The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How much should we read into the turnout disparity in Virginia’s gubernatorial primary?

Ed Gillespie won the Virginia Republican governor’s primary race over Corey Stewart by only about a point. (Steve Helber/AP)
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The Republican gubernatorial primary race in Virginia wasn’t supposed to be close.

Last month, a Washington Post-Schar School of Policy poll showed Ed Gillespie leading Corey Stewart by 25 points, with about a quarter of the electorate still undecided. No one, it seems, expected the final result: Gillespie edging out Stewart by only about a point. (Gillespie has a habit of running in close races; he lost a 2014 Senate bid by less than a point.)

Northam wins Democratic gubernatorial primary in Virginia

That Gillespie was expected to win easily may be one reason for the most surprising aspect of overall results: The two Democratic candidates vying for their party’s nomination earned nearly 50 percent more votes than the three Republicans who were on the ballot.

In fact, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic winner, earned only 16,000 fewer votes than the two leading Republican candidates, combined.

It’s impossible not to look at any race early in 2017 as a reflection of the national political debate, making the divide noteworthy. Is this a reflection of an energized Democratic base? A suppressed Republican one? Was Stewart’s surprising success a function of his ties to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump?

But there’s another interesting question to ask: What does this turnout disparity tell us about what will happen in the general election?

During the 2016 campaign, a lot was made of the gap in enthusiasm shown in primaries between Democrats and Republicans. Trump claimed credit for energizing registration in the Republican Party (inaccurately), and his allies insisted the higher number of Republican primary voters would translate into a victory in November.

Victory occurred — despite Trump losing the popular vote by a wide margin.

That said, there was a correlation between the number of votes cast for each party in the primary and the votes each party earned in a state in the general. This makes sense, of course; states with more Republicans than Democrats (or vice versa) will see more votes cast for that party in both cases. There were eight states, though, in which there was a difference between which party earned more votes in the primary and the general. Trump won four of them; Hillary Clinton won the other four.

Notice that there was a pattern to those eight states. The states Clinton won were ones where the Republicans got far more votes but Clinton won narrowly in November. Two of the four states that Trump won were won by wide margins, but in which slightly more Democrats voted in the primary.

One of the four states Trump won was Kentucky, where the two parties had different types of contests during the primaries that led to a discrepancy in vote count. We can set that aside. The other was important: Pennsylvania.

In that cluster of four states at the center of the chart, more Republicans voted during the primaries than Democrats in three of them: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. None of those were states that Trump was expected to win going into Election Day but, as it turned out, the Republicans earned more votes in both the primaries and on election night. They ended up being critical swing states, states responsible for Trump’s victory.

The discrepancy at play in Virginia, though, is much different. The Democrats led in runoff polling even before Tuesday night’s results, but the results of the primary suggest that the challenge facing Gillespie and the state’s Republicans is steeper than might have been expected.

There were 13 states in 2016 (excluding Kentucky) where the Democrats dominated the primary vote by a margin greater than what we saw in the Virginia primary. The party won all 14. In 17 states, the Republicans had such a margin.

Democrats won two of those states anyway.