They say dogs can hear earthquakes before they happen because of a wider range of hearing that can pick up sounds deep in the earth of tectonic plates scraping together before everything goes bang.
With that image in mind, we pose this question: Did a poll from Christopher Newport University just pick up an impending political earthquake in Virginia? First off, let’s survey our political topography, which may or may not be about to be rearranged: This may be an off-year nationally but in many ways it’s the most important election cycle in Virginia politics. Next month, all 140 seats in the General Assembly will be on the ballot. Republicans currently cling to the narrowest of margins in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate (remember that two years ago control of the House was determined by drawing names out of a bowl to break a tie).
We in this part of the state don’t really feel a sense of urgency about this because we don’t have many contested elections, but this is a very big deal. It’s been twenty years since Democrats controlled both chambers in the General Assembly — and even then there was a Republican governor. If Democrats take both the House and Senate this fall — with a Democrat in the governor’s mansion — well, lots of things could change. All those gun bills that Republicans have deep-sixed in subcommittee? They could pass and get signed into law. For some of you, that’s a reason to vote Republican, and for others it’s a reason to vote Democratic. Either way, both parties agree: There’s a lot at stake here in terms of policy.
That’s why it is worth paying attention to a poll from earlier this week from The Judy Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. The poll didn’t sample individual races but tried to get a general sense of political sentiment statewide. What it found: Democrats are a lot more excited about this fall’s legislative races than Republicans are — 62% of Democrats say they are “very enthusiastic” compared to 49% of Republicans and 49% of independents. That’s important because legislative races tend to be low turnout affairs.
Traditionally, the turnout has been lower in ways that benefited Republicans — older, whiter, more conservative. That’s why the results in the 2017 state elections, in which we elected a governor and members of the House of Delegates, were such a surprise. That’s because turnout was up in ways that helped Democrats, which is why they picked up an astonishing 15 House seats. Turnout also was up in last year’s congressional mid-terms, which is one reason why Democrats knocked off three Republican incumbents and installed Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton in Congress. What drove the uncharacteristically high Democratic turnout those two years? That’s easy: Voter reaction to Donald Trump, especially in suburbs. The question for 2019 is whether voters are still in a mood to punish any Republican in sight. The CNU poll results on voter enthusiasm — showing very different levels of enthusiasm between Democrats and everybody else — are not what Republicans want to hear.
They don’t want to hear this, either: Democrats lead Republicans on a “generic ballot” by 49% to 36%. And by a wide margin, voters say they’d prefer a Democratic legislature to a Republican one — 53% to 37%. Is this the equivalent of a dog hearing something deep in the earth? Is the ground about to move?
The CNU pollsters came to this conclusion: “The data presented here suggest that even if turnout is still fairly low Nov. 5, this year’s electorate will have more in common with the electorates of 2017 and 2018 in terms of its demographic and — more importantly — partisan composition, than with the electorate of 2015. Combined with the facts that state Senate Republicans are facing this newly energized, Democrat-friendly electorate, and that a court-ordered redistricting to eradicate racial gerrymandering yielded more Democrat-leaning House of Delegates districts, this suggests that Democrats are well positioned to pick up the seats they need to take control of both chambers of the General Assembly.” So should Republicans just pack it up now? Well, they might be better off if they sent Trump packing — Virginia voters seemed just fine electing Republicans until Trump came along. That’s not going to happen, though. (Note that the Trump reaction is almost entirely confined to suburbs, not rural areas). Still, any poll comes with caveats so here are three:
1. These aren’t statewide elections; these are 140 different elections. This is the big one. Statewide, there may indeed be more enthusiasm for Democrats than Republicans — but we don’t know how that fits into the actual electoral map. For instance, the Democratic enthusiasm for, say, Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, doesn’t really matter because he’s unopposed. What we need to know is how things are playing out in a relative handful of swing districts, mostly in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads. It’s much the same as trying to follow presidential polls. It doesn’t really matter whether the polls show Trump ahead or behind some Democratic opponent nationally. What really matters is what the state-by-state polls show in places such as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
2. We don’t know how other issues will play. We know Trump is a liability for Republicans in the suburbs. But Democrats may have liabilities of their own. Two years ago, all those Democratic House challengers were blank slates. Now the 15 winners have records — and must play defense. They may be proud of their records; but Republicans see the world differently, and in the closing weeks are hoping to exploit certain votes those freshmen have cast. That makes for a very different campaign than two years ago.
3. Gov. Ralph Northam is not the liability he was earlier this year. Last December, his approval rating was at 59%. After the blackface scandal broke, it dropped to 40%. Now it’s back up to 51%. Voters seem to be in a forgiving mood. After all, even if that was him in the infamous yearbook photo, that was a long time ago and he’s got a more recent record to be judged by — and the poll found Virginians generally optimistic about things in the state. That makes it hard for Republicans to use Northam against Democratic candidates the way they had hoped.
So did this poll pick up sounds of Virginia’s political landscape realigning? Or did it just pick up random noise? We’ll know the night of Nov. 5.