By Sara Burnett and Hannah Fingerhut, The Associated Press
Republican Glenn Youngkin did his best to keep former President Donald Trump at arm’s length in his closely watched and competitive race for Virginia governor against Democrat Terry McAuliffe — a strategy that appears to have had the intended effect.
A majority of Virginia voters say they have an unfavorable view of the former president, but Youngkin fares better. About half have a favorable opinion of the former private equity executive, according to AP VoteCast, a survey of voters.
The economy ranked as the top issue facing the commonwealth, with the coronavirus pandemic and education trailing, and voters were split in their opinion of President Joe Biden’s performance.
Tuesday’s election is the most closely watched contest since Biden defeated Trump last year. It is widely seen as a gauge of how voters are feeling ahead of next year’s midterm elections, and for both parties it could provide a blueprint for campaigning in competitive states.
Here’s a snapshot of what matters to voters, based on preliminary results from AP VoteCast, a survey of more than 2,500 voters in Virginia conducted for The Associated Press by NORC at the University of Chicago.
The governor’s race was seen by some as a test of Biden’s standing so far. The president and his wife campaigned for McAuliffe in the state, as did other top Democrats. Biden won Virginia by 10 percentage points last year.
Now, 48% of Virginia’s voters approve of Biden’s job performance, while 52% disapprove — a split similar to U.S. adults nationwide in recent AP-NORC polling. Voters also are roughly split over Biden’s handling of the pandemic and the economy as well, but they lean more supportive of Biden on COVID-19, 52% approve vs. 47% disapprove, and lean more critical of Biden on the economy, 46% approve vs. 53% disapprove.
While McAuliffe leaned on his party for help, Youngkin took a different approach, opting not to campaign with Trump and rarely mentioning the former president in appearances.
About half of Virginia voters say Youngkin supports Trump too much, while close to as many say he supports Trump the right amount. Most Youngkin
voters — about 8 in 10 — say the candidate supports Trump the right amount, but about 1 in 10 say he supports the former president too much. About that many say Youngkin supports Trump too little.
Overall, more Virginia voters have an unfavorable than favorable opinion of Trump, 55% vs. 43%. About half say they have a “very” unfavorable opinion of the former president.
About half of Virginia voters have a favorable opinion of Youngkin, while about 4 in 10 have an unfavorable opinion. Only 3 in 10 have a “very” unfavorable opinion.
Thirty-four percent of Virginia voters said the economy and jobs was the most important issue facing the state, while 17% named COVID-19 and 14% chose education.
Health care, climate change, racism, immigration, abortion and law enforcement were all lower-tier issues.
Voters who ranked the economy and education as the top issues were more likely to back Youngkin over McAuliffe. Voters who identified COVID-19 as the top issue supported McAuliffe over Youngkin. McAuliffe also earned the majority backing of the roughly 2 in 10 who ranked health care, climate change or racism as the top issue.
Is Virginia’s economy soaring or sinking?
Youngkin, a former private equity executive, often asserted during the campaign that Virginia’s economy was “in the ditch,” but a majority of voters disagreed. Fifty-six percent said the state’s economy is in good shape, compared with 44% saying economic conditions are poor.
Youngkin argued that Virginia’s record budget surplus was the result of overtaxation as he campaigned on a promise to enact substantial tax cuts.
McAuliffe countered that the surplus was due to strong economic growth under Democratic leadership and argued that Youngkin’s opposition to abortion rights and conservative position on LGBTQ issues would hamper efforts to recruit new businesses to the commonwealth.
School debate decisive for many
Schools became a major focus of the governor’s race for Youngkin, who localized a debate happening nationwide after McAuliffe said during a debate that parents shouldn’t “be telling schools what they should teach.”
A quarter of Virginia voters say the debate over teaching critical race theory in schools was the single most important factor in their vote for governor, but a similar percentage identified the debate over handling COVID-19 in schools as most important.
Thirty-five percent of Youngkin voters said the debate over critical race theory in schools was most important to their vote, compared with 14% of McAuliffe voters who said the same. Thirty-four percent of McAuliffe voters said the debate over handling COVID-19 in schools was most important to their vote, compared with 19% of Youngkin voters who said the same.
Most Youngkin voters — about three-quarters — said the public school system in Virginia is focusing on racism too much. Among McAuliffe voters, just over half said the focus is too little, while about a third said it’s about right.
Overall, more voters said the public school system in Virginia is focusing too much, not too little, on racism in the U.S., 43% vs. 32%. Another 24% said the focus on racism is about right.
About 6 in 10 Virginia voters support both mask mandates for teachers and students in K-12 schools and vaccine mandates for teachers.
The vast majority of McAuliffe voters back mask mandates for teachers and students and COVID-19 vaccine mandates for teachers in K-12 schools. Among Youngkin voters, about a third support each policy, while about two-thirds are opposed.
A wide majority of voters in Virginia say they are vaccinated against COVID-19, but McAuliffe voters are more likely than Youngkin voters to say so. About 9 in 10 McAuliffe voters and about 7 in 10 Youngkin voters say they are vaccinated. About 3 in 10 Youngkin voters say they have not received a COVID-19 shot.
More indecision than 2020
About 6 in 10 voters say they’ve known all along whom they would be backing the governor’s race. In the presidential race last year, three-quarters of Virginia voters said they knew all along whom they would back, though about as many decided in the last few days.
About 3 in 10 voters now say they decided over the course of the campaign. Roughly 1 in 10 said they were still deciding in the last few days.
McAuliffe gets more blame for attacks
Most voters think the gubernatorial campaign featured unfair attacks from at least one candidate, but voters are somewhat more likely to say only McAuliffe
attacked Youngkin unfairly than the other way around. Close to 2 in 10 voters say both attacked the other unfairly.
Overall, about half of Virginia voters say they have a favorable opinion of McAuliffe, while about half hold an unfavorable view.
Continued skepticism about vote count
Although Virginia experienced no major issues with its vote count in 2020, only about half of voters in Virginia are “very confident” that the votes in the election for governor will be counted accurately. Another 3 in 10 voters are “somewhat confident.”
Still, confidence is stronger among voters now compared with voters in last year’s presidential election: Just 25% then said they were very confident votes would be counted accurately.
Majority back abortion rights
A majority of Virginia’s voters — about 6 in 10 — say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 4 in 10 say it should be illegal in all or most cases.
Even so, a majority of voters fall into the middle, supporting abortion in some instances but not all — a third of voters say abortion should be legal in most cases and about that many say abortion should be illegal in most cases.
AP VoteCast is a survey of the American electorate conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago for Fox News and The Associated Press. The survey of 2,638 voters in Virginia was conducted for seven days, concluding as polls closed. Interviews were conducted in English or Spanish. The survey combines a random sample of registered voters drawn from the state voter file and self-identified registered voters selected from nonprobability online panels. The margin of sampling error for voters is estimated to be plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. Find more details about AP VoteCast’s methodology at https://www.ap.org/votecast.