What the Exit Polls Can Tell Us about the Virginia GOP’s Disaster

by Jim Geraghty

From the depressing Wednesday edition of the Morning Jolt:

Urgh.

The coming weeks will feature a lot of Trump-friendly Republicans insisting he has nothing to do with last night’s top-to-bottom shellacking of the GOP in Virginia, and a lot of not-so-Trump-friendly Republicans he’s got everything to do with the electoral disaster.

If last night had brought a routine disappointment for Republicans – say, the statewide candidates losing by a few points and only a handful of state assembly seats flipping to the Democrats – the “blame Trump” argument would be weaker. But last night was the worst night for Republicans in Virginia in a long time. Gillespie lost by the worst margin for a Republican gubernatorial candidate in the state since 1985. No GOP statewide candidate hit 48 percent. Perhaps more significantly, Republicans entered Election Day with a 17-seat margin in the state assembly and lost at least 13, with seven seats too close to call this morning.

State Representative Bob Marshall represents a district that covers parts of Prince William and Loudon counties. Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe carried this district by a point in 2013 but by 2016, Hillary Clinton carried it by 14 points, so perhaps Marshall should have recognized his district was turning bluer. But the off-year state legislative elections of 2015, Marshall won by a comfortable margin, 56 percent to 44 percent. This year he ran against Danica Roem, the first transgender candidate in Virginia history, and Roem reversed the numbers, winning 54 percent to 45 percent.

The fairest and most accurate critique about Ed Gillespie is that his 2017 campaign was neither fish nor fowl. He had too much history as an Establishment insider to drive up big turnout among Trump’s voters, but his campaign’s autumn messages focusing on sanctuary cities, gangs, Confederate statues and felon voting rights were too “Trumpified” to win over those moderate suburban soccer moms. As I mentioned to WMAL’s Mary Walter and Vince Coglianese this morning, I wonder how many suburbanites resented Gillespie for his ads telling them about an infamous child pornographer seemingly every commercial break.

You’ll probably hear Trump fans arguing Gillespie ran a bad campaign. But he and his supporters kept pace with spending and television advertising, hustled on the stump, and didn’t make many errors or gaffes. This is the same guy who came within a percentage point of knocking off a Democratic incumbent in 2014. He’s likely to finish with about 120,000 or so more votes than he won in that midterm election year.

Gillespie actually kept his party more unified than Trump did; exit polls indicated that 95 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Gillespie, compared to 88 percent for Trump. (Note that Virginia does not register voters by party, so all responses are best thought of as, “which party do you feel like you belong to today?”) White evangelicals were about as supportive of Gillespie (79 percent) as they were of Trump (80 percent). Those who live in households with guns were slightly more supportive of Gillespie (61 percent) as Trump (59 percent).

Gillespie narrowly won independents, 50 percent to 47 percent. Trump did a little better in that group last year, 48 percent to 43 percent. Gillespie actually did slightly better than Trump among blacks, 12 percent to 9 percent.

No, the big difference of this year is that the Democratic base was fired up on a scale not seen since 2008. Yesterday’s Virginia electorate was 41 percent self-identified Democrat, 30 percent self-identified Republican, and 28 percent independent or something else. When the electorate looks like that, Republicans will get demolished every time. For comparison, Virginia’s 2016 electorate, according to the exit polls, was 40 percent Democrat, 33 percent Republican, 26 percent independent.

The exit poll asked voters “How do you feel about the way Donald Trump is handling his job as president?” and 40 percent said they approved and 57 percent disapproved. That’s actually higher than his job approval rating nationally in most polls. If Trump’s job approval is 40 or below in a state on Election Day 2018, Republicans can expect further dismal losses.

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