But the closeness of the contest masks differences in the way groups of voters see the candidates. The Virginia electorate is fractured in all kinds of ways that speak to the current state of politics nationally: men vs. women, younger voters vs. older voters, college-educated vs. those without college degrees, urban vs. rural, vaccinated vs. unvaccinated.
On this final weekend, many Democrats remain nervous. The most positive are at best cautiously optimistic. Their hope is that a state that has been trending Democratic for a decade will provide enough underlying momentum for McAuliffe to fend off Youngkin’s challenge.
McAuliffe has been relying on help from every prominent Democrat he can recruit to come to the state to campaign for him, including President Biden, who was in Arlington for McAuliffe on Tuesday; Vice President Harris, who was in the state on Friday; and former president Barack Obama, who campaigned in Virginia last weekend. For McAuliffe, that was the good news.
But Biden and congressional Democrats, whose presence looms over the gubernatorial race, did McAuliffe no favors on Thursday. In the morning, Biden unveiled a framework agreement for his social spending and climate package and implored House Democrats at a meeting on Capitol Hill to get behind the agreement. He then flew to Rome to begin several days of international meetings, hoping that by the time he landed, the House would have voted for the bipartisan infrastructure bill that has been sitting for weeks.
Instead, as Biden flew, his congressional party returned to squabbling and another standoff. As they had done earlier, House liberals forced Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to delay the vote on the infrastructure package, holding out until they see the fine print and get assurances that Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) are committed to supporting it.
For weeks now, Biden has presented problems for McAuliffe. The president’s sagging approval ratings caused the race to tighten. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has an approval rating of 52 percent, but it is Biden’s 43 percent approval rating in the state that is having more influence on the race.
Congressional Democrats have also contributed to McAuliffe’s concerns. The long negotiations appear to have contributed to a dampening of enthusiasm among frustrated Democratic voters. For weeks, the story on Capitol Hill has been Democrat-on-Democrat warfare, with a focus on the legislative sausage-making.
The Democrats’ collective performance Thursday served to highlight the intraparty fighting and lack of agreement at a moment when McAuliffe most wanted something concrete that would say to voters that his party was delivering on its promises and was focused on voters’ needs, not the Democrats’ internal differences.
It was hardly what McAuliffe’s campaign wanted or expected a few days ahead of Tuesday’s election. Democrats appear to be moving toward a resolution of their differences, but even that may come too late to affect any wavering voters in Virginia.
Youngkin also has concerns about a president, in his case former president Donald Trump. Youngkin happily accepted Trump’s endorsement but has not welcomed Trump to campaign in his behalf. That would complicate Youngkin’s efforts to reach beyond Trump loyalists, whose support he still needs, to woo Never Trump Republicans, as well as independent voters who may loathe Trump but like Youngkin’s platform.
But Trump isn’t helping Youngkin. He first teased a possible late rally in the state. Now he’s supposedly going to be the star guest at an election-eve tele-rally on behalf of Youngkin, whose campaign did not respond to requests for comment from The Post’s Laura Vozzella.
This late-hour maneuvering plays out against the backdrop of Virginia’s divided electorate, as seen in the Post-Schar poll. In all campaigns these days, party allegiance is still the single best predictor of how people will vote, but the makeup of each candidate’s supporters reveals the underlying contours of the political landscape.
The gender gap is a long-standing fact of American elections. Men have been more partial than women to the Republican Party for many years, and women more favorable to the Democratic Party. The Post-Schar poll underscores just how stark the gender differences remain, with men favoring Youngkin by 57 percent to 40 percent and women backing McAuliffe by 56 percent to 40 percent.
Divisions based on education are a more recent phenomenon in voting patterns. Before Trump came on the scene, the differences between those with college degrees and those without college degrees were generally not significant. Today, education is one of the most important fault lines in politics. In Virginia, voters who do not have a college degree (White and non-White combined) back Youngkin by 56 percent to 41 percent. Those with degrees are in McAuliffe’s column by 59 percent to 39 percent.
When the preferences of White voters are analyzed through the combined lens of education and gender, the growing importance to the Democratic Party of White women with college degrees becomes clear.
Among White men and White women without college degrees, Youngkin is preferred by overwhelming margins, roughly 3 to 1 among men and nearly 2 to 1 among women. Meanwhile, college-educated White men are narrowly divided, with Youngkin at 50 percent and McAuliffe at 46 percent, while college-educated White women are backing McAuliffe by 60 percent to 39 percent.
The youngest voters, those ages 18 to 39, support McAuliffe by a margin of 10 points. Those 65 and older back Youngkin by a margin of six points. Those in the middle, ages 40 to 64, are evenly divided, at 48 percent for each candidate.
Urban voters support McAuliffe by 63 percent to 37 percent. Rural and small-town voters back Youngkin by 61 percent to 33 percent. And in the newest division in politics, those who have had at least one shot of a coronavirus vaccine, a significant majority of likely voters, support McAuliffe by 14 points. Those who have not received even one vaccine dose back Youngkin by 77 points.
It is no cliche to say that everything now depends on who votes. McAuliffe needs strong turnout among Black voters. His team has been worried about enthusiasm among young voters. Mostly, he must turn out Biden 2020 voters at nearly the same percentages as Trump 2020 voters appear likely to turn out for Youngkin.
The election could turn on suburban voters, who moved toward the Democrats during the Trump presidency. Will they back McAuliffe or shift back toward Republicans? The Post-Schar survey shows McAuliffe seven points ahead of Youngkin in suburban areas. That is only marginally different from 2017, when Northam carried suburban areas by 10 points. And it is one more reason the race is too close to call.