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Opinion How Glenn Youngkin won

Glenn Youngkin, the Republican gubernatorial candidate for Virginia, speaks at a campaign event in Alexandria on Oct. 30. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)

Jeff Roe is the founder and chief executive of Axiom Strategies; Kristin Davison is a vice president at Axiom Strategies; Chris Wilson is the founder and chief executive of WPAi, a polling and data analytics firm; Amanda Iovino is a vice president at WPAi.

After Glenn Youngkin’s historic win in Virginia last week, many want to know: How did he do it?

First things first: Candidate quality matters. Youngkin is a disciplined communicator, an optimistic leader, and a relentless campaigner who took his message into communities long ignored by Republican candidates.

Terry McAuliffe ran a nationalized campaign like a U.S. Senate candidate, bringing in Beltway celebrities and treating 2021 like it was 2020 all over again. McAuliffe previously led the Commonwealth, but his message was “I’m the Democrat, and it’s my turn. Again.”

Youngkin made the race about Virginia and the challenges Virginians face. He could be found pumping gas in Fairfax and at grocery markets in Short Pump, talking about rising fuel, food, housing and utility costs.

He started with a 2 percent favorability rating among Virginia Republicans. This is where data matters. We did a deep dive in December to not only identify likely Republican voters in a general election, but Republicans who needed a harder push to turn out, as well as Democrats and independents who could be moved by a Youngkin candidacy. We identified the voters we would need to win if turnout reached 3.1 million, and then revised it to 3.2 million voters after seeing voter registration numbers in August and September.

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Our initial goal was to win 507,423 likely Republican voters across the Commonwealth, another 400,720 gettable Republicans that we would need to persuade to turn out, and the 647,291 swing votes we would have to earn with a more inclusive message in a state trending blue. As Election Day neared, we expanded our swing vote targets, as well as our Republican turnout targets.

To get there, we invested a large sum — $7.1 million — to identify those Virginians we wanted to vote early, and then to run persuasion ads targeting key voter blocs, such as foreign-language ads aimed at first- and second-generation voters, as well as ads targeting James River waste in Richmond.

We knew we couldn’t win Northern Virginia, but we didn’t need to. Our calculation was that if we got about 43 percent of the vote in the counties in the Washington, D.C., media market, we could make it up in other parts of the state where we hoped turnout would rise.

And that’s what happened. We won 42 percent in those Northern Virginia counties — far more than past Republicans won in statewide races. And we won big in the rural counties. We took Virginia Beach, a critical battleground that indicates a

Republican victory is possible. We exceeded our target in mostly Democratic Richmond. We won a race that few thought was even on the board a year ago.

Jeff Roe, Kristin Davison and Chris Wilson discuss this piece in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now.

Our early research gave us confidence we could peel off many of these voters. For instance, among likely general election voters, the economy was clearly the top voter concern. But when we dug deeper, what really worried Virginians was the increasing cost of living — rising fuel prices, skyrocketing housing costs, higher grocery prices. By June 2021, this was the top issue among voters.

We knew we had to go on offense on education, which is why one of the first policies Youngkin announced was raising education standards — a direct response to McAuliffe’s decision to lower them. Our early work put us in the perfect position to take advantage of McAuliffe’s statement that parents shouldn’t tell schools what to teach — the gift gaffe of the cycle. Our ad was on the Internet three hours after he said it and to TV stations 12 hours later.

What are the big takeaways? The most important factor is not easily replicable: an outstanding candidate who works hard and connects with people.

Second, take your message to the dinner table. Republicans have to address the anxiety of voters whose wages simply cannot keep up with rising prices. The cost of living, as an issue, is lethal for Biden Democrats. Republicans must seize it.

Third, invest in data and go after every vote. We targeted 390,000 Asian American voters — including 2,172 Polynesian voters and 5,457 central Asians — and 66,914 Middle Eastern voters — with a vote goal for each group, as well as a plan to reach them. We did the same for Latinos. The AP VoteCast survey showed we won a majority of Latinos. They saw Youngkin’s heart.

Fourth, while every candidate will be pulled into national issues, don’t do so at the expense of local problems. Youngkin leaned into his plans to give cost-of-living relief to Virginians. McAuliffe leaned into ads that tried to turn Youngkin into someone he simply wasn’t. Voters didn’t buy it.

The result was a diverse coalition — that gave independents and disenchanted Democrats permission to vote for a different kind of Republican.

Many are asking if this race portends what’s to come in the midterm elections. We don’t know. But candidates who invest in data, identify potential voters and pursue those voters with relentless appeals relevant to their lives stand a very good chance. That’s what Glenn Youngkin did. And he’s governor-elect because of it.

Jeff Roe, Kristin Davison and Chris Wilson discuss this piece in more detail on James Hohmann’s podcast, “Please, Go On.” Listen now.