Another data point that should raise at least some concerns for Democrats is the early vote in the commonwealth.
When looking at absentee and early in-person voting this year, it’s important to remember that last year’s presidential election was unusual — in that it was held during the peak of the pandemic, with more than 100 million Americans deciding to vote early because of that and the expanded access to mail balloting that came along with it. In Virginia, 2.7 million voters chose that option instead of going to the polls on Election Day.
This year, the numbers look quite different. As of Wednesday, 497,000 Virginians have cast their ballot, with 323,000 doing so in-person and 174,000 by mail according to L2, a national voter roll vendor. Another 183,000 early ballots have been sent out but not yet returned.
By contrast, on Oct. 22, 2020, 12 days before the presidential election, more than 1.5 million Virginians had already voted, and another 1.1 million ballots were outstanding. While this nearly 70 percent drop in early voting may seem large, it is expected.
On the one hand, the number of people who decided to vote absentee last year was particularly high because of the pandemic. In addition, Virginia usually sees a large drop in the fraction of voters that vote early in gubernatorial elections relative to preceding presidential one.
In the 2016 presidential election, 567,000 Virginians voted early, and in the 2017 gubernatorial election the number was only 192,000 — a 66 percent drop. Similarly, between the 2012 presidential election and the 2013 gubernatorial one, 73 percent fewer Virginians voted early.
This lower propensity to vote early is also reflected in polls, in which two-thirds of Virginians who are intending to vote said they are planning on voting in person on Election Day — compared to only 40 percent who did so last November.
This pattern is in marked contrast to what we observed in the gubernatorial recall election in California last month. where 9.3 million out of the 13 million ballots had been cast early. The two states do have very different early vote regimes though. California automatically sends a ballot to every registered voter, while Virginia has voters apply to vote by mail.
The bottom line
Although Virginia does not have party voter registration — meaning we don’t necessarily know how many registered Democrats have voted vs. registered Republicans — we can get a sense for the partisanship of the electorate by looking at past primary participation.
When doing so, we can see that the number of votes coming from voters who voted in the Democratic primary outnumber those cast by voters who participated in the Republican primary by around 2 to 1.
This sounds encouraging to Democrats, but it’s actually slightly worse than they had been doing at this point before the 2020 election, when the ratio of Democratic primary voters to Republican primary voters was closer to 3 to 1.
Another thing that should give Democrats pause is the age distribution of those who have voted so far. Nearly two-thirds of early ballots have been cast by voters over the age of 60, while only 5 percent come from voters under the age of 30. While young voters are notoriously late early-voters, 12 days before the 2020 election less than 50 percent of ballots had come from voters over the age of 60, and nearly 12 percent were cast by voters under the age of 30. So far, it seems as if the early young vote has collapsed.
At this point it’s important to remember that Joe Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points last November, so Democrats definitely have some room to fall before things become critical for them. But the current polling in the commonwealth and the absentee numbers we are seeing do suggest that there might be a lack of enthusiasm on the Democratic side, which could be McAuliffe’s biggest hurdle in a bluish-purple state in which he is hampered by Biden’s lackluster approval rating.
While it’s tempting to use all the data to make predictions for what might happen next month, we also have to remember that the majority of Virginians who will vote in this election have yet to cast their ballots. Early vote numbers are an indication in what direction things might be heading, but we need to be careful when comparing them too closely to an unprecedented presidential election.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.