CBS poll shows: The Virginia gubernatorial race has been nationalized

AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Two months ago this would have been great news for Democrats. When a race is “nationalized” it means voters are basing their votes less on local issues and the specific candidates on the ballot than on their feelings about the national parties and their leadership. Beating Glenn Youngkin is tough for Dems since he’s a nondescript business-class Republican, not a MAGA firebrand. He’s not as easy for liberals to hate as a Trumpy populist. The obvious strategy, then, is to refocus voters on Trump. And that’s just what Terry McAuliffe has done, repeatedly attacking Youngkin as a Trump in traditional politician’s clothing.

That was an obvious winner circa early August. Biden was reasonably popular at the time, after all. Nationalizing the race and turning it into a Biden vs. Trump proxy fight should have meant an easy win in a state the president claimed by 10 points last fall.

But two months later, with Biden’s job approval circling the drain, it’s not as much of a gimme as it used to be. CBS’s new poll has McAuliffe ahead narrowly, 50/47, but there are lots of details here that look good for Youngkin. Starting with the fact that nationalizing the race isn’t as much of an obvious advantage for Dems:

Democratic voters have always responded in a lukewarm way to Biden. You remember the many polls from last fall when voters were asked whether their vote was more about supporting their candidate or more about opposing the other party’s. “Supporting Trump!” a majority of Trump voters would answer. “Opposing Trump!” a majority of Biden voters would respond. This time, in Virginia, it’s Biden who’s turning out the opposition.

Which is not to say that focusing on Trump is a mistake for Dems. As I say, he’s much easier to hate than Youngkin is. And more Dems seem to hate him there than Republicans love him:

Need further evidence that this is now a national race as much as a squabble over Virginia? No problem:

Still, despite Biden’s declining popularity imperiling McAuliffe’s strategy, there’s evidence that nationalizing the race is still working for him on balance. Why? Because it’s Youngkin who leads on the sort of key metrics that typically decide elections. Who’s better on the economy? Youngkin:

Who’d create more jobs? Youngkin:

Whom do independents prefer? Why, Youngkin:

Biden won independents by 19 points in Virginia last year, but as we know, Biden is now kryptonite to indies. “Most independents say McAuliffe is more liberal than they would like, and about half say he supports Mr. Biden’s ideas and policies too much,” said CBS about its findings today. “By contrast, only four in 10 feel Youngkin is too conservative for them (a theme of McAuliffe’s campaign).”

It’s not going great for Dems when their “Youngkin is the new Trump” message has left independents nonetheless believing that Democrats are the more radical of the two parties. Speaking of which: Youngkin also leads among those who say crime is a major factor in their vote and among those who say school curriculums are a top issue for them.

Last but not least, there’s an enthusiasm gap in this race. Guess who’s ahead:

Eighty-eight percent of Trump voters in Virginia say they’ll definitely vote this year versus 76 percent of Biden voters who say so. Not only is there an unpopular Democrat in the White House helping to get Republicans motivated to vote but the Democratic nominee for governor is a retread, a guy who’s held the office before and who’s been hanging around Democratic politics for decades. In fact, a quarter of Dem voters told CBS they wish the party had nominated someone besides McAuliffe.

With all of that in Youngkin’s favor, how is he still trailing? Simple. Dems have the numbers in Virginia and McAuliffe is leading among voters who have yet to make up their minds by a three to one margin. If that changes down the stretch, he’s in deep trouble. All he can do is continue to try to turn the race into a referendum on Trump while inviting big-name Democrats who are actually popular, like Barack Obama, to campaign for him in hopes that he can squeeze enough anti-MAGA votes out of Virginia’s disaffected Democratic majority to barely hang on.

I’ll leave you with this. McAuliffe has no choice but to invite Biden to campaign for him at least once this month since barring the president from the trail would be admitting that he’s unpopular. Even though, er, McAuliffe’s already done that.

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