Youngkin is fueled by an 18-point advantage among independent likely voters, up from an eight-point advantage last month — a significant swing in a group that could determine the election’s outcome. While Virginia does not register voters by party, 33 percent of voters in the poll identified themselves as independents. That compares with 34 percent who said they consider themselves Democrats and 27 percent who said they are Republicans.
The Post-Schar School poll, which was conducted Oct. 20-26, finds a larger share of voters saying education is the top issue in their vote compared with the September poll, with fewer citing the coronavirus as the biggest factor in their decision. The survey interviewed 918 likely voters reached by professional interviewers on cellphones and landlines, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Third-party candidate Princess Blanding accounts for 1 percent support among likely voters, which in a tight race could make a difference. Blanding, who is campaigning on racial justice as a member of the newly formed Liberation Party, is most likely to draw votes from McAuliffe.
The election also features contests for lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well as all 100 seats in the House of Delegates. Democrats are defending a 55-45 advantage in the House, with Republicans targeting several suburban swing districts — and a few close rural races — that could tip the balance of power.
Early voting ends Saturday, with polls open Tuesday from 6 a.m. until 7 p.m.
The contest has drawn national attention as a defining battle for both parties in the wake of Donald Trump’s divisive presidency and as a bellwether for next year’s congressional midterm elections. National Democrats from President Biden on down have plunged in on McAuliffe’s behalf, underlining the stakes for the administration in Washington.
Biden’s popularity in Virginia has sagged since 2020, when he won the state by 10 points, and his struggles to get Congress to go along with massive spending on infrastructure and other priorities is doing McAuliffe no favors. Virginia likely voters disapprove of Biden’s job performance by a 53 percent to 46 percent margin, and more than twice as many voters strongly disapprove as strongly approve, 44 percent versus 21 percent.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who like all Virginia governors is prohibited by the state constitution from running for back-to-back terms, is outperforming Biden, with 51 percent of likely voters approving of his performance as governor and 44 percent disapproving.
Trump, on the other hand, is a drag on Youngkin, with only 9 percent of likely voters saying the former president’s endorsement makes them more likely to support the Republican, while 37 percent say it makes them less likely. A 53 percent majority say it makes no difference to them.
Arjun Harer, 23, considers himself a Republican but could not support Trump last year and voted for Biden. Now he’s underwhelmed by Biden’s performance, particularly his decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, but voted for McAuliffe anyway. His primary reason: Youngkin was endorsed by Trump.
“I realized this is not my type of Republican,” Harer said.
That’s why McAuliffe has worked all year to link Youngkin to Trump. But Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, said the strategy might not have been enough.
“Youngkin has put together an effective coalition that includes Trump Republicans and independent swing voters. The latter are a group that has been heavily trending Democratic,” Rozell said. “That makes him competitive in a race that...at the beginning people said was McAuliffe’s to lose.”
Jane Sellers, a political independent in rural Rockingham County, on the border of West Virginia, voted for Trump in 2016 with great trepidation and last year cast her ballot for Biden — with hopes that were soon dashed.
Fed up with politicians of both parties, the 66-year-old retiree plans to vote for Youngkin, who has the outsider status and business experience that she originally liked in Trump, but with a more buttoned-down style.
She’s not put off that Youngkin has Trump’s endorsement or that he has flirted with the former president’s false claim that Biden stole the election. “I don’t see him as being as crazy and out there,” she said of Youngkin. “He is being supported by the Republican Party, so he’s got to spout some of that stuff that the Republican Party feeds him. And I understand that.”
Roughly 7 in 10 likely voters say Youngkin’s ideas and policies are similar to Trump’s, including 63 percent of political independents and 60 percent of Republicans. That’s still lower than 90 percent of Democrats who say Youngkin and Trump are similar.
McAuliffe is struggling to unify Biden’s coalition, with the support of 89 percent of Biden voters while Youngkin is backed by 99 percent of Trump voters.
Youngkin has a wide lead in small towns and rural areas of the commonwealth, with a 61 percent to 33 percent advantage over McAuliffe, while McAuliffe has a similar 63 percent to 37 percent lead over Youngkin in urban areas. The suburbs are within the margin of error, with 52 percent supporting McAuliffe and 45 percent for Youngkin. Blanding pulls low single-digit support in rural and suburban areas of the state.
Youngkin has a slight edge among suburban men — 53 percent to 43 percent — while McAuliffe leads 59 percent to 38 percent among suburban women.
Youngkin seems to have moved the needle in recent weeks by campaigning on issues related to schools, capitalizing on a national conservative movement of parental grievance. The Republican stokes up rallies by promising to ban the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept about the history of racism that’s not actually on Virginia’s K-12 curriculum, and by warning that McAuliffe will ignore parental concerns about issues of gender and sexuality.
Possibly as a result, education has risen to the top of the list of likely voters’ priorities, with 24 percent saying this is their top issue, up from 15 percent last month. Education now rivals the economy, which 23 percent of likely voters named as their most significant issue.
Youngkin has gained significant ground among those voters: In September, education voters favored McAuliffe by 33 points, but now they tilt toward Youngkin by nine points.
However, the same dynamic has not swayed support among parents of public school children, who remain about evenly split on which candidate they trust more to handle education. Parents are similarly split on which candidate they trust to manage schools’ teaching about racism.
Cynthia Rollins, 49, of Bristol, said as a mother of five, education was one of the top issues she cared about in the governor’s race. Rollins said the education system seems to have been declining since the coronavirus pandemic hit, and she home-schooled her 15-year-old. When she heard McAuliffe say in a debate that parents shouldn’t tell teachers how to teach, it sealed her vote for Youngkin. “That was huge,” she said.
Overall, likely voters split over which candidate they trust more to handle education, with 47 percent trusting McAuliffe, while 46 percent trust Youngkin. McAuliffe had a five-point edge on this question last month. Asked which candidate they trust to handle how public schools teach the history of racism in America, 45 percent choose McAuliffe while 43 percent choose Youngkin.
The candidates’ relative advantages on other topics have become clearer in the final weeks of the campaign. McAuliffe has a 10-point lead on trust to handle both abortion and the coronavirus, while Youngkin has a slight edge on trust to handle the economy as well as and crime and public safety.
Alexander Karrar, a 28-year-old building engineer who lives in Richmond, plans to vote for Youngkin in part because of his promise to get rid of Virginia’s tax on groceries — something taxed in only a dozen other states.
Also in the back of Karrar’s mind is Youngkin’s plan to support charter schools. Karrar and his wife have a week-old daughter, Eleanor, and have always assumed they’d have to leave their city neighborhood for the suburbs once they had children in school. He thinks charter schools might give them another option. “I think charter schools are a positive thing if they’re run correctly,” he said. “It forces the schools to do well and perform.”
But Karis Cavender, a physical therapist who lives in Arlington, said she plans to vote for McAuliffe, partly because she thinks he will take the pandemic more seriously than Youngkin. McAuliffe supports mask and vaccine mandates, while Youngkin opposes them.
“Particularly as a health-care provider, I can’t support someone who I feel won’t stay on top of the pandemic,” she said. Cavender, 47, also said she likes how the state has changed since Democrats took full control in Richmond in 2020, including in the area of criminal justice.
“It just feels like the state, in so many ways, is moving in the right direction," she said. "A lot of people need to be lifted up in this state, and I feel like the Democratic Party does that better.”
A 46 percent plurality of Virginia registered voters say the state’s abortion laws should remain as they are, while 21 percent want them to be “more strict” and 25 percent want them to be “less strict.” Support for stricter laws has fallen from 35 percent in 2019, while an increasing percentage support the status quo or less strict laws.
But the coronavirus has faded in significance as the impact of the highly contagious delta variant has leveled off this fall. Among likely voters, 10 percent said handling the coronavirus was their top issue, down from 16 percent last month. And abortion is virtually unchanged, with 9 percent calling it the top issue.
In terms of turnout, 82 percent of White registered voters say they are absolutely certain to vote or have already voted, along with 79 percent of Black voters. Among likely voters who are Black, 86 percent favor McAuliffe while 7 percent support Youngkin. That’s similar to Biden’s margin in 2020 exit polling and pre-election polling.
But 3 percent of Black likely voters say they support Blanding, which could have an impact on McAuliffe’s totals in a very close race.
In the attorney general contest, Democratic incumbent Mark R. Herring has a slight 50 percent to 44 percent edge over Republican Del. Jason S. Miyares (Virginia Beach) among likely voters, though this is not statistically significant. For lieutenant governor, Democrat Del. Hala S. Ayala (Prince William) has a similar 50-46 edge over Republican Winsome E. Sears, again within the range of sampling error.
Among all registered voters, the poll finds similar shares of Youngkin (85 percent) and McAuliffe (82 percent) supporters saying they are certain to vote or voted early. McAuliffe leads by 24 points among those who have already voted, while Youngkin leads by 19 points among the much larger share of voters who plan to vote on Election Day.
A sizable 23 percent of likely voters still plan to vote early or by mail, and this group favors McAuliffe by 33 points. Saturday is the last day for in-person early voting, so if a substantial share of this group doesn’t show up, it could damage McAuliffe’s chances.
Young voters are a key demographic for Democrats, but McAuliffe’s advantage is declining sharply. McAuliffe has a 10-point edge among likely voters under age 40, down from a 21-point advantage last month. That’s also smaller than Biden’s 25-point margin among this group in 2020 exit polling and Biden’s 33-point lead in the final Post-Schar School poll that year.
While Virginia is known for having a relatively high share of college graduates, White voters without college degrees make up 2 in 5 likely voters and are a key source of Youngkin’s support. Youngkin leads McAuliffe by a 69 percent to 29 percent margin among this group, a 40-point difference that exceeds Trump’s 24-point advantage in exit polling last year and his 34-point margin in the final Post-Schar School poll.
Among independents, Youngkin is favored on the economy by a wide 26-point margin, 59 percent to 33 percent. Independents also trust him more on crime and public safety, 57 percent to 33 percent.
On education, independents prefer Youngkin by a narrower 12-point margin, and they trust the Republican to teach the history of racism in America in public schools by 11 points, 48 percent to 37 percent.
Independents are split on which candidate would better handle the coronavirus and abortion.
William Bishop contributed to this report. Karina Elwood, Scott Clement and Emily Guskin reported from Washington.