Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin notably improved the GOP’s standing with younger voters, moderates, independents and White women since the last gubernatorial election in 2017.
Youngkin’s inroads among these swing voters, seen in an analysis of CNN’s exit polls from 2017 and 2021, made him the first Republican to win in a statewide race in Virginia since 2009 and provides a playbook for other Republican candidates for the 2022 midterms. It also sends a clear message to Democrats that voters expect them to deliver on their promises of passing monumental legislation and containing the Covid-19 pandemic and that it’s no longer enough to campaign against former President Donald Trump, Virginia political analysts told CNN.
“There are tons of congressional districts around the country that look like Virginia,” said Quentin Kidd, a professor and director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “There are states out there that are competitive like Virginia. And I think Glenn Youngkin demonstrated how a Republican can run in those places. And I think we learned also that moderate, independent voters, just because they’ve been voting against Donald Trump for the last four years doesn’t mean Democrats can take them for granted.”
A surge in voter interest from younger Republicans helped tilt the commonwealth in Youngkin’s favor, analysts said. Meanwhile, younger, non-white Democrats — who had hoped for a younger, more progressive nominee — were not as energized by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s return to the campaign trail and largely stayed home.
“They just were not engaged and excited about a ticket that they saw as not in tune with their issues or interests, and not of their generation,” Kidd said. “On the other side, you had younger conservative voters who have been less engaged over the last 10 years, who were suddenly really engaged because they were excited about the idea of having a candidate who was generating enthusiasm and energy, especially in the last three or four weeks of the election.”
Youngkin won the support of nearly half of all voters younger than 30 — a 15 percentage point improvement over Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie in 2017. Half of voters aged 30-44 said they also voted for Youngkin, a group Democrats won handily four years ago.
Youngkin also solidified his support among White women without college degrees. He earned the votes of three-quarters of the women in this key Republican voting bloc — outperforming not only McAuliffe this week, but also Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam in 2017.
Youngkin’s success with White women voters without degrees in Virginia exemplifies the fragility of their fleeting support for Democrats now that Trump is no longer in office.
“There was a bubble, essentially, in Virginia, a Democratic bubble. And Donald Trump out of the White House essentially burst that bubble,” Kidd said. “A good number of [women] were simply voting because they were angry at Donald Trump and wanted to send a message. They weren’t necessarily committed to Democrats or Democratic candidates.”
Youngkin also improved Republican standing among independents and moderates — more persuadable voters who make Virginia a competitive purple battleground.
Youngkin especially cut into Democrats’ advantage among self-identified moderates, improving his support among them by six points compared with Gillespie four years ago. Youngkin also won the votes of 54% of independents, a four-point increase over 2017.
“Democrats might try to dismiss Youngkin’s victory as an isolated and typical off-year result, but New Jersey should be a wakeup call that there is something bigger going on,” said Nathan Gonzales, a CNN contributor and the editor of Inside Elections. “Democrats have to figure out how to appeal to independent voters because it’s clear that a large batch of people voted against Trump in 2020 and for a GOP candidate for governor in 2021.”
While exit polls have a distinct advantage over preelection surveys — they can match their topline results to the actual results of the election — they’re still surveys, meaning they offer estimates, rather than absolute precision, about the composition and viewpoints of the electorate.
But another sign that Virginia voters are moving on from Trump could be the marked improvement Republicans made with White born-again and Evangelical Christians. Already a typical Republican stronghold, Youngkin still secured a 10-point improvement among White evangelicals over Gillespie in 2017.
Youngkin’s overperformance had as much to do with Youngkin softening the crude edges of Trumpism as it did with evangelicals disliking McAuliffe, Kidd told CNN. Youngkin offered White evangelicals everything they love about Trump without his off-putting brashness.
“They loathe Terry McAuliffe, and everything that Terry McAuliffe represents in terms of politics and public policy,” Kidd said. “I think it’s a perfect storm for White evangelicals between what they hate and what they love. And the two of those were on this ballot.”