A few weeks ago, a Quinnipiac poll showed Democrat Ralph Northam up by 17 percentage points over Republican Ed Gillespie. Today, the Virginia gubernatorial race looks more like a nail-biter.
Still, the case for a Northam victory sounds pretty compelling; he has history on his side and he has more money.
Let’s start with history. Virginia almost always checks the newly elected president by voting for a governor of the opposite party. And since Donald Trump lost Virginia in 2016—and has a low approval rating in the commonwealth now—it would be easy to conclude that this trend will continue.
The problem with history is that it’s true until it isn’t. History suggested that Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe couldn’t win on the heels of Obama's reelection. History informed us that a majority leader hadn’t lost a primary since the 1890s... until it happened to Virginia Rep. Eric Cantor. And history suggested that only politicians or high-ranking military officers could get elected president… until it happened to Donald Trump. Past performance is no guarantee of future results.
It’s harder to argue with money, but I will. Gillespie essentially closed the financial gap at the end. There’s also an argument to be made that campaigns matter less than we thought—or maybe just less than they used to. The utility of running an additional TV ad might be relatively small. In a high-profile race where voters are inundated with information, one suspects there are steep diminishing returns. If money were all that mattered, Hillary Clinton would be president today.
This brings us to the argument for why we shouldn’t sleep on Gillespie’s chances today. It should be noted that these arguments are just as vulnerable to skepticism as the aforementioned ones—it’s just that they haven’t been talked about as much.
The first reason is a hunch that Trump cannot be fully tied to Gillespie. This is a rare phenomenon. Normally, the party standard-bearer in a state will be held accountable for the sins of his president. Now, it’s true that Gillespie has intentionally avoided being seen with Trump (even as some of his ads echo Trumpian themes), but I don’t think that fully explains this. Trump isn’t really a Republican, he’s a unique and separate individual. The voters seem to intuitively grasp this, and I think it helps insulate candidates like Gillespie.
The second factor is the trend whereby recent statewide Republican candidates in Virginia dramatically outperform polls on Election Day—at least, in these off-year elections. This leads us to conclude that (a) either the polls are always undercounting Republicans, or (more likely) (b) late-breaking independent voters in Virginia always tend to disproportionately break toward the Republican. Four years ago, Terry McAuliffe went into the election boasting a 7 percentage-point polling lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli; he won by less than 3 points. A year later, Sen. Mark Warner held a 9.7 percentage-point lead over Gillespie in the U.S. Senate race. Warner ended up winning by less than a point. As Politico said, Gillespie came “within inches of the unthinkable.”
This, I think, is the most compelling argument for believing in a Gillespie miracle.
This race has been granted outsize importance based on the premise that it is a symbolic surrogate war, and that a Gillespie win will signal to other Republican candidates that Trumpian culture-war politics is the template for winning. I have written before about why handwringing over the tone of this campaign is probably overwrought.
But if Gillespie somehow pulls off a win today, there is one trend that will definitely be reinforced: The growing sense that the media and the polls can’t be trusted.