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Polling shows the Virginia governor’s race is coming down to the wire

Most polls show Democrat Ralph Northam winning, but one now shows Republican Ed Gillespie ahead.

Washington Post via Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The Virginia governor’s election is in just three weeks — and polling still shows a tight race.

As of Tuesday, Democrat Ralph Northam leads Republican Ed Gillespie by 3.5 points in RealClearPolitics’ average of recent polls.

Nearly every recent poll has shown Northam ahead, though the size of his lead has varied, with some polls showing him up in the low single digits, others in the mid-single digits, and a couple even giving him a double-digit lead.

However, a Monmouth poll released Tuesday gave Democrats some heartburn, because it was the first poll in months to show Gillespie leading. (It showed him up by 1 point.)

It’s always best to stick to looking at the average of polls rather than one new attention-getting outlier. Sometimes an initial outlier is the beginning of a new trend, but we can’t know if that’s the case without more data.

Still, what the average shows in this race is that it’s close, and that though Northam appears favored, a Gillespie win seems like at least a possibility.

Democrats had hoped that Donald Trump’s unpopular presidency could energize their votes and help deliver them downballot gains in governors’ mansions, congressional, and state House races across the country. And it’s entirely possible that could happen.

Still, the race between Northam — Virginia’s current lieutenant governor — and Gillespie, a longtime Republican operative and lobbyist, has appeared to be closer than many expected.

In a state where Democrats have long held both Senate seats, where there is an incumbent Democratic governor, and where Hillary Clinton won by 5 points, anti-Trump fervor does not appear to be powering the Democratic governor candidate to an enormous poll lead.

Furthermore, there have been two recent races in Virginia in which Republican candidates outperformed their poll standing:

  • In the state’s 2013 governor’s race, Democrat Terry McAuliffe had led every poll for months, and led in RealClearPolitics’ polling average by 6 at the end — but he ended up winning only by 2.5 percentage points.
  • Then the state’s 2014 US Senate race nearly delivered an election night shocker. The Democratic incumbent, Mark Warner, led every poll and was up by nearly 10 in RealClearPolitics’ average. But the Republican nominee — Ed Gillespie, now running for governor — dramatically overperformed, and lost by less than a point.

Still, it should also be noted that Virginia polls aren’t always off. In 2016, polling of the presidential matchup was spot-on — Clinton led by about 5 on average and won the state by that amount.