How Democrats lost voters in Virginia and New Jersey, and what it means for 2022
WASHINGTON — Republicans in Virginia and New Jersey this week saw a surge in support from white women voters, made major inroads in Democratic-leaning suburbs and turned rural counties even redder, leading to a disastrous election night for Democrats
The voting trends signal trouble for President Joe Biden and Democrats before next year's 2022 midterm elections, when they already faced an uphill fight historically to keep control of the House and Senate.
Democrats will face challenges because of geography and redistricting, said Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "But they can actually take a big lesson out of Tuesday and pass (the infrastructure and reconciliation) bills," she told USA TODAY, pointing to Biden's two pieces of legislation still being debated in Congress.
“They need to demonstrate that unified control in Washington, in fact, does deliver to voters across the country,” she added. “They weren't able to do that this time.”
Here's a breakdown of the voting patterns that produced a big night for Republicans and a major setback for Democrats.
Big GOP gains among white women and in suburbs
Helping drive Republican Glenn Youngkin’s victory in Virginia was a demographic that helped Joe Biden defeat Donald Trump last year: white women.
Youngkin saw a 15-point swing among white women voters over Trump’s performance in the state in the 2020 presidential election, according to NBC exit polls, propelling Youngkin to an unofficial 2-point win in a state Biden carried by 10 percentage points.
His win came as public education – most notably debates over how race and racism are taught in the classroom, as well as clashes over mask and vaccine mandates – played prominently in the governor’s race.
Biden won white women voters in Virginia over Trump by a 50%-49% margin, exit polls show. But those numbers shifted dramatically Tuesday. Youngkin carried the state’s white women voters over Democrat Terry McAuliffe by a sizable 57%-43% spread, according to NBC exit polls.
White women made up 38% of Virginia’s electorate.
Their shift toward Republicans helped Youngkin expand margins in rural conservative counties and make major inroads in Virginia’s suburban Democratic strongholds outside Washington D.C., according to unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections.
Youngkin lost suburban Loudoun County by 11 percentage points, narrowing the margin considerably form Biden’s 25-percentage-point victory there in 2020. While Biden won Fairfax County by 32 percentage points, McAuliffe won by 30 points. Youngkin trimmed the margin in Prince William County to 14 percentage points after Trump lost by 27 points.
Over the past decade, independents in Virginia's northern suburbs voted more Democratic, helping turn the state blue. That trend was upended Tuesday, with Youngkin carrying independents 54%-45, exit polls found.
Lawless noted that independent voters have shown they are willing to swing back and forth, which hurt Democrats during Tuesday's election.
"We saw them swing pretty substantially toward Biden in 2020," Lawless said. "But they swung away in 2021 because the Democrats didn't deliver on their promise."
Education polarization widens
Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties are home to the largest share of Virginia’s college-educated voters, who turned on Trump in overwhelming numbers to back Biden in 2020. Yet Youngkin did not improve over Trump among voters with college degrees, including women. Instead, he performed better than Trump among women who did not attend college.
McAuliffe won 62% of Virginia’s college-educated white women voters, topping Biden’s 58% for this demographic, according to NBC exit polls. But McAuliffe carried only 25% of Virginia’s white women without college degrees after Biden won support of 44% of Virginia’s non-college-educated women.
Among all non-college-educated voters in Virginia – regardless of race or gender –Youngkin won 60%-40% over McAuliffe, exit polls show, while Biden won this voting block 53%-46% in Virginia. Meanwhile, McAuliffe narrowly improved among all college-educated voters, regardless of race or gender, winning 58%, compared to Biden’s 57%.
Increasingly, U.S. electoral politics has been defined by widening education polarization between the two major parties. It showed signs of widening further Tuesday. That's a troublesome trend for Democrats, particularly as college enrollment is on the decline. The National Student Clearinghouse Research Center found that spring college enrollment this year dropped 3.5%, the most in a decade.
Republicans overperformed Trump in Trump country
For years, Republicans have built massive electoral advantages in rural, predominantly white counties. These GOP strongholds Tuesday shifted even further to the right in Virginia, reflecting an enthused Republican base.
Youngkin improved in several southwest Virginia counties where Trump won more than 80% of the vote in the 2020 presidential election. These are counties with large shares of non-college-educated voters – at least 75% of the county – that shifted even further away from Democrats.
A few examples in southwest Virginia, according to the state's unofficial results: Youngkin won 87% of the vote in Virginia’s Scott County, besting Trump’s 83%. Youngkin carried Lee County with 88%, topping Trump’s 84%. And in Wise County, Youngkin improved 4 percentage points as well: 84% to Trump’s 80%.
In central Virginia, Youngkin carried Appomattox County with 80% of the vote, while Trump won the county with 72%. The trend was statewide: Youngkin expanded margins in Republican-heavy counties where the Trump base is the strongest – and this was without Trump campaigning in the state for Youngkin.
And it wasn’t just in Virginia.
In New Jersey, Republican stronghold Ocean County voted for Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli, 68% to 31% over Democratic incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy, a USA TODAY analysis of Associated Press and New Jersey Secretary of State data shows. Trump won Ocean County with a smaller 63% in 2020. Ciattarelli won 60% of the vote in New Jersey’s Monmouth County, which Trump carried with 51%. Ciattarelli won Cape May County, on the southern tip of Jersey shore, with 63%, topping Trump’s 57%. These counties include a mix of suburbs and towns.
For anyone who thought Trump country couldn't get any redder, Tuesday proved them wrong.
Democratic candidates for governor underperformed in general
Turnout in Virginia and New Jersey revealed an enthusiasm gap between the two parties, with Democrats struggling to ignite their bases like Republicans in races for governor.
McAuliffe was an especially unpopular candidate at the top of the ticket for the Democrats. Preliminary, unofficial returns from the Virginia Secretary of State show that McAuliffe received fewer votes (a total of 1,583,501) than the Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor (a total of 1,591,231) and attorney general (a total of 1,605,104).
That means there were thousands of voters who chose the unsuccessful Democratic candidates for lieutenant governor or attorney general but either chose a third-party candidate for governor, voted for Republican Youngkin, or did not cast a vote for governor.
In New Jersey, Murphy received roughly as many votes in the five-way 2021 race for governor as he did in the seven-way 2017 race, according to a USA TODAY analysis of Associated Press and Secretary of State data. He especially underperformed in counties with the highest Black populations. In Essex County, home to Newark, he received 17,999 fewer votes in 2021 than 2017. In Hudson County, home to Jersey City, he received 7,158 fewer votes in 2021 than in 2017.
Slight decrease of Black voters in Virginia
Ahead of Tuesday’s general election, Democrats and pundits expressed concern over whether there was enough enthusiasm among Black voters in Virginia for McAuliffe to win.
While Black voters, who were instrumental in getting Biden elected in 2020, voted overwhelmingly for McAuliffe, the key bloc’s turnout dipped slightly from previous years.
Voter turnout among Black voters decreased to 16% in 2021 from 20% in 2017, the last time Virginia voted for governor, according to exit polls. According to the 2021 Virginia exit polls from NBC, 86% of Black voters supported McAuliffe, while 13% backed Youngkin. Those numbers are on par with exit polls from 2017.
However, Biden saw slightly higher margins of support during the 2020 election. Eighty-nine percent of Black voters backed Biden in 2020, compared to 10% who supported former President Donald Trump.
However, it’s unclear whether the small decrease contributed to McAuliffe’s loss.
Lawless, of UVA, said that while a marginal change in turnout could have hurt Democrats, Tuesday's election was really about the increase of white voters who turned out for the Republican.
"Even a couple of points of movement in opposite directions can be enough to affect an outcome," she said, adding that McAuliffe still got the majority of support from Black and Latino voters, according to some exit polls. "The Youngkin victory is really a white person victory."
Unclear who Latinos backed
Latino voters were a key voting bloc during the 2020 election, with Trump making inroads with support among Latino men.
However, it's unclear what Latinos’ voting patterns in the Old Dominion were in this election.
Two separate exit polls each showed a different story on how Latinos voted.
According to exit polls from NBC, 66% of Latinos supported McAuliffe compared to the 32% who backed Youngkin. That number is similar to 2017, where 67% supported Northam and 32% supported Gillespie.
But the Associated Press'VoteCast showed Youngkin received 55% of the Latino vote, compared to McAuliffe at 43%.
Overall, Latinos made up 5% of the vote Tuesday, down 1 percentage point from 2017, according to NBC exit polls. Latinos make up nearly 10% of the state’s overall population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Comparing the NBC exit polls to the 2020 election, McAuliffe saw more support from Latino voters than Biden. According to 2020 Virginia exit polls, 61% of Latinos supported Biden while 36% voted for Trump.