On paper, Democrat Ralph Northam holds a small but fairly consistent lead in the polling of Virginia’s gubernatorial race. The most recent survey, from Emerson College, puts Northam ahead of Republican Ed Gillespie, 49 percent to 44 percent (with a margin of error of 5.5 points).
But Democrats don’t feel confident at all. Last week Paul Krugman wrote about the race in a tone of panic:
For whatever reason, however, Virginia isn’t getting nearly as much play in national media or, as far as I can tell, among progressive activists, as it deserves. Folks, right now this is where the action is: Virginia is now the most important place on the U.S. political landscape — and what happens there could decide the fate of the nation.
The Washington Post studied its own surveys and concluded, “far fewer Virginia voters are closely following the campaign than at similar stages in the past three gubernatorial elections.”
Last week, Sam Stein reported:
Democratic operatives working on the race and those closely following it are more openly panicked that complacency has set in. . . . three Democratic sources have told The Daily Beast that Northam’s internal campaign polling has the race within the margin of error, and not at the outer edges of that range.
Democratic anxiety is probably driven by three distinct causes. The first is a hangover from 2016. Last year many Democrats were absolutely certain that Hillary Clinton would win, and many believed she would beat Trump in a landslide. Like a quarterback who endures a brutal blindside hit, the Democrats “hear the footsteps” — they’re on alert for another rude surprise on Election Day. (The disappointing finish for Jon Ossoff in the runoff in the Georgia special House election might even compound this.) It’s worth noting that not only did Hillary Clinton win Virginia in 2016, this is one of the few states where she performed better than Barack Obama did in 2012.
The second cause is concern that Northam might resemble Hillary Clinton in the wrong ways. Like Hillary, Northam was considered the moderate in the party primary, and is a party loyalist asking voters to continue an era of Democratic governance. Neither one is a whirling dervish of raw political charisma. Like Hillary in 2016, Northam is offering voters the status quo with a bit more spending.
But the third cause seems like the best reason to worry. In both the 2013 gubernatorial race featuring Ken Cuccinelli and the 2014 Senate race featuring Gillespie, the Republican candidate dramatically overperformed compared to the final polls. The final RealClearPolitics average in 2013 had Cuccinelli trailing by 6.7 points; he lost by 2.5 points. The 2014 result was even more dramatic; the final RCP average put Democrat Mark Warner ahead by 9.7 points; he won by eight-tenths of a percentage point. Is this a “shy Tory” effect? Are Virginia Republicans particularly reticent to tell a pollster they’re voting for the GOP candidate? Is the Virginia Republican get-out-the-vote effort worth a few extra percentage points? No one in Virginia politics knows for certain. But it suggests that a small Democratic lead heading into Election Day might not be so reliable.