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  • Matthew Green

Why both political parties care so much about Virginia

Updated: Oct 31, 2021

Virginia’s off-year elections are just around the corner. But it’s not just Virginians who care about the elections. According to multiple news outlets, politicians and political activists outside of the state are paying close attention to them as well, particularly the close race for governor between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin.

The reason? As Axios puts it, “The outcome has national implications, since political leaders — specifically Democrats — view it as a bellwether for how well they'll perform in the 2022 midterms.” “Fairly or not,” writes Dan Balz in the Washington Post, the race “has taken on outsize importance, particularly to nervous Democrats” worried about the midterms. Or, in the words of one major contributor to the party, “If he [Terry] loses, it’s not about Terry. If he loses, it’s about the national Democratic Party and their dysfunction.”

To some extent, this interpretation of the Virginia elections is manufactured by the media. If enough reporters and commentators say that the elections are a “referendum” on one party or a “bellwether” for the future, then they create the conventional wisdom that they are one.

But it’s also a long-standing tradition of politicians to look at individual election results as a signal of voter preferences, both present and future. Writing nearly half a century ago, political scientist David Mayhew observed that “nothing is more important in Capitol Hill politics than the shared conviction that election returns have proven a point.” Presidents also construe elections as mandates, a phenomenon explored in depth by my Mischiefs of Faction colleague Julia Azari.

Off-year and special elections are especially vulnerable to this interpretation because politicians eagerly seek out early information that might help reduce uncertainty about their own electoral fate. Public opinion surveys are approximate, and few House or Senate races are polled this early in the next election cycle (assuming they are polled at all). By contrast, as the old saying goes, the only poll that counts is Election Day.

It's not only this year that Virginia’s off-year elections are being viewed as instructional guides to the future. Will Deatherage and I have written that congressional Republicans read their party’s election defeats in the state in 2017 as a sign that their productivity brand had been damaged by the failure to repeal Obamacare. Fearing that it would cost them their congressional majorities, they responded by pushing even harder to pass a major tax reduction bill, even though the bill was not especially popular.

The problem with using Virginia’s elections as a measure of the national temperature is that one election in a single state can hinge on a variety of factors unique to that election. As Walter Lippman remarked nearly a century ago in his book Public Opinion, “When there are only two ways of expressing a hundred varieties of feeling, there is no certain way of knowing what the decisive combination was.” Put more succinctly by the journalist Harry Enten, “one election is never a reliable barometer of much of anything.”

Though elections in Virginia are becoming more nationalized (as political scientist Mark Rozell notes), the state is still not an especially accurate predictor of the future. After accounting for Virginia’s partisan lean, Enten found that, between 1993 and 2013, there was an average gap of seven percentage points between how well one party did in the state's race for governor and how well that same party did in the national House vote the following year. (Adding the 2017 elections lowers that average slightly, to 6.6 percentage points.) Ed Kilgore also argues that the state “isn’t an infallible bellwether.”

Neither political party is standing on the sidelines to see what will happen in Virginia. Vice President Kamala Harris, former president Barack Obama, and other big-name Democrats are campaigning for McAuliffe. President Biden is pushing to resolve long-lasting negotiations over major bills to help his party’s brand. Trump supporters held a rally on behalf of (an admittedly ambivalent) Youngkin. Record amounts of money are also pouring into the governor’s race.

That both parties are trying to swing Virginia’s elections their way is a sign of how widely they are believed to have predictive value. It also underscores how dubious that belief is. If one party manages to eke out a win in Virginia because of its campaign efforts, it’s hardly a neutral indicator of what will happen in 2022. (It could suggest what campaign platform will work best next November, but even that may be a stretch, since Virginia differs in some important ways from the country’s population as a whole.)

Nonetheless, we should expect the winning party to play up its victory, using the outcome to claim that voters like what it is doing in Washington. And that, in turn, will reinforce the notion that off-year elections in Virginia have soothsayer-like power. Whether they actually do is another matter.

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