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McAuliffe, Youngkin locked in tight race for Virginia governor, Post-Schar School poll finds

Republican Virginia gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin, right, speaks as Democratic gubernatorial candidate former governor Terry McAuliffe listens during a debate at the Appalachian School of Law in Grundy, Va., on Thursday. (Steve Helber/AP)

RICHMOND — Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin are locked in a tight race for Virginia governor, with McAuliffe standing at 50 percent to 47 percent for Youngkin among likely voters in a Washington Post-Schar School poll.

Among registered voters, McAuliffe has a 49 percent to 43 percent edge over Youngkin — but neither lead is statistically significant. The smaller margin among people likely to vote, combined with a low percentage of voters who say they plan to vote early, suggests that Democrats could face an enthusiasm gap and a challenge boosting turnout to the high levels of the past four years.

“There’s an intensity deficit here for the Democrats compared to where they were … during the Trump era,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, which co-sponsored the poll. “This tells me it’s a toss-up election right now.”

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McAuliffe, a former governor who served from 2014 to 2018, is testing the durability of Virginia’s recent status as a blue state against Youngkin, a former private equity chief with a large personal fortune and no political track record.

The poll was conducted Sept. 7 to Sept. 13 among a random sample of 907 registered Virginia voters reached by professional interviewers on cell and landline phones, including 728 likely to vote in the gubernatorial election. The margin of sampling error is plus or minus four percentage points among registered voters and 4.5 points among likely voters.

The poll’s findings hint broadly that Virginia might be settling back into more traditional voting patterns, with Youngkin doing well in exurban parts of Northern Virginia that had shifted toward Democrats during the Trump administration. Democrats in power — such as President Biden — do not seem to be helping McAuliffe, and independents and White voters are breaking toward the Republican candidate.

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But there are some contrary trends. McAuliffe gets higher ratings on some issues that voters say matter most, such as handling the coronavirus pandemic, and the Democrat continues to show strength in the more populous parts of Northern Virginia, the Richmond region and Hampton Roads.

The contradictions are summed up by voters like Selena Darragh, a 32-year-old disabled veteran who lives in Bedford County and says she is certain to vote — but she’s not sure for whom.

She likes McAuliffe’s support for abortion rights, calling Texas’s new near-ban on the procedure “outrageous.” Yet she lines up with Youngkin on other issues, such as gun rights and tax cuts.

“I thought there were some policies Trump handled well, especially in regards to the military. Also a lot of stuff that was not okay,” she said. “And President Biden, I think he is completely incapable.”

A majority of Virginia voters are displeased with Biden’s performance in office, with 46 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving. Three percent have no opinion.

While independent Virginia voters favored Biden by 19 points last year in exit polls, the poll finds Youngkin narrowly leading among independent likely voters, with 52 percent compared to 44 percent for McAuliffe.

The gender gap is significant, with 57 percent of women backing McAuliffe and 55 percent of men supporting Youngkin. In 2017, men split almost evenly between Democrat Ralph Northam and Republican Ed Gillespie, according to exit polling.

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Black registered voters support McAuliffe by a wide margin, at 87 percent to 7 percent for Youngkin. That’s similar to Northam’s 87 percent against Gillespie’s 12 percent in 2017, as measured by exit polls. White registered voters support Youngkin at 52 percent compared to 40 percent for McAuliffe, just shy of Gillespie’s 57 percent to 42 percent margin over Northam.

McAuliffe leads by 21 points among likely voters under age 40, though this is a lower-turnout group, especially in off-year elections. Seniors divide about evenly between the candidates, while Youngkin has a 13-point edge among voters ages 40 to 64.

Voters aren’t terribly familiar with either candidate. About two-thirds of registered voters, 65 percent, say they know “a lot” or a “fair amount” about McAuliffe, while 34 percent say they know just a little or nothing about the Democrat who was governor just over three years ago. Even fewer Virginia voters say they are familiar with Youngkin, with just over half, 52 percent, saying they know “a lot” or a “fair amount” about his qualifications to be governor and 48 percent saying they know “just a little” or “nothing at all.”

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Trump is still a factor for some voters. James Roland, 23, lives in Chesterfield outside Richmond and works in the hospitality industry. He supports McAuliffe partly because he liked him as governor, but also because he associates Youngkin with Trump.

“He’s probably a much more complex person than that, but … you’re either with [Trump] or against him at this point,” Roland said. “I consider [Republicans] to be ideologically bankrupt at this point … We just started moving out of this space of being a swing state and moving more to the left, and I’d like to keep that trend going.”

On the other hand, Michael Epperson, 47, of Manassas, said he plans to vote for Youngkin out of sheer party-line loyalty, even though he doesn’t know much about him.

Epperson — who is Black and said he is a former Democrat — supported Trump despite what he said were some negative qualities.

“He’s a loudmouth, he’s arrogant and he’s a jerk. It is not a secret,” he said. “However what I liked about him was he was not afraid to challenge either side … I saw the effectiveness of an individual who was not a career politician making moves that were actually effective, beneficial.”

The Post-Schar School poll suggests McAuliffe is faring weaker in Northern Virginia than Northam did four years ago, with the biggest shift in the Northern Virginia exurbs that include Prince William and Loudoun counties. Northam won the region by five percentage points in 2017 (52 percent to 47 percent), but Youngkin leads McAuliffe by 57 percent to 37 percent among likely voters in the Northern Virginia exurbs.

McAuliffe maintains a 33-point lead among voters in the inner D.C. suburbs, though that is smaller than Northam’s 43-point advantage in 2017.

Other parts of the state look quite similar to four years ago, with Youngkin holding a 27-point advantage in Central and Western Virginia, while McAuliffe holds a 13-point edge among voters living from Richmond to the eastern edge of the state. McAuliffe also holds a 15-point edge in the Tidewater region, similar to Northam’s 17-point margin four years ago.

Emphasizing the crucial role that turnout will play in the election, voters who say they are absolutely certain to vote are almost evenly split, with 49 percent for McAuliffe and 47 percent for Youngkin. But McAuliffe holds an 18-point advantage among voters who say they will “probably” vote or who are “50-50,” suggesting that he is more reliant on voters who are on the fence about turning out.

Democratic majorities in both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly greatly expanded access to early voting last year, leading to a huge surge in turnout for the 2020 presidential election and a 10-point margin for Biden.

Voting this year began Friday, opening a 45-day window until the Nov. 2 general election. Virginia also offers Sunday voting this year for the first time.

Interest in the election is roughly similar to what it was in 2017, the last time Virginia had a gubernatorial race. About two-thirds of registered voters in Virginia say they are following the race closely.

But more Virginia voters say they are planning to vote this time than in 2017. Seven in 10 Virginia voters say they are certain to vote in the election, the highest share in gubernatorial elections in polls since 2001 and up from about 6 in 10 people who said the same at least one month before the 2013 and 2017 elections.

Voters who currently support Youngkin are slightly more likely to say they are certain to vote than those who back McAuliffe, 76 percent to 69 percent. And Republicans are following the election more closely than Democrats — 76 percent of Republicans say they are following very or somewhat closely, compared with 61 percent of Democrats.

The poll does not reflect a surge of interest in early voting on par with last year. Among those who say they will certainly or probably vote, two-thirds plan to vote in person on Election Day while 27 percent plan to vote before Election Day in person or by mail.

Last year, the state reported that 40 percent of all voters cast ballots on Election Day versus 59 percent absentee, either in person or by mail. Some of the difference could be attributed to changing attitudes about the coronavirus, which was raging unchecked last year throughout the country. Many people are vaccinated now and less wary of crowds despite the rise of the delta variant, Rozell pointed out.

After Trump’s efforts to cast doubts on the legitimacy of Biden’s election and Youngkin’s campaign emphasis on “election integrity,” 80 percent of registered voters say they are confident their vote would be counted accurately if they voted.

Clear majorities of both Democrats (95 percent) and Republicans (70 percent) are confident their votes will be counted accurately, though doubts are higher among Republicans, with 30 percent saying they are not as confident compared with 4 percent of Democrats.

The poll finds that only about half of Virginia Republicans who report voting in 2020 say they are confident their vote was counted accurately (49 percent), compared with 72 percent of independents and 97 percent of Democrats.

Stephen Woodard, 65, the owner of a trucking company, said he is not confident his vote for Trump was counted last year. The Williamsburg resident said he saw too many Trump signs and knows too many Trump voters to believe the former president lost Virginia by 10 points.

But that will not keep him from casting a ballot this year for Youngkin.

“At least I’ll have the privilege to [complain] about it,” he said.

Asked to choose which issue is most important in their vote, 25 percent of Virginia voters say the economy, while 17 percent pick the coronavirus and 14 percent choose education. Another 11 percent say crime and public safety are most important, while 9 percent cite abortion and 7 percent name taxes.

Youngkin has a 21-point advantage among voters who say the economy and taxes are their top issues, but when all voters are asked who they trust to handle the economy, they essentially split between the two candidates. Youngkin holds a slight 43 percent to 38 percent lead on overall trust to handle taxes.

McAuliffe scores higher on the coronavirus and education. Over 3 in 4 voters who say the coronavirus is their top issue support McAuliffe, as do more than 6 in 10 who say education is the most important. Among all registered voters, McAuliffe has a nine-point advantage in trust to handle the coronavirus and an eight-point advantage in trust to handle education.

Crime-focused voters support Youngkin by a nearly 60-point margin, but registered voters in general are almost evenly split: 42 percent trust Youngkin to handle crime and public safety and 40 percent trust McAuliffe, while nearly 2 in 10 have no preference.

Registered voters prefer McAuliffe on the issue of abortion, at 44 percent to 34 percent, though roughly 1 in 5 trusts neither candidate or has no opinion.

Balancing out that list of issues has some voters still making up their minds.

Timothy Davis, 62, a retired law enforcement officer who lives in Williamsburg, voted for Trump the first time and Biden last year. This year, he’s undecided on the governor’s race.

“I like some of the things in both parties,” he said. He gave McAuliffe high marks for his work on the economy and job creation during his term in office, but disliked his support for gun control and abortion rights.

Youngkin is appealing, he said, but the big question is whether he has fealty to Trump, who Davis said caused terrible damage and “stomped all over the constitution.”

He said he will take a closer look at Youngkin and try to decide.

“If he’s a true Trump yes-man, it’s going to be really, really tough,” he said. “That’s when I sit down on Election Day and say, ‘Wow, what’s the worst of two evils?”

Clement and Guskin reported from Washington.