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The governor strikes back (usually)

By Andrew Jenner, publisher

Glenn Youngkin’s victory in last week’s gubernatorial election continued a well-established tradition in Virginia politics: the winner almost always belongs to the party that lost the previous year’s presidential election.

During Bill Clinton’s two terms as president, Republicans George Allen and Jim Gilmore were elected governor of Virginia. When George W. Bush was president, Democrats Mark Warner and Tim Kaine won gubernatorial elections. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, won the 2009 governor’s race the year after Barack Obama was elected president. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, the 2017 governor’s race the year after Donald Trump was elected president.

And now, with a Democrat back in the White House, a Republican is headed back to the governor’s mansion in Richmond.

Writing in Slate, Jim Newell explained why:

This pattern is not a coincidence. One year after an election, the base voters of the party that just lost a presidential race are going to be pissed off and wake up each morning dreaming of the next time they can vote against the president’s party…. The president’s party’s base, meanwhile, can’t match that level of enthusiasm. The president, whom everyone was so excited to elect the previous year, takes ownership of national problems and sags, or plummets, from their postelection high.

In fact, the only exception to this rule in Virginia over the past 50 years was in 2013, when Democrat Terry McAuliffe — the losing candidate last week — was elected governor the year after Obama’s re-election. Even so, the general trend held true: Obama carried Virginia in 2012 with 51.1% of the vote. McAuliffe won a three-way race for governor with 47.7% of the vote.

In Harrisonburg, this pattern has held true for at least the past 20 years. Each pair of columns below represents the presidential and gubernatorial races in two consecutive years, with the winning candidate’s party indicated by the color of the bar.

Harrisonburg voters consistently skew more Democratic after a Republican wins the presidential election and likewise more Republican after a Democrat wins the year before.

All data from the Virginia Department of Elections.

In Rockingham County, however, the pattern doesn’t hold quite so true. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, when the rule of gubernatorial backlash would predict a stronger preference for the Ken Cuccinelli, the 2013 Republican candidate, the opposite happened: Cuccinelli got a slightly smaller percentage of the county vote than Mitt Romney in 2012.

And after Trump earned 69.3% of the county vote in 2016, the 2017 Republican gubernatorial nominee, Ed Gillespie got 70.8% of the vote in Rockingham County — also a departure from the year-after trend.


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