VCU students voting in 2020 at University Student Commons
VCU students voting in 2020 at University Student Commons, one of two on-campus polling places, the other being the Institute for Contemporary Art at VCU. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

Virginia’s gubernatorial election is Tuesday. What will VCU political science experts be watching for?

From mail-in-voting to turnout, there will be many storylines to follow as a tighter-than-expected race between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin enters its final days.

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On Tuesday, voters will choose Virginia’s next governor, and polls indicate the race is a dead heat between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Glenn Youngkin. While the race may be too tight to predict, Virginia Commonwealth University political science experts say several factors — including mail-in voting, youth and Black voter turnout, and which candidate can ignite more enthusiasm — may affect the outcome.

Amanda Wintersieck, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science in the College of Humanities and Sciences, said she will be keeping an eye on turnout

“Turnout is typically lower in off federal election/presidential election years, but the gubernatorial race is competitive which should incentivize voters to turn out,” she said. “Both candidates are really pushing their bases to turn out and McAuliffe has called in the cavalry. [Former President Barack] Obama campaign on his behalf over weekend and [Speaker of the House Nancy] Pelosi recently hosted a fundraising event for him.”

In a Department of Political Science panel discussion last week, Wintersieck said turnout among voters between ages 18 and 29 could be especially important. Citing research by Tufts University, she noted that in Virginia’s last gubernatorial election in 2017, 34% of young voters cast a ballot — a steady increase from 17% youth turnout in 2009 and 26% in 2013. In last year’s presidential election, 56% of young voters in Virginia cast a ballot, the highest youth turnout rate among southern states.

“This is a group that will turn out if they're engaged,” Wintersieck said. “I think that we have seen efforts by both political parties to engage young voters with more or less success. If you look at the last couple weeks, you've seen a lot of political ads from both Youngkin and McAuliffe specifically targeting young people, attempting to motivate them to show up to vote … . But what it seems is that's been fairly ineffective, particularly on the Democratic side.”

Young Republicans, she said, appear to be a bit more motivated this year than young Democrats.

“McAuliffe is really struggling, and he is struggling because he is not coming to young voters with the issues they care most about — issues like climate change, issues like racial justice, issues like gun control, and what he would do on those issues in the state of Virginia,” she said. “And so this really comes back to an engagement gap, and perhaps we aren't seeing that motivation to engage because the campaigns haven't done a very good job of putting young people's priorities at the top of their agendas.”

Bill Bolling, a Republican who served two terms as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and who has taught several political science courses at VCU, said at the panel discussion that Republicans are energized. They also are in a prolonged drought in statewide elections. Democrats have won the last 13 such elections in Virginia by an average margin of 7 points.

“First of all, [Republicans are] tired of losing,” he said. “Second, they're very concerned about the direction the current Democratic majorities have taken the state in. And third, they're fairly unified behind their candidate for the first time in a long time, which is a remarkable accomplishment. The Republican Party has so many different wings and factions, the fact that Glenn Youngkin has been able to hold them relatively together is pretty remarkable in and of itself.”

The big question, he said, will be whether McAuliffe can close that enthusiasm gap.

“What this race comes down to, if you're Terry McAuliffe, is his ability to enthuse and turn out the base vote of the Democratic Party — and that's the Black vote,” Bolling said. “If he can turn out the Black vote in places like Richmond and Henrico and Norfolk and Portsmouth and Newport News and Hampton, he will win this election. If the base vote of the Democratic Party shows up, Terry McAuliffe will win this election. Because there's simply more Democrats than Republicans in Virginia these days.”

“What this race comes down to, if you’re Terry McAuliffe, is his ability to enthuse and turn out the base vote of the Democratic Party — and that’s the Black vote. If he can turn out the Black vote in places like Richmond and Henrico and Norfolk and Portsmouth and Newport News and Hampton, he will win.”

Bill Bolling

Alex Keena, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science, said he’ll be watching the effects of mail-in voting — which was expanded by the Democratic-led General Assembly earlier this year — amid a historically lower-turnout off-year election.

“One of the consequences of our odd-year calendar that we have in Virginia is that only a fraction of the electorate actually bothers to show up and vote. And who are the people who are actually voting in an odd-year turnout? It's the high-knowledge voters, people who tend to be wealthier, older, more white than the rest of the population,” Keena said. “But I want to see if the Democrats' ability to get mail-in voting expanded actually impacts turnout rates in the election. Because it's important to note that … the number of voters is not fixed. Candidates impact how many of their supporters actually show up to the polls. And if you're a Democrat, it's a lot easier to convince people to mail in a ballot months before Election Day than it is to convince them to show up on this one day during a 13-hour window.”

Another factor, Keena said, will be the impact of Republicans’ strategy to cast doubt on the legitimacy of elections and electoral integrity.

“Perhaps the Republicans might actually be hurt by the fact that most of their voters are going to be showing up on Election Day [rather than mailing in a ballot],” Keen said. “That requires a coordination of their collective action. And so I want to see: What do Republicans take from this? Will this Republican strategy of doubling down on turnout on Election Day actually help their efforts?”

David Kerr, an adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science, said McAuliffe was the odds-on favorite to win, but found himself in a tighter-than-expected race and has not adjusted his strategy accordingly.

“McAuliffe, never blessed with robust poll numbers, was obviously the man to beat. And Youngkin, tied to Trump, and unknown, didn’t seem to be the man to beat him,” Kerr said. “But that’s all been turned on its head. Mostly, because of McAuliffe’s inability to pivot.”

McAuliffe has run primarily on his experience of having served as Virginia’s 72nd governor, Kerr said.

“Youngkin doesn’t have all that robust a platform but does have a ‘future look’ to his campaign, something McAuliffe doesn’t,” he said. “Younkin’s ‘starting from day one,’ a phrase he uses in a lot of his speeches, resonates. And now the race is decidedly close. What’s lacking on McAuliffe’s part is the ability to counterattack. The ability to pivot. Come up with a defense, or better yet, a new narrative, get it in front of people, and fast.  What I would do: Explain how all my great experience as governor is just what we need to deal with today's problems.”