Today, voters in Virginia will head to the polls to elect a Governor in one of the most competitive elections of 2017. Democrat Ralph Northam is facing off against Republican Ed Gillespie, since current Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe is term-limited. Virginia and New Jersey are the only two states with Gubernatorial elections this year, and since New Jersey is expected to be a blowout for the Democrats, all eyes are on the Old Dominion. With a flurry of last-minute polls in the bank, Northam leads by 3.2 points in the RealClearPolitics polling average.
Where to Find Virginia Election Results
Polls in Virginia close at 7pm Eastern Standard Time, but it will probably take longer for a significant chunk of the vote to be counted. You can check results on the New York Times election results page, which usually has aesthetically pleasing maps and graphics. You can also check the Virginia Secretary of State website, which is the source of all official election results and publishes detailed precinct results. You can also follow results with Decision Desk HQ, which sends volunteers to polling locations to collect results even before the Secretary of State publishes official counts.
Republican-Leaning Areas Often Report First
One interesting quirk about Virginia’s elections is that Republican-leaning areas tend to report results faster than Democratic-leaning areas. This gives election watchers a distorted view of how the election is going — Republicans’ early margins are usually greatly inflated compared to the final results.
This pattern has repeated itself in the past four statewide elections (2012 Presidential, 2013 Gubernatorial, 2014 Senate, and 2016 Presidential). In each election, the Republican initially led before the Democrat won once votes from the Northern Virginia suburbs were counted.
This pattern of Virginia vote counting presents a challenging problem for election junkies. How will we know who is on track to win if the early results are unrepresentative of the final results? One way to do this is to set up benchmarks for how well Northam must do in each county to win overall and then compare his actual results to the benchmarks. If five counties are fully reporting and Northam is beating his benchmarks by 4 points on average, we’d expect him to win by about 4 points overall.
Here are benchmarks for all 133 Virginia county and independent cities. These benchmarks are calculated using a weighted combination of four recent Virginia elections (2012 Presidential, 2013 Gubernatorial, 2014 Senate, and 2016 Presidential). The idea here is that each of these recent major statewide elections had its own unique geographic pattern. Since we don’t necessarily know how these geographic patterns will carry over into today’s election, we can average them out to get a rough picture of the landscape.
The basic calculation is that we take each county election result and calculate its ‘partisan lean’ by comparing it to that year’s statewide election result. For example, Clinton won Loudoun County by 16.85 points in 2016, exceeding her 5.32 point statewide margin that year, for a partisan lean of D+11.53 in that county for 2016. We then take a weighted average of a county’s partisan leans in the four elections to calculate its overall partisan lean. The average is weighted at 12.5% for 2012 and 25% for each of 2013, 2014, and 2016.
Each county’s weighted partisan lean represents its benchmark for 2017. If Northam is beating his county benchmarks on average, he’ll be on track to win the Governor’s mansion. Throughout election night, I’ll be updating my county benchmarks spreadsheet to give us a rough estimate of the final vote margin.
Another way to track how well the candidates are doing is to take a look at betting markets. In these markets, bettors buy ‘shares’ of certain political events. These shares are priced on a scale of 0 cents to $1.00 based on supply and demand. A 40-cent share represents a 40% chance that an event will happen. Bettors buy shares at a certain price in the hope that they can either sell them at a higher price or earn $1.00 if their prediction becomes true.
Betting markets have reflected the narrow Northam polling advantage, giving him about a 65% chance of victory on PredictIt. In another betting market, investors expect about a 3-point margin for the ultimate victor.
On election night, you can browse these markets in real time as bettors react to new information. If turnout exceeds expectations in heavily conservative Southwest Virginia, bettors might invest in shares of ‘Republican’ in the 2017 Virginia Gubernatorial market, driving up its price. You can also see if the night’s election results are affecting other betting markets, like the market for 2018 House control.
One thing to keep in mind with betting markets is that they can often be highly volatile and overreact to new information. There are also lots of trolls and ‘pump and dump’ individuals in the comments section, so watch out if you decide to play!
Keys to the Race
I see a few main keys to this race. First, how well does Gillespie do in rural counties where Trump greatly outperformed Romney? Trump beat Romney’s margin by 10+ points in 49 Virginia counties/cities. If Gillespie can hold on to most of Trump’s gains in these counties relative to previous establishment Republicans (including himself), it could be a sign that the working class whites that were drawn to Trump are sticking with the GOP.
Second, can Gillespie remain competitive in the Northern Virginia suburbs? These affluent counties right outside of Washington D.C. have many college-educated whites and minorities and shifted strongly towards Clinton last November. This includes the three biggest counties in the state: Fairfax, Prince William, and Loudoun. Clinton won all three by large margins: 36 points in Fairfax, 21 points in Prince William, and 17 points in Loudoun. However, Democrats haven’t always done so well here. In 2014, when Gillespie ran for Senate, he held Warner to a 17 point win in Fairfax, a 3 point win in Prince William, and actually won Loudoun by less than a point. If Gillespie can hold on to many of these Northern Virginians who voted for him in 2014 and Clinton in 2016, he has a decent shot at victory.
The third and final key to the race is minority turnout. There have been some major concerns on the Democratic side about minority turnout in the post-Obama era, especially during off-year elections. In exit polls from the 2013 Virginia Governor’s race, 28% of voters were minorities, so they represent a significant portion of the electorate. Some large counties / cities with over 50% minorities include Portsmouth, Hampton, Richmond, and Norfolk. As the results come in, pay attention not only to the margins in these areas, but also the raw number of votes.
While Virginia’s Gubernatorial race may not tell us too much about the political climate heading into the 2018 midterm elections, it can still give us clues. What may be even more important is how the media spins the final result. If Northam finds a way to lose, it will reinforce the ongoing narrative that Democrats can’t win elections and need to run on something other than being anti-Trump. If Gillespie loses by a large margin, it may be a sign that even establishment Republicans will have a hard time escaping Trump’s unpopularity in swing areas.
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