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How scary are the new Virginia polls for Democrats?

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A Virginia governor’s race that was already giving Democrats heartburn is suddenly upping the agita. After polls for weeks showed Republican Glenn Youngkin (R) and former governor Terry McAuliffe (D) effectively tied, a new one released Thursday night by Fox News showed Youngkin ahead by eight points.

This comes after the same pollster just two weeks ago showed McAuliffe ahead by five points. That would suggest a 13-point net shift. And it would be a big win for Republicans in the most-watched election of Election Day 2021 — leading to legitimate questions about Democrats’ poor standing heading into 2022.

By Friday morning, though, came a little dose of antacid for Democrats. The latest Washington Post-Schar School poll of the race showed it remained much as it was before. McAuliffe was at 49 percent, while Youngkin was at 48 percent.

A few points on the Fox poll that spurred so much buzz:

  1. For now, as the Post poll reinforces, that Fox poll remains an outlier. It’s still the only quality poll since early September to show Youngkin leading. And …
  2. Virginia also has a demonstrated recent history of polling misses. But …
  3. The poll does suggest a shift in the race that makes some sense, given the issues at play.

The big number in the Fox poll was how parents are voting. Two weeks ago, parents favored McAuliffe by 10 points. In the new poll, they favored Youngkin by 14.

That’s a big shift, and it would appear to suggest Youngkin’s efforts to highlight school issues might be paying dividends. Republicans have put the controversies over Loudoun County’s handling of a sexual assault case and McAuliffe’s comment that “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach” front-and-center down the home stretch. The fact that McAuliffe recently cut an ad explaining himself on the latter issue would suggest his campaign sees the danger here.

(Conspiratorially minded folks might suggest Fox’s poll could be overstating how much these issues have impacted the race, given how much the network has played them up. But Fox’s polls are routinely some of the best in the business, earning an “A” rating from FiveThirtyEight.)

Now comes the “but.” The Washington Post poll tested a slightly different but very similar group: parents of children in public school. And much as with the overall race, it shows virtually no shift. In September, this group went Youngkin 49, McAuliffe 47; today, it’s 48-48.

There’s a key difference in the polls that’s also worth noting here. While the Fox poll was released first, it actually covers a later period — from Oct. 24 to 27, whereas the Post poll covers Oct. 20-26. But if there was such a turn even in that latter period, you would expect it to be reflected in the Post poll. And the race remains largely static, even in the latter days in which the Post poll was conducted.

While showing McAuliffe hanging with Youngkin, though, the Post poll does point to some areas of concern for the former governor, particularly when it comes to enthusiasm. McAuliffe leads big among those who planned to vote early but had yet to do so. With Saturday being the deadline for early voting, making sure those people turn out — either early or, failing that, on Election Day — will be paramount.

The last key point here is that polling in Virginia, especially in a nonpresidential race, has been a fraught exercise.

Back in 2014, no poll showed Republican Ed Gillespie seriously threatening the reelection of Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), with Warner leading by double digits in almost all of them. Warner wound up winning by less than one percentage point in one of the most shocking results of the night.

When Gillespie ran again — for governor in 2017 against Democrat Ralph Northam — the polls missed again, this time in the opposite direction. They generally showed a tight race, with Northam often leading within the margin of error. Northam wound up winning by nine points.

These are the kinds of poll misses that, if the race overall had been just a few points different — if Gillespie actually won in 2014 or if he had been leading in some polls in 2017 and then lost significantly — might have registered in our collective minds as some of the biggest recent misses in polling.

A lot of attention was paid to the 2018 Florida governor’s race, for instance, when most polls showed Democrat Andrew Gillum leading before now-Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) overperformed and pulled the upset. But the misses in Virginia were actually bigger; they just weren’t consequential.

So the best course of action seems to be to just wait and see what happens and not to emphasize one poll or even all of the polls too much. That goes double when digging into cross tabs involving smaller groups of voters, such as parents.

But even if the race is at least tight, as virtually every poll suggests, that’s certainly less than Democrats would have hoped for in a blue state. And that will make Tuesday a nail-biter for them, no matter how close it is.

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Written by Politixia

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