What Will the Virginia Electorate Look Like?

Whether you are rooting for Republican Ed Gillespie or Democrat Ralph Northam in tomorrow’s Virginia gubernatorial contest, you should pay attention to a handful of demographic data as the exit poll results come in.

Yes, exit polls have a margin of error and each election is different, but the outcome tomorrow is likely to depend as much on the makeup of the electorate as on how particular demographic groups vote.

I looked at exit polls from three recent competitive Virginia general elections – the 2016 presidential race, the 2014 Senate race and the 2013 race for governor – and there definitely are patterns to watch. (I checked the exits for the state’s 2009 gubernatorial contest, but all except the most reliably Democratic demographic groups went for Republican Bob McDonnell.)

Democrat Hillary Clinton won the 2016 race by five points, while Democratic Sen. Mark Warner won by a single point in 2014 and Democrat Terry McAuliffe won his gubernatorial race by three points.

Younger voters went solidly for Clinton, Warner and McAuliffe, while the Republicans in those contests – Donald Trump, Ed Gillespie and Ken Cuccinelli – showed strong appeal among voters age 50 and above.

In 2016, voters 18-44 constituted 43 percent of all voters, but two years earlier, they were only 35 percent of all voters. And in 2013, they were 36 percent of all voters

Don’t expect younger voters to constitute 43 percent of all voters tomorrow (turnout among younger voters always drops off in non-presidential years), but the higher percentage they constitute, the better the news for Northam.

Conversely, Gillespie wants an older electorate. If a majority of the electorate is age 50 and over, Gillespie could have a shot. Of course, he’ll still need to carry those voters by five or six points.

The racial makeup of the electorate surely will also be important.

Whites constituted 72 percent of all voters in Virginia in the 2013 gubernatorial contest, 70 percent of all voters in 2014 Senate race, and 67 percent of all voters in 2016. That drop-off is not unusual, of course, since national numbers show white voters turn out at higher rates than some minority group voters in non-presidential years.

Still, one of the big questions for Ralph Northam is whether he can turn out minority voters, so watching the racial make-up of the electorate is extremely important as the exit polls come in. Gillespie won 60 percent of white voters in his extremely narrow loss to Warner three years ago.

Geographically, the Washington, D.C. suburbs and Northern Virginia’s exurbs could well determine the election’s outcome.

Those two regions accounted for 33% of the electorate in 2013, 35% in 2014 and 36% in 2016. Northam should benefit from a larger turnout in those areas, but he also needs to roll up a large margin to win statewide. Clinton won 68% of the vote in the D.C. suburbs when she carried the state by five points, far better than McAuliffe’s 62% showing and Warner’s 61%.

If Northern Virginia voters don’t turn out, or if they don’t give Northam the margin they gave McAuliffe and Warner, Gillespie could well pull an upset.

Finally, the partisan self-identification of the electorate should be a window into the election.

In 2013, 37% of voters described themselves as Democrats compared to 32% who said they were Republicans. One year later, when the Senate race went down to the wire, the electorate was evenly split between Republicans and Democrats (36% each). Two years later, when Clinton won by five points, Democrats constituted 40% all voters compared to 33% who identified as Republicans.

If the 2017 electorate’s partisan mix looks more like it did in 2014, Gillespie’s chances improve. But if a substantial plurality of voters self-identify as Democrats, Northam should be smiling.

There are plenty of other demographics to analyze (gender, education and religion), but the ones I have discussed will get most of my attention tomorrow night. Expect an interesting evening. It’s a must-win election for Northam and the Democratic Party.