always problems with this narrative. Northam and Clinton didn’t have the same history with the Democratic Party (Northam voted for George W. Bush in 2004 and Clinton has been a mainstream Democrat for decades), and Perriello is both more institutional and less consistently liberal than Sanders. Perriello worked for the Obama administration, earned endorsements from David Plouffe and John Podesta and voted more conservatively than most House Democrats while representing Virginia’s 5th District. While it’s possible to argue that there was an insider/outsider dynamic in the race, most of the parallels between with the 2016 race don’t hold up very well.

The final results should put the nail in that narrative’s coffin. The relationship between Northam’s county-level share of the vote and Clinton’s was modest, but not strong enough to conclude that this race was a re-run of 2016.

Northam Starts Out as the Favorite to Win in November

There are three reasons for this.

First, Virginia has, in the past few decades, gone from a reliably red state to a swing or even light blue state. In 2016, Clinton won there by five points while winning the national popular vote by two, indicating that it leans slightly to the left of the country as a whole. While national level politics exercises a weaker influence on gubernatorial elections than congressional elections, it still has some pull. That baseline Democratic lean gives Northam an advantage.

Second, Trump isn’t popular right now. His approval rating is south of 40 percent in the RCP average – six points below his share of the popular vote in 2016. That, along with the state’s baseline partisanship, tilts the playing field in Northam’s favor. If he can effectively tie Trump to Gillespie (and if Trump’s approval rating remains low), then he’ll have a big advantage heading into Election Day.

Finally, polls have shown Northam with a significant lead over Gillespie. The RealClearPolitics average puts Northam ahead by 8.4 points, with the last two surveys showing him up by 11. It’s worth noting that general election polling has been sparse in this race. The last two polls were from April and May, and we’re in mid-June now. But Northam starts out with the lead, and that’s typically an advantage.

Obviously, these conditions could change. Trump’s approval could improve, and the race might end up pivoting on state rather than national issues. But starting conditions in this election give Northam an advantage.

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