Some Democrats — and maybe some Republicans, too — were surprised recently when a poll showed that if the election were held now, President Trump would beat all but one Democrat in Virginia.
We can hear the puzzlement now: How can this be? Virginia’s gone Democratic three presidential elections in a row. Republicans haven’t won a statewide election in the state in a decade. Democrats now hold every statewide office, control both chambers of the General Assembly, and seven of the state’s 11 congressional seats. When a reporter referred to Virginia as a “purple” state last November, even the mild-mannered Gov. Ralph Northam firmly corrected: “This is a blue state, Virginia’s blue. I want everybody to know that.”
So how can Trump be doing well in Virginia? Can this poll really be believed?
The answer is yes, it should be believed, and Democrats who really want to defeat Trump would be well-advised to pay close attention because the political arena they must compete in doesn’t look much like the Twitterverse where progressive activists spend a lot of time talking to each other.
First, Mason-Dixon Polling and Research, Inc. is a reputable pollster with a long history of polling in Virginia and other Southern states, so it has a track record. We’re personally familiar with Mason-Dixon because in the ’80s and ’90s we were part of a consortium of Virginia papers who hired Mason-Dixon for occasional polls. The website fivethirtyeight.com — the premiere website for political data — rates pollsters and gives Mason-Dixon a B-plus, not the highest rating but higher than most. Even some of the best-known pollsters — such as Rasmussen and Zogby — rate only Cs. A few rate Fs. Fivethirtyeight.com says Mason-Dixon has correctly called races 86% of the time. Only three well-known pollsters rank higher; The A-rated SurveyUSA is the highest at 90%. To paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton ad, when Mason-Dixon speaks, people should listen.
And here’s what it said about Virginia:
Joe Biden 49%, Trump 45%
Trump 47%, Pete Buttigieg 45%
Trump 48%, Elizabeth Warren 44%
Trump 51%, Bernie Sanders 45%
The results really aren’t any different than what a less-discussed poll by Virginia Commonwealth University said in mid-December, which also found that Biden was the only Democrat leading Trump in Virginia – and then just by 47% to 46%. So we come back to the basic question: Why is Trump doing so well in a state that’s been trending sharply leftward? That’s the wrong question, though. It really should be why are the Democrats doing so poorly? In 2016, Trump took 44.4% of the vote in Virginia — which is essentially what he polls against Biden in the Mason-Dixon poll. Virginia was closer than is commonly remembered — Hillary Clinton didn’t crack 50% in the state. She took 49.7%. Once again, the Mason-Dixon poll puts Biden right on track for that share of the vote. So why are Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren only in the 44% to 45% range?
You could argue that they’re simply not as well-known as Biden, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Voters probably feel that, after eight years as vice president, they know all they need to know about Biden. They surely know less about two senators and certainly less about the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana. If that’s the answer, Democrats have no reason to worry — those three candidates have room for growth.
There’s another possible answer, though, one that ought to give Democrats some pause. That’s this: Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren may be further left than some voters want to go, and at some point those voters might be willing to stick with Trump instead. Yes, he may be crude and offensive, but the economy seems to be doing well —those voters may be eager to ditch Trump but not so eager to embrace the kind of economic overhaul that Sanders and Warren, in particular, are vowing. Buttigieg is commonly seen as a more centrist candidate but part of that is simply tone. He’s certainly not as far left as Sanders and Warren but Politico says his platform is still “well to the left of any recent Democratic presidential nominee.” Virginia, of late, has routinely voted for Democrats in statewide elections but none of those candidates have been that far left. Democrats shouldn’t assume that just any Democratic nominee could carry the state.
Indeed, the real keys to the Mason-Dixon poll are buried deeper in the numbers. Political analyst Ron Faucheux writes: “Wow, here’s the difference: Trump beats Biden by 5 points, Warren by 23 points, Sanders by 26 points and Buttigieg by 20 points among independent voters in Virginia. This illustrates better than most data we’ve seen that a Democratic nominee on the progressive left could have a tough time among independents and swing voters in the general election.” Those are the numbers that should keep Democrats awake at night (and let Republicans sleep easier).
The Virginia poll isn’t an aberration. Other polls show much the same thing in other states. All the swing states where the election will be decided are extremely competitive. Depending on your political proclivities, you can read that either way —maybe Democrats will run the table. On the other hand, Trump easily could, too, and right now the odds are in his favor. In many swing states, there’s only one Democrat who leads Trump and even then, he doesn’t lead by much: Biden. In Florida, he’s up by 2%, well within the margin of error. In Wisconsin, he’s up by 1%. In other swing states — Arizona, Iowa and Pennsylvania — not a single Democrat leads Trump, although a recent Democratic-leaning poll does show Biden tied in Arizona.
For what it’s worth, Biden doesn’t always poll best for Democrats in those states. Sometimes Buttigieg does. But Sanders and Warren almost always fare worst. In Pennsylvania, a state Democrats rue losing last time, Trump leads Scranton-born Biden by 4%, Buttigieg by 6%, Warren by 7% and Sanders by 11%. We could go on and on with similar numbers but you get the idea. Now, not all these polls are of equal quality — different companies, different methodologies. And campaigns do change things. You can go ask President Dewey about that. And a new poll out Thursday does show five Democrats leading Trump in Michigan, ranging from Biden up by 7% to Buttigieg and Warren up by 2%. Last month, Trump led there. Still, the point here is this: Nobody should take the 2020 election for granted, because neither side can even take Virginia for granted.