By Mark J. Rozell
Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a long-time analyst of Virginia politics. Among his recent books is The South and the Transformation of American Politics (Oxford University Press, 2019).
Joe Biden has a strong lead over President Trump in most national polls, and an even bigger lead in the few Virginia polls so far. Four years ago at this time, Hillary Clinton had a strong lead in the national polls, and an even bigger one in several Virginia polls.
Trump’s Electoral College win in 2016 stumped the experts. He just might do so again. But also, Virginia was more competitive than most had projected. A five-percentage point win in a highly contested swing state is a solid win, and that was Clinton’s victory margin in Virginia in 2016. But Virginia was not a contested state then. Trump fired his state campaign manager and then pulled most of his operations out of the state, effectively conceding it to Clinton who, let’s not forget, had Virginia’s Sen. Tim Kaine as a running mate. With all of that as context, five-percentage points looks like a race that would have been competitive, had the Trump campaign taken Virginia more seriously.
Leaving Virginia and focusing on the widely presumed Democratic-leaning Great Lakes states that Trump eventually won – Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin – was a brilliant tactical move. But this year Trump is in an uphill battle to retake all three of those critical states, and without them, he needs to look elsewhere on the electoral map, and Virginia just might be one such possibility.
It is still a long-shot. But Democrats cannot take Virginia for granted, nor should Republicans easily concede it. Consider some of the background of presidential elections here.
This once most reliably Republican state at the presidential level has undergone a remarkable political transformation. From 1952 to 2004, Virginia went to the GOP in every presidential election cycle except the Lyndon Johnson landslide of 1964. It was the only state of the old confederacy not to support native son Southerner Jimmy Carter in 1976.
Barack Obama’s 2008 win here broke the GOP presidential hold on the Old Dominion. Demographic changes, particularly the rising population of the urban corridor, and substantial growth in minority communities that vote heavily Democratic, contributed to this shift.
After three consecutive presidential wins for the Democrats, and an acceleration of the demographic shifts that turned Virginia Blue, why would anyone now take seriously that Donald Trump can turn Virginia back to Red? On the surface, it doesn’t seem credible.
Unless you consider the following: Trump often outperforms the results of public opinion polls, and sometimes the difference has been substantial. Could there be something like what we might call the “reverse Wilder effect” at play, giving Trump a credible chance of winning Virginia, despite what the polls are reporting?
Democrat Douglas Wilder’s 1989 gubernatorial win made him the nation’s first elected African-American governor. His victory widely was touted as a major historic shift in U.S. politics, especially as it happened in the one-time capital of the confederacy. Wilder won what was at the time the closest statewide race ever, by barely more than 4,000 votes, leading to a recount. Pre-election polls had him way up over his GOP opponent. Even more telling, in the exit polls asking voters how they actually voted, he appeared to have won the race in a landslide. How could the polls, and especially exit polls, have been so incredibly wrong?
Analysts suggested that many voters lied because when asked by a pollster they concealed their own preferences to give what they considered the socially acceptable answer. Thus, to admit to supporting the Republican was to openly profess not being on the side of making history.
The so-called “shy Trump voter” may be in part what makes Trump more competitive in places where he is expected to lose. It’s a controversial view and impossible to prove, but I suspect there remain many voters secretly supporting Trump while telling friends, relatives, pollsters, whoever directly asks, that they will not vote for him. And this behavior is perfectly rational on the part of these Trump supporters who have good reason to believe that many will look down on them for admitting their true voting preference. It is a natural tendency of some people to want to be seen by others as smart, open-minded, tolerant. You won’t get that affirmation from many by proclaiming your support for Trump.