Monday, November 1, 2021

BTRTN Election Prediction: When a Split Verdict in VA and NJ (Bad Enough) is Really a Double Loss

Tom with BTRTN predictions in tomorrow's Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial elections.

This is an “off off year” election, meaning, as in all odd-numbered years, there are no congressional elections (apart, perhaps, from special elections caused by death or resignation) and no presidential election.  But there are gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey that are critical on many levels.

There has been a decade-plus-long trend toward the nationalization of local elections, amply evidenced by the decline of “ticket splitting,” that is, voting for different parties in different races in the same election cycle.  That means that off-cycle elections such as these two can serve as barometers of national trends.  And certainly these two elections will serve as a referendum on Joe Biden’s brief presidency, no matter how hard the Democrats try to lash their Republican challengers to Donald Trump.

As such, political observers will be watching two sets of numbers – not only who wins, but also how the margin compares to Biden’s margin of victory in the two states in last year’s election.  The expected decline will give a rough gauge of how far the country has shifted from blue to red, given Biden’s well-documented troubles.


Biden won Virginia by +10 points last November, as Virginia has long completed its move from a purple state – one that George W. Bush won twice in 2000 and 2004 – to a blue one that has since gone for Obama twice, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.  Democrats have won the state house in four of the last five elections, starting with the two current Senators, Mark Warner in 2002 and Tim Kaine in 2006.  They were followed by Republican Bob MacDonald, then Terry McAuliffe and the current incumbent, Ralph Northam.  Northam won by +9 points in 2017 over veteran GOP operative Ed Gillespie.

This race, featuring the potential return of McAuliffe, pitted against Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin, will be a tight one, to say the least; at this point it is a genuine toss-up. 

McAuliffe is a national figure who was head of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2005, and a famous money raiser and friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.  (Gillespie was his counterpart as head of the Republican National Committee during some of McAuliffe’s years there.)  Youngkin is the former co-CEO of The Carlyle Group, one of the largest private equity firms in the world.  McAuliffe has been touting his former stewardship of Virginia, while distancing himself from Biden, while Youngkin has been focusing on local issues while attempting to neither embrace Trump nor enrage him.  If Youngkin wins, his blueprint will be copied in many congressional races in 2022.

The polls show a dead heat as of this moment, in a race that has steadily narrowed from a 5-point McAuliffe lead in August.

Predicting the outcomes of “toss-up” races is, naturally, fraught with peril, particularly during COVID when the entire electoral process has been transformed, with far more emphasis on early voting, including mail-in voting.  But we have done quite well here at BTRTN.  In the 2020 elections, there were 14 races that were rated “toss-ups”, seven presidential states and seven Senate races.  (There were no governor races that were toss-ups, and we use a different methodology for House elections.)  Among those races, we called 11 of them correctly, which is much better than flipping a coin.

There are other factors one takes into consideration, even in non-toss-up races (though polls, despite their widely publicized faults, are almost universally accurate once you get out of the margin of error).  But when the polls are even, one tries to sift through the other data points, however subjective, to try to divine the outcome.  Here is how the Virginia race stacks up on these other factors.

·        Momentum.  As noted, the polls have been moving toward Youngkin.  This type of inexorable movement is hard to reverse. 

·        Outliers.  Within the “dead heat” polling averages, there is a single poll (FOX, who runs a respectable polling outfit)) from a few days ago that had Youngkin up by +8.  If one removed this single “outlier” poll, Youngkin’s +0.4 advantage in recent polls would flip to McAuliffe by the same +0.4 margin. 

·        Lead Within the Margin of Error:  This is important: just because a lead in the average of recent polls is within the margin of error, that does not make the race a coin flap.  The candidate that leads by a “scientifically insignificant” margin has a slightly better chance of winning.  Youngkin has the slim “lead” if you include the outlier, which is bolstered by the fact that the two most recent polls each have Youngkin up by +2 points. 

·        Early Voting:  More than 1.1 million Virginians have voted early, considerably less than the 2.7 million in the 2020 election – to be expected in an “off off” year – but triple the early voting in the 2017 gubernatorial race.  Despite Youngkin’s encouragement of early voting (a change from Trump, who denigrated early voting, which surely hurt him), Democrats have dominated the voting to date, with estimates in the 55% to 30% range, higher than the +9-point advantage Joe Biden enjoyed in early voting in 2020.  However, Republicans will make up that margin on Election Day; Trump won that day’s vote by 25 points.  It wasn’t enough, by a long shot, but the percentage of people voting in person tomorrow will almost surely be higher than last November. 

·        Enthusiasm:  A Monmouth University poll found that Youngkin had a 23-point advantage over McAuliffe in the percentage of voters saying they were “excited” to vote for their candidate. 

·        The Money:  Here the two candidates are also in a dead heat, as both have raised (or borrowed) and spent roughly $50 million. 

·        Get Out the Vote:  Both candidates claim huge voter turnout machines, and there is no clear way to give one an advantage over the other. 

·        Surprises:  There were two potential game changers, the passage of the two infrastructure bills, which would have helped McAuliffe, and a last minute entry into the campaign by Trump, which likely would have helped McAuliffe as well in a state that he lost handily.  Neither has materialized as yet, though the Trump radio show call-in is still a possibility, and at this point both bills seem destined for passage.

The preponderance of these factors is hardly definitive.  Most seem to favor Youngkin, a few are even, and only the early voting pattern points to McAuliffe.  And so we make our call:

BTRTN predicts that Glenn Youngkin will become the next Governor of Virginia by a 49-48 margin.

It is very difficult to figure out in the course of the evening how the election is going.  In November, because the red downstate vote was counted before the blue northern suburbs, AND the mail-in vote was counted last, Biden was down by 17 points at one point early in the evening.  He came back to win by +10.  But this time around, the mail-in votes will be counted first, so McAuliffe may look good.

It will certainly still come down to the late counting northern suburbs.  For a bellweather, keep an eye on Loudoun County.  This is an affluent northern suburb that has switched from red to blue over the last two decades, but has become the scene of a highly publicized brawl over masks in schools and school curriculums.  If Youngkin is able to stem the tide Loudoun, and, even if he does not win, make it competitive, it is major trouble for McAuliffe.

Polls close at 7 PM Eastern time.


The New Jersey race is more straightforward.  Incumbent Democrat Phil Murphy is a solid favorite to win over former state Assemblyman Jack Cittarelli.  New Jersey is, of course, a deep blue state, and Murphy won the state house in 2017 by a 15-point margin.  Biden won the state by +19 points in 2020.

The polling has clearly been in Murphy’s favor, though it too has narrowed, from a 13-point margin in August/September polling down to an 8-point margin in October, including one poll that has it at only +4.

BTRTN predicts that Phil Murphy will retain his seat and continue as Governor of New Jersey by a 52-45 margin.

New Jersey’s polls close at 8 PM.


So on the whole, it looks like a split decision for the Democrats, retaining New Jersey but losing Virginia.  But regardless of whether McAuliffe pulls it out in a squeaker, the two outcomes will really count, in terms of its meaning, as a double loss for Biden and the Democrats, boding a potential disaster in 2022.  A roughly ten-point shift in these two races from November 2022 to November 2021, if rolled forward to 2022, would mean the loss of both the House and the Senate, and perhaps both by wide margins.  In the Senate, the Democrats are defending four seats that will be in play – Georgia (Warnock), Arizona (Kelly), New Hampshire (Hassan) and Nevada (Cortez Masto).  They also had hopes of picking off five GOP seats that are vulnerable, three in which the incumbents are retiring (Ohio, Pennsylvania and North Carolina) and two others, Florida (Rubio) and Wisconsin (Johnson).  A ten-point swing would dash all those hopes and leave the Democrats with a 46-seat minority.  The Dems could also lose 30-40 seats in the House.

None of this is set in stone.  Biden has a year to get his administration back on track.  This would involve passing his two bills, taming COVID (with no new variants), fixing the supply shortage, holding off inflation, spurring growth, continuing to drive down unemployment, demonstrating steadier hands in foreign affairs, and so on.  Though a daunting list, it is far from impossible.  But, as has been documented time and again, most presidents take a licking in their first mid-terms, and many – including Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – learn well from their errors and put together successful reelection campaigns.

If tomorrow’s final polls cause us to rethink our predictions, we’ll be back!





  1. The other data point worth a mention -- Terry McAuliffe ran against a RWNJ in 2013, with a resulting election win

    Democratic Terry McAuliffe 47.7% 1,069,789
    Republican Ken Cuccinelli 45.2% 1,013,354

    McAuliffe, running in 2021 with his previous term's record against a richer AND less known RWNJ opponent didn't seem likely to have an easy contest. I figure any result within that margin of error is the most likely outcome, and won't have much of a "message" for elections to come. Anything outside of that probably sends a clear message for the 2022 contests.

    1. John, it's not that 2021 is predictive of 2022. It merely indicates where the parties are right now. Lot's can and will change. But being -10 in VA and NJ is clear evidence, along with Biden'a approval rating drop, that the Dems have their work cut out for them in 2022, starting from the point of weakness.


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