No-mentum: Crowd for McAuliffe event is ... sparse

AP Photo/Steve Helber, File

We shouldn’t make too much of one crowd, particularly a crowd at a mid-day event during a weekday. But this photo does capture the *feel* of the McAuliffe campaign right now:

Youngkin’s drawing better today:

I didn’t realize it until recently but it’s exceptionally rare for someone to serve two terms as governor in Virginia due to the state’s unusual rule barring incumbents from running for consecutive terms. The last time the state elected a governor to a second term was more than 40 years ago, which means there may be an informal one-and-done rule among Virginia voters that’s benefitting Youngkin. McAuliffe’s already his four years. That’s all you’re supposed to get in VA.

Instead of comparing crowd sizes, which are anecdotes, how about a new poll? On October 1, McAuliffe led by five points in the RCP average. Today his lead is down to 0.8 thanks to Team Youngkin highlighting his cavalier attitude about parents wanting some influence over how their children’s school operates. The last five polls of Virginia have gone this way: Tie, McAuliffe +3, tie, McAuliffe +1, tie. A new one from Christopher Newport University sees — what else? — a statistical tie, with McAuliffe leading by a point:

Democrat Terry McAuliffe maintains a narrow 1-point lead against Republican Glenn Youngkin, 49% to 48%, in the race for governor. His lead is well within this survey’s margin of error of +/- 3.5% and this represents a continued tightening in the race. As shown in the figure below, McAuliffe began the election season in late August with a 9-point lead that shrank to 4 points in early October and now stands at 1 point. With McAuliffe and Youngkin now in a virtual tie, third-party candidate Princess Blanding’s 1% share of the vote looms larger.

Independent voters largely favor Youngkin, 51% to 44%. Youngkin’s support within his own party has also increased significantly since our last poll to 97% (from 90%). Youngkin’s support is currently driven by white voters (58% to 39%), male voters (56% to 42%) and those from the South/Southwest region (65% to 33%).

In a sense the GOP has already won this race. Barring another major polling error a la 2017 that ends up underestimating the Democratic candidate in Virginia (unlikely in a year when Republicans are the out-party), this should be at worst a very narrow loss in a state Biden won by 10 last year. I wonder if House progressives are looking at this polling and considering what’s likely to happen to their agenda if, as expected, a solidly blue state suddenly looks purple six days from now. It’s in their interest to agree to a public reconciliation framework with Manchin, Sinema, and other centrists before Tuesday in order to lock them into proceeding with legislation. If they don’t, they may find that moderates’ appetite for more spending has vanished come next Wednesday morning.

Democrats underperforming with independents has been the political story of fall 2021, typically in the form of gruesome job approval numbers for Biden but soon potentially in the form of an indie-fueled Republican upset in Virginia. William Galston has a perceptive take today on why independents are so disappointed in Team Biden that’ll sound familiar if you watched this exchange on “The View” a few days ago. Indies thought they were electing someone who’d try to unite the country behind a centrist agenda, writes Galston. Instead they ended up with someone who’s trying to unite his party behind a leftist agenda.

He promised to bring Democrats together around an agenda carefully negotiated before the 2020 election began, as the leader of a party in which all Democrats from the center to the left would have a voice. At the same time, he would bring Americans back together by treating Republicans with respect and by doing his best to craft policies that appealed to both parties.

In practice, these two promises have proved incompatible. There have been some discrete bipartisan successes, such as the infrastructure bill and a measure to boost investment in technologies to counter China. But there is no Republican support for Democratic approaches to social programs, voting rights, immigration, criminal justice and public education.

Faced with a choice between party unity and national unity, Mr. Biden has chosen the former more consistently than independents had expected, and their disappointment is showing up in the polls.

If he had tried to govern from the middle, he would have risked losing progressive votes in the midterms. By governing from the left, he risks ceding swing voters to Republicans. That’s a smallish risk when running against a populist demagogue like Trump whose own behavior will push centrists to the left harder than Biden’s policies are apt to push them to the right. But it’s a big risk when running against a normie business-class Republican like Youngkin who’s doing the bare minimum to stay in MAGA’s good graces while reaching out to the suburbs. Which is why the president of the United States has to resort to try-hard equivalencies like this on the trail, name-checking Trump as often as he can:

I’ll leave you with this McAuliffe soundbite. He’s right that the GOP has seized on a particular culture-war issue to try to galvanize its voters in Virginia this year just as it did four years ago. He’s wrong if he thinks that particular issue won’t resonate more with swing voters than the previous one did.