Virginia Governor’s Race Tests Whether Trump’s Toxicity Can Overcome a Biden Decline

Biden’s approval rating has dropped in the commonwealth, just in time for Democrats’ first big political test
President Joe Biden, left, speaks at a July 22 campaign event for Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe (D-Va.) in Arlington. As Biden's popularity has fallen in the state, McAuliffe's campaign has increasingly worked to tie the GOP candidate in the race, Glenn Youngkin, to former President Donald Trump. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
October 18, 2021 at 6:00 am UTC

Key Takeaways

  • 48% of Virginia voters approve of Biden’s job performance, down 9 points from earlier this year; 49% of voters disapprove, up 12 points over that time frame.

  • Morning Consult tracking shows Biden’s decline has weighed on other statewide Democrats in the commonwealth in recent weeks.

  • Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s campaign is leaning harder into efforts to tie GOP candidate Glenn Youngkin to Donald Trump, who is unpopular with Virginia voters.

President Joe Biden is not particularly popular in Virginia — a marked shift from the state of affairs when Democrat Terry McAuliffe launched his comeback bid for the Executive Mansion in Richmond.

In the closing stages of the race, the aspiring two-term Virginia governor is looking to counteract the worsening national environment for Democrats by leaning even harder into the predominant message of his campaign: Republican Glenn Youngkin is a “Trump wannabe.” The focus on former President Donald Trump makes next month’s contest, one year out from the midterm elections for Congress, the first real test of whether No. 45’s toxicity with the variety of voters Democrats rode to razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate can overcome the sagging status of the current commander-in-chief.

“We haven’t had an election anywhere of substance yet that’s been a post-Trump election,” said Ben Tribbett, a Democratic strategist in Virginia. “I don’t think anyone out there really knows the answer to how much the world has changed in the last 12 months politically.”

The numbers on Biden’s standing in Virginia

Biden’s approval rating has declined in Virginia over the course of the year, something McAuliffe has acknowledged as part of the “headwinds” he faces from Democrats in Washington, who are struggling to deliver on their “Build Back Better” agenda.

According to Morning Consult Political Intelligence tracking, the steep decline in the president’s standing — especially in August and September — was joined by smaller drops in sentiment toward other statewide elected Democrats such as Sens. Mark Warner and Tim Kaine, as well as Gov. Ralph Northam, who face less dissent among Virginia voters than the party’s national standard-bearer.

Biden's Foundering Appears to Have Weighed on Virginia's Statewide Democrats

Net job approval ratings – the share of voters who approve minus the share who disapprove – for the following officials among Virginia voters:
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Data points reflect 30-day moving averages of at least 2,920 registered voters in Virginia, with margins of error from +/-1% to +/-2%.

Virginia voters are split just about evenly on Biden’s job performance, according to surveys conducted over the past month: 48 percent approve of his job performance, down 9 percentage points since his best numbers about a month into his presidency, while 49 percent disapprove, a 12-point increase over the same time period.

Biden’s decline follows his 10-point victory over Trump in Virginia, which looked like a solidification of the Democrats’ standing in the state. In 2017, the commonwealth had delivered an emphatic 9-point victory to Northam when a slim majority of Virginians disapproved of Trump, helping Democrats retake the House in the 2018 midterms.

Democratic strategists and elected officials in Virginia aren’t fearing the beginning of a red wave in Virginia, but they did suggest that the Trump era may have been a high-water mark that’s in the process of leveling out, at least in the immediate future.

Biden’s Still More Popular in Virginia Than Trump Was Four Years Ago

Share of Virginia voters who approved and disapproved of President Joe Biden’s job performance in 2021 and then-President Donald Trump’s in 2017
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2021 data is derived from monthly surveys of at least 1,439 registered voters in Virginia, with margins of error of +/-1% to +/-3%. Morning Consult used multilevel regression with post-stratification to produce the monthly data in 2017, which has a margin of error of +/-3%.

“Virginia is overrepresented in population in every single group that Donald Trump did poorly among, which caused the state to accelerate to a deep-blue state during the presidency,” Tribbett said. “I am not sure we’re a deep-blue state when Donald Trump isn’t president — I’m not sure we’re even a light-blue state if this was an open-seat race.”

In recent weeks, polling of the contest between McAuliffe and Youngkin compiled by FiveThirtyEight shows the Democrat’s standing has run roughly in line with Biden’s approval rating, while Youngkin is just slightly underperforming Biden’s disapproval rating.

“Campaigns are not simple things, but there are two main factors,” said J. Tucker Martin, who worked for Virginia’s last winning Republican gubernatorial candidate, Bob McDonnell. “You remove Donald Trump from the White House and Twitter, you put Joe Biden in and his numbers go south, and this is what you’re going to get.”

Can Democrats revive the Trump environment?

While Trump isn’t in the White House, McAuliffe and his campaign are making the case that electing Youngkin will essentially put the unpopular former president on Capitol Square.

Democrats are not without ammunition. Youngkin has accepted Trump’s endorsement, saying he “represents so much of why I’m running.” He also initially refused to admit that Biden legitimately won the presidency, or to say he would have certified the victory, though he eventually came around on both points.

Youngkin has pushed back on the charge by saying it is McAuliffe, not him, who is obsessed with Trump. His chief message on the airwaves is about education, a nationalized issue in its own right that’s seen as appealing to both Trump-wary conservative parents of school-age children and the MAGA movement’s true believers in its appeal to the hard-liners’ interest in cultural concerns such as critical race theory.

To Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, who represents a solidly blue district in Northern Virginia, that clash represents the so-called Youngkin dilemma: “How can I look like Mitt Romney to one part of the voting population and Donald Trump to the other?”

Beyer acknowledged that voters may have a tough time equating the mild-mannered former private equity executive with the former president’s harsh personality. But he said his policy agenda — on issues like abortion rights, education and Medicaid expansion — will be “very Trumpian” and anathema to voters in Virginia who have previously rejected the former president and his brand.

That rhetoric — in ads and messages from McAuliffe’s campaign — attempts to revive the negative energy that fired up Black, independent and suburban voters in Virginia four years ago and in other elections throughout Trump’s tenure, as Biden’s standing in the state remains weakened among groups that are key to Democratic successes.

Virginia Voters Are Split on Biden's Job Performance

Share of Virginia voters who approve and disapprove of President Joe Biden’s job performance
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Surveys conducted Sept. 14-Oct. 13, 2021, among 4,358 registered voters in Virginia, with a margin of error of +/-1%.

Republicans and Democrats working in the state see signs of apathy on the left after several years of Democratic victories, something McAuliffe’s campaign is working to reverse with high-profile visits from Democrats such as former President Barack Obama, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams aimed partly at engaging Black voters, just a third of whom enthusiastically support Biden.

Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a close ally of McAuliffe, described Trump as an “existential threat,” a message aimed at engaging everyone from Black voters to college-educated suburban women.

“After years of Trump and the Democratic Party and many campaigns saying, ‘You’ve gotta vote, you’ve gotta vote, you’ve gotta vote,’ I think a lot of folks thought the job is done,” he said. “Guess what: It’s not over. We still need their support at the ballot box.”

What Virginia actually means for 2022

Given the state’s recent electoral history, movement toward the Republican Party will be seen as good news for the GOP — even if McAuliffe wins or outperforms the polling — as Trump’s party works to take back control of the House next year.

Strategists in Virginia are watching McAuliffe’s standing in Virginia’s dense suburbs, which had swung toward Democrats in the Trump years, and the exurbs, which had also inched leftward, for signs of any decoupling driven by college-educated men making their way back into the Republican Party’s fold.

And in the face of Biden’s foundering, they’re also eyeing the salience of the anti-Trump messaging that was almost all Democrats needed to be successful in elections over the past four years, but that Tribbett said is not enough on its own today.

“The model that, if Terry is successful, national Democrats are going to want to emulate is candidate recruitment and having quality candidates on the ballot that are able to push through this,” he said. “If Terry’s unsuccessful, people are going to look at 2022 being a pretty big Republican year.”

A headshot photograph of Eli Yokley
Eli Yokley
U.S. Politics Analyst

Eli Yokley is Morning Consult’s U.S. politics analyst. Eli joined Morning Consult in 2016 from Roll Call, where he reported on House and Senate campaigns after five years of covering state-level politics in the Show Me State while studying at the University of Missouri in Columbia, including contributions to The New York Times, Politico and The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter @eyokley. Interested in connecting with Eli to discuss his analysis or for a media engagement or speaking opportunity? Email [email protected].

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