Trafalgar poll of Virginia: Youngkin 48.4, McAuliffe 47.5

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

Odds of an upset are real and growing. Here’s the trendline in RCP’s poll of polls:

Maybe late deciders are choosing to roll the dice on a Republican after 12 years of Democratic rule with an establishment retread as Team Blue’s nominee this year.

You know all about Trafalgar if you’ve followed election polling over the last five years. Their surveys consistently predict redder turnout on Election Day than most pollsters do and that’s produced some spectacularly accurate results because of it. They captured Trump’s upsets in the midwest in 2016 when most of the competition had Hillary waltzing away with those states. Last year they called only 50 percent of races correctly, per FiveThirtyEight, but had the second-smallest average error of any pollster. When Trafalgar’s polling on a race breaks from the pack, it’s worth paying attention.

Today’s poll is the first survey of Virginia in a month to show Youngkin ahead. That lead, 48.4 to 47.5, is within the margin of error so he and McAuliffe are statistically tied. But even a narrow victory for Dems in a state Biden carried by 10 will be cause for liberal panic, portending a sharp rightward shift across the map in the midterms next year. The left wants a comfortable McAuliffe win, not a squeaker. And there aren’t many polls out there at the moment to give them comfort.

The bombshell number isn’t the topline, it’s this:

Joe Biden’s at 58 percent disapproval in a state he won by double digits, with more than half of voters saying they strongly disapprove? Sweet fancy Moses. On the other hand, a Twitter pal makes a good point: It’s a testament to how strong Democrats’ advantage in Virginia is nowadays that the GOP needs a result like that just to eke out a statistical tie in a statewide race.

Another noteworthy number:

Youngkin and the Virginia GOP have leaned hard on school policy as a rallying cry in this race, from objecting to Critical Race Theory to questioning COVID mandates for students. It may pay off.

It’s hard to square Trafalgar’s result with Fox News’s new poll of the race, though. Fox has it 51/46 for McAuliffe but the big discrepancy is Biden’s job approval, which Fox sees as 50/49. That’s more plausible in a Biden +10 state than Trafalgar’s gruesome result is. Weirdly, though, Trafalgar’s sample leans more heavily Democratic than Fox’s does. Trafalgar has a 45.8D/37.8R sample while Fox has it even at 43D/43R. Why would Biden’s job approval be lower in a sample that’s more Democratic?

McAuliffe’s basic problem is apathy. He has the numbers to win easily if he can turn his people out, which is why he does reliably better in polling that imagines higher turnout next month. But what if Virginia Dems are burned out and unenthused about voting for a former governor a second time? The early voting numbers suggest low interest:

In-person early voting is down 63%, while mail ballots are down by around 73%. The final gap between the previous presidential-to-gubernatorial election series in 2016-17 was 34%. There is no expectation that turnout in an off-year election would match a presidential year, but current turnout is notably sluggish.

Dems lead in the early voting but that tells us nothing since Republicans typically wait until Election Day to cast their ballots. McAuliffe’s afraid that a red wave is going to crash down on November 2, which is why he has Barack Obama, Stacey Abrams, and Kamala Harris en route to help him turn out his base, especially African-Americans.

His strategy to manufacture enthusiasm on the left without help from better-known politicians is to try to turn the vote into a referendum on Trump and Trumpism. Gavin Newsom used that strategy successfully in the California recall but Newsom had a much bigger cushion of Democratic voters in a state as blue as California and his opponent, Larry Elder, was easier to portray as a stand-in for Trumpy populism than business-class Republican Glenn Youngkin is. That’s why yesterday’s snafu was such a gift to Dems. They’re grasping for ways to inject Trump into the race and MAGA handed them one. It may help McAuliffe over the finish line:

In interviews outside Fairfax’s early-voting site, every McAuliffe voter cited Mr. Trump as a reason for supporting the Democrat. Transportation, education and taxes — longtime core issues of Virginia governor’s races — were scarcely mentioned.

Paul Erickson, an architect from Vienna, Va., summoned a reporter back after revealing his concerns about Mr. Trump and said in an urgent tone that he had more to share.

“What I didn’t say is, for the first time in my adult life I fear for our nation,” Mr. Erickson said. “We’re tearing ourselves apart from within.”…

“I don’t like Trump, and I believe Youngkin is equal to Trump,” said Carol Myers, a retiree who, with her husband, was voting before playing a round of golf at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington…

“It’s crazy to think that a president that lost still has such a hold on a certain group of people,” said Herman Baskerville, who owns Big Herm’s restaurant in the city’s historic Jackson Ward.

Trump will be part of Democrat’s midterm messaging no matter what since he’ll insist on inserting himself into House and Senate races next year. But McAuliffe’s fate in Virginia will give us a taste of how successful that message is apt to be. If McAuliffe wins comfortably after all, his victory and Newsom’s in California will convince party leaders that running against MAGA is key to turning their people out. If McAuliffe goes belly up, Dems will be left with no effective appeals to negative partisanship in an era in which political success depends on it.