The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The 2021 backlash was far bigger than the 2017 backlash against Trump

At least in the blue states of New Jersey and Virginia

Virginia Republican gubernatorial nominee Glenn Youngkin speaks during his election night party at a hotel in Chantilly, Va., on Nov. 3. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

Neither Virginia nor New Jersey are yet done counting votes from Tuesday’s general election. A lot can still change, like New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy’s likely margin of victory. (As of writing, the race has not been called.) But what we already know suggests that both states saw voters shift to the right dramatically — far more than they shifted to the left in 2017 in response to the election of Donald Trump.

This is obvious at the state level, of course. President Biden won both states by double-digit margins — about 10 percent in Virginia and 16 percent in New Jersey. The gubernatorial results in each state suggest a shift of a bit more than 10 points, with Republican Glenn Youngkin holding a narrow lead in Virginia and Murphy holding on in New Jersey. In 2017, both states elected Democrats after supporting Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in 2016. The shifts to the left then were much more modest: a bit under four points in Virginia and a negligible amount in New Jersey.

The 2012-to-2013 comparison shows a shift to the right, but that’s muddied a bit by the fact that incumbent governor Chris Christie was on the ballot in New Jersey and won handily.

Looking at county-level data shows how the shifts after each of the three most-recent presidential races look. In counties that voted for Biden last year, there was a shift from 2016 to 2017 of about two points to the Democrats. As of writing, the shift since 2020 was 13 points to the Republicans. In counties that backed Trump last year, the shifts were similar.

The snap back to the right occurred regardless of population density. A lot has already been said about suburban areas moving toward Republicans since the 2020 presidential race, but the shifts were in the double digits regardless of county type. Consider the vote in rural counties below, for example. (The categorization here is via Pew Research Center; all the rural counties are in Virginia.) After 2012 and 2016, rural counties voted more heavily Democratic in gubernatorial races. This year, though, they shifted about 10 points to the right — despite already being far more Republican than other counties.

A lot of the evolution of the electorate in the Trump era has been framed through race and education. We have some data to that question from exit polling conducted in Virginia; for example, exit polls suggest that those without college degrees shifted quite a bit to Youngkin. If we segment the counties in New Jersey and Virginia into eight buckets by the density of college graduates (according to the Census Bureau’s most recent data), we see that more heavily educated areas are also more Democratic — and that they, like less heavily educated areas, voted more robustly for Republicans on Tuesday night than they did last year.

The picture with race is clearer. The least densely White counties in the two states were far more Democratic than the most densely White ones. But in each case, those counties shifted to the right. The least White counties in both states voted 10 points more Republican than they did one year ago. The most White counties voted six points more Republican, continuing a steady trend in that direction.

If we assume that the 2017 results were to some extent a referendum on Trump’s election and presidency, we should assume that the 2021 results were to some extent a referendum on Biden’s. And, at least in these two blue states, the message being sent to Biden is much louder.