This off-year gubernatorial race, held in the only Southern state in which Trump lost, really looks like a nailbiter at this point. Progressive
Democrat Ralph Northam currently holds a small yet significant statistical edge over Republican Ed Gillespie. Our poll-based statistical model for Virginia’s 2017 gubernatorial race
currently portrays a tight race, with Democratic candidate Ralph Northam leading Republican Ed Gillespie by 1.3 points (49.4% to 48.1%). This means that there is a 59% chance for Northam’s election, especially when we account for the past accuracy of off-year gubernatorial polling at this point in the race. In other words, Northam would win in approximately three out of every five trials. The 75% confidence interval of the most likely possible scenarios ranges from a 5.2-point win for Democrat Northam to a 2.5-point win for Republican Gillespie, demonstrating that both candidates have a significant chance at being elected at this point in time.
Depite their close odds, Democrat Northam has a great opportunity to shine in this election and might be able to perform even better than his polling averages currently suggest. For instance, the fact that Trump’s approval rating in Virginia is underwater might be buoying Northam’s odds. Even though Trump lost the state only by a margin of 2.3 points, Trump's net approval rating there currently sits on average at -21 points, according to findings by Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University
. Northam’s margin against Gillespie is on average 6 points, which means that Gillespie runs about 15 points ahead of Trump’s approval rating in Virginia. That’s great news for Gillespie, since, on average, Republican candidates only advance about two points ahead of Trump’s approval rating in the states in which they run
We found in a previous article
that there was an 87% Pearson correlation coefficient (r) between a GOP candidate's vote margin in a poll and Trump's net approval rating where the candidate is running, based on a sample of 15 polls. Running a statistical significance test for this at both P < 0.05 and P < 0.01 with an N of 15, one sees that the correlation is statistically significant. The regression formula we found to predict a GOP candidate's performance based on Trump's aproval rating was y = 0.7118304522*x+0.54. Using this regression formula, Trump's net approval rating of -21 points in Virginia would suggest a 14-point loss for Gillespie, which clearly isn't panning out in the polls right now. The two polls by Monmouth University and Quinnipiac University that surveyed Trump’s approval rating showed a 6-point win for Northam. The regression would thus suggest that Gillespie is exceeding expectations set by Trump's approval rating by 8 points.According to the latest Monmouth University poll of Virginia's gubernatorial race
, 99% of Ed Gillespie voters would still support the candidate if it were not for Trump, while only 88% can say the same regarding Northam. This suggests that "Gillespie could actually have a lead of 45% to 40% over Northam - with 12% being undecided - if Trump did not currently figure into the equation”. The pollster added that "a small but crucial portion of Northam's support is coming from voters who are primarily anti-Trump" and that "the president could win up as a decisive factor in the outcome". In short, Monmouth’s polling data and conclusions seem to corroborate the idea that this election might be a bit of a referendum on the current presidential office-holder — likely more so than any previous gubernatorial election in Virginia.
The fact that Ralph Northam is outpacing Trump’s approval rating to such an extent shows that there might be room for further improvement when it comes to Northam’s margin against Gillespie. Northam could continue weaponizing Trump against Gillespie; this is a game plan he already appears to be using based on his campaign ads, in which he labels Trump a “narcissistic maniac”
. When asked about Trump in the July 24th debate, Northam stated "I believe our president is a dangerous man, I think he lacks empathy", adding that he has "difficulty telling the truth and it happens again and again."
Additionally, he attacked what he dubbed as "Trumpcare" and Trump's "travel ban". While Northam’s tactic could be effective, Gillespie has strategically attempted to distance himself from Trump due to the president’s unpopularity in his state. For instance, in the last debate, he refrained from either attacking Trump or defending him, offering the following neutral statement: "When the president is doing things good for Virginia, I'm going to work to makes sure things get done. (...) I don’t agree with everything the president says or tweets, but my focus is on Virginia"
. In this waym Gillespie tends to pivot when asked about Trump. Before the general election, Gillespie's reluctance to fully back Trump is partially what helped fuel the rise of his formidible Republican primary opponent, Corey Stewart, a staunch supporter of Trump who mobilized significant numbers of the president’s supporters in Virginia and nearly defeated Gillespie in the primaries (losing by a mere margin of 1.2 points). In the primaries, where Stewart exeeded almost all expections and reasonable predictions, he boasted of his support of Trump in television ads and criticized Gillespie for being “among the first Republicans in the country to kick [Trump] when he was down”
Gillespie has to run a careful balancing act between actively supporting or pushing back his own party's presidential incumbent. Either he risks alienating a significant percentage of his state's population, including an overwhelming number of GOPers who voted Trump in Stewart, for example, or he risks losing the election by failing to cater to a coalition of Virginians who didn’t vote for Trump or who are now disenchanted with him. As for Northam, his line of action will probably be simpler. He has fewer options to wrestle with, since attacking Trump seems to resound both with the majority of his state and his party. All signs indicate that Northam should continue leveraging Trump’s unpopularity to help buoy his campaign to victory. All this notwithstanding, Gillespie is apparently still a strong and formidable candidate and is outperforming expectations considering Trump’s approval rating and the state’s partisan lean (Cook’s Political Index pegs it at D+1 relative to the national environment). Northam should be aware that his opponent’s resilience defies the fact that the election is being held when the national environment is still trending heavily Democratic, according to Gallup party affiliation
and congressional generic ballot polls
Appendum: This article was cross-posted to www.dailykos.com
A new Target-Insyght poll reveals that not only is Trump still popular with Michigan voters, but he has also gained support in the once-Democratic state since his election, now being approved of by 49% of voters, which is 1.5 points higher than the percentage of voters he was elected with.
The fact that Virginia voters are treating the race as a referendum on Trump is helping Democrat Ralph Northam - but he can capitalize on Trump's unpopularity and the Democratic-leaning national environment even further. Virginia voters shift anti-Trump, and Northam isn't winning everybody who is anti-Trump
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Handel has significantly increased her odds of a win in a forecast. The odds of either candidate winning is roughly even - with a slim lead for Republican Karen Handel - where two weeks ago, her odds were 1:4, or 1/5.