The year-to-year results in these three counties paint a clear picture for why Ralph Northam won the 2017 VA governor's race.
Before the race had even been called, media outlets were calling 2017 Virginia governor's race a referendum on President Donald Trump.
It is important to note that Virginia holds its gubernatorial elections in off years specifically to avoid it becoming an election about national politics. That is why Virginia's governors never appear on the same ballot as candidates for president or Congress, and it has been like that since the 1850s. Nevertheless, the campaign was presented to voters as a referendum on the president, who lost Virginia one year prior.
Let's look at three specific counties and examine what contributed to the massive Northam victory.
Ralph Northam's connection to southeast Virginia was put front and center during the campaign, and he did much better in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Hampton Roads area than Hillary Clinton did a year prior. In fact, he actually flipped Virginia Beach. While Donald Trump was able to pull more than 98,000 votes from the city and win it by more than 3.5 percent last year, Northam was able to flip the script and win the city by 4.2 percent. This flip, combined with Ed Gillespie drawing almost 40,000 fewer votes than Trump did, made a big difference in this race.
A lot has been written about Northam's good performance in Northern Virginia. The Gillespie campaign was hoping to be able to cut into NoVa and do better than the Trump campaign did a year prior. Gillespie actually succeeded in making progress and scored a larger percent of the vote in Fairfax County than President Trump did. On top of that, there were 100,000 fewer Democrat votes recorded in 2017 there than the year prior. However, increasing the share of the vote by 2.1 percent wasn't nearly enough for Gillespie.
This county outside of Richmond is a good bellwether for understanding long-term trends in Virginia politics. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Chesterfield County with almost 91,000 votes. In this county, Romney defeated Barack Obama by over 13,000 votes. In 2016, Donald Trump won the county as well, however, he earned almost 6,000 fewer votes than Romney and only won the county by 2.3 percent. Fast-forward to today, and Gillespie was able to squeak by with just a 0.3 percent victory in Chesterfield County after only receiving a little under 60,000 votes.
These three sets of graphs do a pretty good job of explaining the results of the 2017 VA governor's race. Northam was able to increase his share of the vote in and around Virginia Beach and Norfolk, hold onto large margins in Northern Virginia, and take advantage of lower-than-average turnout in red "Trump country."
One of the decisions that political scientists examine will be the Gillespie campaign's decision not to invite President Trump onto the campaign trail. While the Northam campaign had former-President Barack Obama headlining rallies to turn out the vote in Democratic strongholds, Gillespie chose to go it alone. The campaign reasoned that putting Trump on the campaign trail could increase turnout in Democratic strongholds in the northern part of the state. At least from the first looks at the data, it appears that these Democratic voters turned out anyway; however, not using the president may have contributed to lower turnout and voter intensity in traditionally red counties. At this point, it's impossible to gauge whether Gillespie's poor performance in Trump country is the result of Trump-voters abandoning the party or simply evidence of what happens during an off-year election when the heavy-hitter wasn't brought in to gin up the base.
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