Virginia Governor’s Race a Battle for Pollsters, Too

The race for governor will be the first major test for pollsters since their much-scrutinized miss in last year’s presidential election.,

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Polls in Virginia show G.O.P. strength. Will the forecast be more accurate this time around?

Nov. 2, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

Nov. 2, 2021, 3:00 p.m. ET

Virginia residents voting on Election Day in Alexandria. The final polls in the state’s race for governor showed a dead heat between Terry McAuliffe, the Democrat, and Glenn Youngkin, the Republican.Credit…Kenny Holston for The New York Times

The outcome of the race for governor in Virginia will be one of the best tests yet of the strength of the two parties heading into next year’s midterm elections. It will be a key test for pollsters, as well.

The Virginia race will bring a new round of scrutiny toward the polls after last year’s high-profile miss in the presidential election, when pre-election surveys systematically underestimated Donald J. Trump’s support.

Surprisingly, relatively few pollsters have retooled their methodology over the last year. But this time, the polls show more strength for Republicans.

The final polls show Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee, gaining to pull into a dead heat with Terry McAuliffe, his Democratic opponent, as a growing focus on education and President Biden’s sagging approval ratings have helped Republicans compete in a state the president won by 10 percentage points last year.

Over all, Mr. Youngkin led Mr. McAuliffe by one percentage point in the final FiveThirtyEight polling average. Nearly as striking: Each poll conducted over the last three weeks shows Mr. Youngkin faring better than in the pollster’s prior survey.

Mr. Youngkin’s gains have been buoyed by the emergence of education as one of the top issues in the contest. In a recent Washington Post poll, 24 percent of voters said education was the most important issue in the race, an increase from 15 percent in September, when it trailed the economy and the coronavirus.

At the same time, Mr. Youngkin and Republicans across the country have been bolstered by an increasingly favorable national political environment. Mr. Biden’s approval ratings have declined steadily from about 50 percent at the time Kabul fell in August to an average of just 43 percent today. His rating is well beneath 50 percent in most Virginia polls, as well.

Virginia is not a state where the polls have a track record of continually overestimating one party or the other. The results of pre-election polls in 2016 and 2020 were more accurate in Virginia than in most battleground states, perhaps because it has relatively few of the white, working-class voters who seem to elude pollsters.

Heading into last year’s election, Mr. Biden led Mr. Trump by 11.8 points in Virginia surveys, according to FiveThirtyEight, not far from Mr. Biden’s eventual 10.1-point margin of victory.

But the state’s race for governor nonetheless poses serious challenges for pollsters.

Turnout is always difficult for pollsters, who struggle to predict exactly who will vote even when they reach a perfectly representative sample of the population. The challenge is greatest in off-year, nonfederal elections, which often have highly variable turnout.

Not surprisingly, recent polls have left different impressions of how much Mr. Youngkin might benefit from low turnout.

A Fox News survey released last week showed Mr. Youngkin leading by eight percentage points among likely voters, but just one point among registered voters — reflecting a significant Republican turnout advantage. Just days later, a Washington Post/Schar School poll, in contrast, showed Mr. McAuliffe faring only three points worse among likely voters than registered voters.

Pre-election polls of Virginia’s recent races for governor have not always posted sterling results.

In 2017, pre-election polls considerably underestimated the Democratic candidate, Ralph Northam, who won by nine percentage points after leading the pre-election polls by just three points. This time, a similar error might mean that Mr. McAuliffe wins a clear victory.

Yet when Mr. McAuliffe was last on the ballot, in 2013, he scratched out a 2.5-point victory despite leading by six points in the pre-election polls. A similar polling error tonight would yield a very different outcome.

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