Virginia Gov.-elect Ralph Northam walks onstage to celebrate his election at the Northam For Governor election night party at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
Best of Ralph Northam's victory speech
01:21 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

Democrat Ralph Northam’s victory in the race for Virginia governor wasn’t a total surprise – but his margin of victory over Republican Ed Gillespie sure was. The commonwealth’s governor-elect won by the largest margin for a Democrat in more than three decades.

The exit polls from Tuesday’s election help explain why – and could provide Democrats with a potential roadmap in 2018 when the party hopes to make gains in Congress.

Northam wins big with women

Northam won women by 22 percentage points. Yes, you read that right – 22 points. Hillary Clinton won them by 17 points last year. Mark Warner won women by 12 in his 2014 Senate race. Terry McAuliffe won them by nine points in his 2013 run for governor. So while women were a smaller share of the electorate in 2017 (48%) compared to those races, Northam’s staggering advantage more than made up for Gillespie’s narrow two-point spread among men.

In particular, Northam outperformed previous Democratic candidates with white, college-educated women, winning that group by 16 points – 58% to 42%. Compare that with Clinton’s six-point advantage among that group in 2016.

Younger voters are big Northam fans, too

Another striking result in Virginia came among voters between the age of 18 and 29. They made up 14% of the electorate – dropping off less than usual from the previous presidential election. And Northam won the group by an eye-popping 39 percentage points. Clinton won the group by 18 points last year; Warner by 11 points in 2014; and McAuliffe by just five points in 2013.

Democrats really showed up

It’s clear from the results that Virginia Democrats were energized. More than four in 10 voters (41%) were Democrats. That was similar to Democratic turnout in last year’s presidential campaign (40%) and eclipsed the party’s share from the 2014 Senate (36%) and 2013 gubernatorial (37%) contests.

Health care was a motivator

In a year when the chief legislative fight in Washington has been over repealing and replacing Obamacare, Virginia voters sent a clear message on health care Tuesday. Nearly four in 10 voters in the commonwealth said it was the issue that mattered most to them, and they broke overwhelmingly for Northam – 77% to 23%.

Split-decision with gun policy voters

There were far fewer voters who said gun policy was their top issue – 17% of the electorate – but that was still enough to rank second behind health care (and interesting coming on the heels of the deadly church shooting in Texas last weekend and the Las Vegas massacre last month). Among those voters, Northam and Gillespie tied with 49% apiece, which could signal enthusiasm on the part of gun control opponents.

Late deciders break for Northam

Nearly one in five Virginia voters (18%) waited until the final week to decide which candidate to support, and Northam won them by 24 points, 61% to 37%, dispelling any notion that the momentum was on Gillespie’s side. Some polls showed the race tightening – on the heels of Gillespie’s attacks against Northam over MS-13, felon voting rights and Confederate monuments. Yet Northam’s advantage among late deciders was actually 17 points better than his spread among those who made up their minds earlier.

The Trump effect

While all of these factors contributed to Northam’s success, the effect of President Donald Trump on the race is inescapable. Nearly six in 10 Virginia voters (57%) disapprove of the president, including 47% who strongly disapprove. They broke 95% to 4% in favor of Northam. And by a two-to-one margin (34% to 17%) voters said they were voting in opposition to Mr. Trump rather than in support of him. Roughly half said the President was not a factor.

Ryan Struyk contributed to this report