Leading accounts of the likely Electoral College math continue to rank Virginia as either solid or near-solid for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. The latest statewide poll gives substance to that conclusion: A strong lead of 6 percentage points for her over Republican nominee presidential Donald Trump. Not only does Clinton enjoy a big lead here, but the Washington Post-Schar School poll shows a state electorate with slightly more Democrats than Republicans, and Clinton has done a better job than her opponent at solidifying partisan support. Clinton is crushing Trump in voter-rich northern Virginia and among minority voters and women. All the indicators are there to suggest that Virginia’s 13 electors are an easy pick for Clinton.
Although 6 percentage points this close to the election looks like a steep climb for Trump, the gap has somewhat narrowed from previous polls in the state. The result also is within the normal sampling error range, meaning that the race could be closer than 6 percentage points. With much of the negative coverage of Clinton focused on the FBI probe into her emails, there is more than enough time for Trump to further close the gap. Thus, it should come as no surprise that after she confidently pulled much of her campaign advertising out of Virginia two months ago, Clinton suddenly is putting resources back into the state.
Polls are not predictors of election outcomes, and a lot can happen to change the leanings of an electorate in just several days. In two recent statewide contests in Virginia, the Democratic nominee for governor (2013) and for U.S. senator (2014) held a strong lead in pre-election polls only to win much more narrowly. It is likely that the Clinton campaign is back in Virginia fully aware of this recent history.
There are two other concerns for Clinton:
First, in the latest poll, a large segment of the electorate has an unfavorable view of Clinton and perceives her as someone who bends the rules. If the latest email flap creates for some voters a sense of ethical equivalence regarding the candidates – “they’re both equally bad” – Clinton could see a drop-off in support from those who had been ready to support her only as the lesser of two evils.
Second, and I know many analysts disagree, but we should not dismiss the possibility of hidden Trump voters: those who will not admit to pollsters, or anyone else, that they will vote for him. There is precedent for the hidden voter phenomenon in Virginia — most famously the 1989 gubernatorial election in which both the pre-election polls and even the exit polls projected a big landslide for the Democratic nominee, only to see the election come down to several thousand votes.
To Clinton’s benefit, she has a far better turnout operation in the state than does the Trump campaign. This factor is key to her carrying the state. But the poll data suggest a somewhat greater interest in the campaign among Trump’s voters than there is for Clinton among her own supporters. Trump’s campaign perhaps doesn’t have to work quite as hard to get his supporters to turn out.
Ultimately, the key to a Clinton victory in Virginia will be the minority vote turnout. African Americans in particular are the bulwark of the Democratic Party in Virginia and have been for years. Republicans win the white vote, so no Democrat can win statewide without both an overwhelming majority and a strong turnout among black voters. Yet the Post-Schar School poll points to a potential challenge for Clinton, as African American respondents report somewhat less interest in the campaign and less certainty of voting than was the case in 2012. Clinton’s campaign would do well to twist the arm of the president or the first lady to make the short trip to Virginia for an event or two before Election Day.
Recent reports tell of a surge in betting on Trump among gamblers in Europe fascinated with our presidential election. The payoff for betting on the underdog is quite handsome there. Despite some of the above, I don’t advise betting one’s savings on Trump here in Virginia. Clinton’s still better positioned to win, but it’s not as easy for her as many have been suggesting.
Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.