If Virginia Is the Surrogate for a National Referendum, Not Much Has Changed

Between the narrow margins and the wide structural differences between the 2016 presidential race and the 2017 gubernatorial race, Virginia may not tell us much about whether things have changed in the last year. But that’s not going to stop a lot of folks – including us – from trying.

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A closer look at this week’s Virginia governor’s race confirms that little changed from last year to this in the preferences of rural and urban voters in the Old Dominion.

Since the question on everyone’s mind is whether the “Trump phenomenon” was an aberration or a longer-term change in rural voter preferences, we compared Virginia’s votes in the 2016 presidential race with the 2017 governor’s race. So we can directly compare the major parties’ performance, third-party votes (5.8 percent of the total in 2016 and 1.2 percent in 2017) are not part of these calculations.

It’s far from a perfect comparison. The offices and candidates are different. Just the two-party designations remain consistent. Turnout is lower for the governor’s race. But in an off-year where the only statewide races in the country are gubernatorial contests in Virginia and New Jersey, Virginia gets to stand in as a surrogate (albeit, an imperfect one) for the question of whether rural America thinks the shine has rubbed off Donald Trump in the last 12 months.

The answer is, not so much.

During the campaign, the Democratic candidate was criticized within his own party for failing to pay attention to rural voters. And the Republican candidate, Ed Gillespie, was nearly defeated in the primary by an insurgent candidate who proved to be popular in rural parts of the state. But when the dust settled, the rural vote was pretty much the same in this year’s gubernatorial contest as it was in last year’s presidential race.

Democrat Ralph Northam performed 1 percentage point better among Virginia’s nonmetropolitan voters than Clinton did in 2016. Looking a little more closely, if you break nonmetropolitan counties into those that are close to metropolitan areas and those that are more distant, Northam and Clinton tied in the former category (each got 39 percent of those voters). In remote rural counties (those that are not adjacent to a metropolitan areas), the Democrat did 2 points better this year than in 2016 (28 to 26 percent).

Party preference in major cities (metropolitan areas of 1 million or more residents) stayed pretty much the same from 2016 to 2017. Democrats Northam and Clinton each got 61 percent of the vote in the core counties of major metro areas. In the suburbs of those cities, Northam improved the Democratic performance by 1 point, from 59 in 2016 to 60 in 2017.

Interestingly, the little difference between 2016 and 2017 that exists was a bit more pronounced in the medium- and small-sized cities. The Democratic candidate scored between 2 and 3 points higher in cities and suburbs of metro areas of 250,000 to a million residents. And the Democrats picked up a 3 point advantage in small cities – those in metro areas of 50,000 to less than 250,000.

All told, if the Virginia governor’s race represents a repudiation of Trump, as many say, it’s hard to see that rejection reflected in the geographic distribution of the vote. Virginia, unsurprisingly, remains a state with large political divisions between its densely populated and more rural areas.

Tim Marema is editor of the Daily Yonder, and Bill Bishop is a founding editor of the publication. 

How This Story Defines Rural

The chart at the top of the story breaks out various types of urban and rural counties in an attempt to show how Virginians voted across a spectrum that moves, left to right, from more urban to more rural. Here are the definitions for the county categories: Category 1, major cities, are the core counties of metropolitan areas of 1 million residents or more. Category 2, major suburbs, are the suburban counties of metro areas of 1 million or more. Category 3, medium cities, are the core counties of metro areas of 250,000 to under 1 million residents. Category 4, medium suburbs, are the suburbs of metro areas with 250,000 to under 1 million residents. Category 5, small cities, are counties in metros of 50,000 to under 250,000 residents. Category 6, rural adjacent, are nonmetro counties that are adjacent to a metro area. Category 7, rural non-adjacent, are nonemtro counties that are not adjacent to a metro area.

 

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