Last year around this time, we held a little contest surrounding the 2020 presidential election. I asked readers to predict the number of votes Democrat Joe Biden would garner in decidedly red Roanoke County. The county has voted Republican in every presidential election since 1948.
By this time last year, engaged readers already had submitted 50 entries. Ultimately, we received more than 170. Most were from Western Virginia, but a smattering hailed from California, Kansas, Wisconsin, Florida and Oklahoma.
Our 2021 contest focuses on the current Virginia governor’s race — in the Star City.
How many votes will Republican Glenn Youngkin win in Democratic-leaning Roanoke? Email your entries to firstname.lastname@example.org, and whoever’s closest will win lunch with yours truly. (A complete set of contest rules is on A5.)
Unfortunately, I’ve had only five entries since we birthed this baby on Sept. 25. So we need your guesses now, readers! To inform you, I’ve combed through 60 years of Virginia gubernatorial election data. That may or may not help.
There have been 15 contests for Virginia governor since 1960. Those always trail a presidential election by one year. But presidential election results aren’t necessarily predictive of Virginia gubernatorial outcomes.
For example, consider the winners of those 15 gubernatorial elections. In eight, the Virginia governor’s race went to the same party as the candidate who won Virginia in the presidential election the year prior.
But on seven occasions Old Dominion voters chose a governor from the party that had lost Virginia in the previous presidential election. So the prior year’s presidential results are at best a coin flip in determining the following year’s gubernatorial contest.
The city of Roanoke votes seems only slightly more predictive of the overall outcome. In nine of the past 15 races, Roanoke voters collectively chose the eventual winner. But on six occasions, the city’s preferred candidate lost the gubernatorial election.
The Roanoke vote totals chalked up in those races may be the most help in divining how many votes Youngkin will get out of Roanoke this year. In that category, Democrats have a definite edge.
Since 1961, Democrat candidates have averaged 12,323 votes in gubernatorial elections, while Republican gubernatorial candidates have averaged 10,061.
For city Democrats, the gubernatorial high-water mark in the past six decades occurred in 1989, when Democrat Doug Wilder scored 16,590 votes from Roanoke in his history-making race for governor. Wilder won statewide, of course. And that year in Roanoke, he handily beat Republican Marshall Coleman, who took 11,483 votes.
For city Republicans, the high-water mark occurred in 1977. That year, GOP nominee John Dalton defeated Democrat Henry Howell statewide — and Roanoke gave 13,906 votes to the Republican, compared to 12,344 for the Democrat.
The low-water mark for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Roanoke happened all the way back in 1965. That year, (then) Democrat Mills Godwin took 5,888 votes in Roanoke while Republican Linwood Holton scored 9,947. (Godwin won statewide; he also won the governor’s office as a Republican in 1973.)
Among city voters, the low-water mark for Republicans running for governor occurred in 1985. In that election, GOP nominee Wyatt Durrette Jr. took 7,272 votes. (Does anyone remember him?)
From this we can safely guess that no matter who wins the election, McAuliffe most likely will land somewhere between 5,888 and 16,590 votes, because that’s the Democrats’ historical range. And Youngkin likely will garner between 7,272 and 13,906, the Republicans’ historical range.
Normally, another useful indicator is past political performance. That’s hard to reckon for Youngkin, because he’s never run for public office before. McAuliffe has, once. And though he won the 2013 governor’s race, his performance was less than spectacular.
Statewide, McAuliffe took 47.7% of the vote that year against Republican Ken Cuccinelli. who took 45.2%. In all, McAuliffe’s margin was 56,435 votes out of 2.24 million cast. Libertarian nominee Robert Sarvis took more than 146,000 votes that year.
McAuliffe’s margin in Roanoke was more comfortable. In 2013, city voters gave him 11,714 votes, which was nearly 4,000 more votes than Cuccinelli pulled. But judging by other Democrats, McAuliffe’s performance wasn’t great.
In 2017, current Gov. Ralph Northam took 15,099 votes from Roanoke. In the 2005 gubernatorial election, Tim Kaine pulled 14,207 votes. Mark Warner in 2001 garnered 15,348. In 1985, Gerald Baliles received 13,380 votes in Roanoke.
Even Mary Sue Terry — who lost the 1993 governor’s race to George Allen — took more votes from Roanoke in losing the election than McAuliffe pulled 20 years later when he won the governorship.
Hopefully, all the above will help inform your guesses as to how many votes Glenn Youngkin will take from Roanoke on Nov. 2. Read the rules, then email your guesses to me, pronto. I’ll announce the winner post-election.
Bragging rights — and a lunch — are on the line.