While all signs point to Glenn Youngkin as the one with momentum in the Virginia governor’s race, the one thing that continues to give me pause in predicting he’ll win is the wildcard of early voting.
Over 1.1 million early votes were cast — that represents nearly 44 percent of the total number of votes cast in the 2017 gubernatorial election. While overall turnout could be higher this year, it’s clear that a significant portion of the electorate has already voted.
Even though polls show the race close — some with Youngkin having the edge — when early voting began on September 17, Terry McAuliffe was up five points in the RealClearPolitics average. Back then, it was a totally different race. The infamous McAuliffe debate line, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” didn’t come until September 28. It wasn’t until last week that Youngkin started to overtake McAuliffe in some polls.
It’s impossible to know whom the early votes went to. The firm TargetSmart estimates that 53 percent of early voters were Democrats, 31 percent were Republicans, and 16 percent were unaffiliated. If the partisan voting preferences followed a recent Washington Post–Schar School poll that showed McAuliffe up one point, that would imply that McAuliffe enters Tuesday with about a 58 percent to 41 percent lead among the universe of early voters.
Even if this very back of the envelope calculation were accurate, however, it may not ultimately matter. Democrats tend to like voting early more than Republicans and it’s possible that McAuliffe’s early voting operation merely turned out his most dedicated voters and thus will cannibalize his Election Day totals.
So, while we don’t have enough information to say for sure, at a minimum, the size of the early vote should give prognosticators pause as it is weighed against the growing signals that the race has moved in Youngkin’s direction.