Has the ground shifted in the biggest election of this off-year with less than two weeks to go? Until this month, Republican candidate Ed Gillespie consistently trailed in polls for the Virginia gubernatorial election to Democrat Ralph Northam. Gillespie scored a one-point edge in a mid-month Monmouth poll, but now shows a commanding eight-point lead in a Hampton University survey:
Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, who is running for Virginia governor, is ahead of his Democratic challenger, Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, according to poll results released Wednesday.
Gillespie is ahead of Northam by 8 percent, the Hampton University Center for Public Policy found in a poll released Wednesday. Forty-one percent of voters said they would vote for Gillespie and 33 percent said they would vote for Northam. Meanwhile, 27 percent of respondents said they were undecided.
Additionally, the poll indicated that 34 percent of voters view the economy and job creation as the biggest issue for the governor. Twenty-three percent of voters said healthcare is the biggest issue and 10 percent said education.
Before anyone gets too excited, though, take a look at the RCP aggregation of polling for this race. The numbers have been wildly incongruous between pollsters, all of whom have good reputations in the field. Quinnipiac, for instance, had Northam up by fourteen points in the five days previous to Hampton’s polling cycle, and their sample had almost 50% more likely-voter respondents. Monmouth had just a little over half of Hampton’s sample for its Gillespie +1 result, and Fox News put Northam up by 7 in a sample similar to Hampton’s that was surveyed about the same time as Quinnipiac.
Normally, one would see the pollsters start to align this close to the election as voter make their final decisions. So far, Virginia’s race looks just as opaque as it did weeks ago, although back then there was little to suggest that Gillespie was coming close. Other than a couple of meaningless polls back last winter and two ties this summer, Northam has consistently led the race — until now, anyway. Even then, the RCP average has not closed by much, even with the Hampton results in the mix:
However, Gillespie has some experience in Virginia in both campaigning and polling. In 2014, he stunned everyone by nearly unseating the popular incumbent Sen. Mark Warner, only missing a win by an eyelash when everyone assumed he was down by double digits. (Only one poll at the time had Gillespie within single digits, and one had him as far back as 25 points.) Gillespie knows how to do retail campaigning better than most imagined at the time, and better than some realize to this day.
I wrote about Gillespie’s 2014 campaign and his ability to get turnout in my book Going Red as an example for future Republican campaigns:
How did Gillespie almost steal Virginia’s senate seat from Warner? The key was outreach in communities outside the Republican Party’s normal comfort zone, Gillespie says, emphasizing his own experience as a first-generation American. “I am the son of an immigrant myself, and would make that point in these communities,” Gillespie recalls. “My father came here as a boy from Ireland. My grandfather was a janitor, and I got to grow up to be counselor to the president of the United States of America.” He used that experience as an entrée to these communities, emphasizing his desire to duplicate it for their families. “I want the same opportunities for future generations,” he told them during his campaign.
Gillespie also focused on themes and issues that resonated across community lines, emphasizing “upward mobility and job creation, economic growth, lifting people out of poverty, and higher wages,” as well as “education, a reform-and-replace plan for ObamaCare, energy production, and more affordable energy.” More important than the message itself was where and how Gillespie communicated it.
“I went into the black churches in Prince William, and to places a lot of Republicans have not gone,” he says. County Republican Party vice chair D. J. Jordan, a leading African American conservative in Prince William, corroborates this. “Grace Church Dumfries is a church that Ed Gillespie visited in October 2014,” Jordan recalls, “and he was very well received. They welcomed him from the pulpit and he was able to talk to those who were out in the lobby afterwards.”
If it’s close — and the polling does seem to indicate that it’s getting closer, at least — then Gillespie may pull off yet another big surprise. He understands how to get voters out to the polls, and he also knows how to push back against a strong headwind. Northam is nowhere near as well liked as Warner, and he’s had his own stumbles during the campaign. Watch the northern Virginia counties on election day. If Northam isn’t blowing Gillespie out in Prince William, Loudoun, and especially Fairfax counties, Gillespie may well pull off the upset.
Addendum: Donald Trump tweeted out his support for Gillespie by noting in part that the Republican would “save our great statues/heritage!” Andrew Clark looks into the crosstabs and discovers that is a rather popular position in Virginia, and finds some other bad news for Northam as well:
But most alarming number for Northam here should be that 49% of #VAGov voters "lean Republican." Just 37% "lean Democrat."
— Andrew Clark (@AndrewHClark) October 26, 2017
That could be a sampling problem more than a reflection of the status quo, however. The polling has been so inconsistent in this race that it’s simply hard to tell.