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ODU Political Experts Highlight Potentials for Virginia Governor’s Race

A new leader of the Commonwealth is closer to being selected as the state's gubernatorial race accelerates into its final month with two candidates: Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam.

In fact, Virginia will receive a lot of attention as it holds a number of election contests this time around including Attorney General and all 100 members of the House of Delegates and several school boards.

Historically, Virginia has been a staunchly Republican state but that has increasingly shifted over recent years putting it into play for Democrats.

Old Dominion University political science experts Benjamin Melusky and Jesse Richman shared their insights into how Virginia election dynamics will play out in November.

Melusky, an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography, believes the gubernatorial election will play out on a national stage, largely as a reflection of public opinion on the administration of President Donald Trump.

"We are seeing a strong impact with Northam voters, who overwhelming disapprove of Trump and view their vote as a referendum on Trump and congressional Republicans," Melusky said. "Further, national level officials are stumping in our state, with Joe Biden coming to campaign with Northam and Mike Pence with Gillespie."

During the 2016 presidential race, Virginia was the only southern state Hillary Clinton won against Trump, and that could also pose problems for Gillespie.

Richman, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science and Geography, added that Northam reflects the importance placed on this race by Democrats and the relative popularity of former president Barack Obama in the state.

"Gillespie has a Trump problem — Trump isn't all that popular in Virginia — and has so far tried to walk a narrow line in engaging with Trump and his supporters while at the same time attempting to reach out to voters who are less enchanted by Trump," Richman said. "Northam, on the other hand, has shown little reluctance about trying to make the election a referendum on Trump."

Melusky said Northam's current 7-point lead over Gillespie could be an indication of trouble for the Republican party.

"Depending on the size of a Northam win this could signal troubling waters for Trump and congressional Republicans moving forward," he said. "Yet, if Gillespie were to win, it would be a return to unified Republican Party government, which was last seen in 2013, and would be viewed as a significant victory for the administration."

However, Richman noted there's an increasing concern with public election polls and the possibility that systematic biases miss true public sentiment. These patterns are evident in Virginia polling.

"For instance, all of the polls leading up to the June 13 Republican primary had Gillespie way ahead of Corey Stewart in what turned out to be a contest decided by 1.2 percentage points. In 2014, Gillespie outperformed the polls, narrowly losing a Senate race that appeared to be an assured win for Mark Warner."

Richman continued to say, in 2016, the polls were spot-on in Virginia concerning the presidential race.

"Are the polls biased against Northam this time? We won't know until the election," he said.

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