Driving those changes: whopping increases in the raw number of Virginians who voted — 1 million more voters than when McAuliffe was on the ballot in 2013.
“The overall scale and breadth of the Republican shift is really dramatic,” said Quentin Kidd, professor and senior political analyst at Christopher Newport University. “I describe it as a snapback, because it’s a snapback from where Virginia has been trending in the last decade.”
These Virginia voting patterns will be studied across the nation for clues as to what might work for next year’s congressional candidates who confront challenges similar to McAuliffe and Youngkin. How can Democrats motivate voters in the shadow of Washington gridlock and President Biden’s lower popularity? How can Republicans win swing voters without offending Trump’s base?
Many of the largest vote shifts appeared in counties where Democrats in prior elections built unassailable vote margins, the large metro areas that reach from Arlington and Alexandria on the D.C. border, through Richmond, and then to the Hampton Roads region. It’s a small number of the state’s counties, but home to a large majority of Virginia voters, and until this election, increasing Democratic margins.
The large metro counties were a Democratic win Tuesday, but this time by 10 percentage points instead of the 21 points of four years ago. That trend, if continued, could bring change across the country, because large metros (each more than 1 million people) account for a majority of U.S. voters, and in 2020 provided almost all of Biden’s overall winning margin in the popular vote.
On Tuesday, the Democratic margin in Virginia’s large metro counties dropped by more than 151,000 votes compared with 2017. The counties that flipped from blue to red include Chesterfield, a Richmond suburb, and the Hampton Roads localities of Chesapeake and Virginia Beach.
Statewide, about 3.3 million people voted in the governor’s race, up from 2.6 million four years ago. The increase, and the Republican shifts, suggest that Republican voters were more motivated.
“Republicans were energized,” said Lauren Bell, a political science professor at Randolph-Macon College. “They badly wanted to win, and as the turnout numbers show, they got themselves to the polls.”
Other factors cited: negative advertising; Youngkin’s focus on local issues such as taxes on groceries and parental involvement in schools; cooling anti-Trump fervor that is less motivating for Democrats.
Outside of Virginia’s large metro areas, the fact that Trump is no longer in office hasn’t kept counties from reliably delivering Republican wins, often landslides.
In smaller metro counties, which are built around cities near the Appalachian Mountains, such as Winchester, Charlottesville, Roanoke and Lynchburg, the Republican vote margin more than doubled since 2017 to 154,000, and Youngkin won by almost 27 points. In Bedford County, where Trump won last year by 48 percentage points, Youngkin won Tuesday by 59 points.
In rural counties that fall outside a metro area, the Republican margin was even larger — more than 161,000 votes — and Youngkin won by 40 percentage points, up from a 28-point Republican win last time. The rural counties, which have been losing population, saw the total number of voters grow since 2017 by almost 97,000, a 24 percent increase.
Turnout rose by 17 percent in heavily Democratic Northern Virginia, but by 24 percent across the Republican-dominated southern and western regions. It was up 14 percent in counties were Biden won last year in a landslide, but by 26 percent in Trump landslide counties overall, with 16 of those counties posting increases of 40 percent or more.
Bell, the Randolph-Macon professor, said final tallies could find that more than half of the state’s registered voters cast ballots this time, for the first time in almost 30 years. “But that higher turnout seems to have benefited Youngkin almost exclusively,” she said.
2021 election results from Associated Press, as of Nov. 3 at 10 a.m.