This one was for Donald Trump.
Exit polls revealed an unmistakable anti-Trump backlash Tuesday, as Democrats won resounding victories in governors races in Virginia and New Jersey.
Majorities of voters in both states disapproved of the job Trump is doing as president, with significant numbers of voters in each state saying Trump was a reason for their vote. And far more of those voters said they made their choice to oppose Trump than to support him.
It’s not uncommon for the president’s party to lose the off-year Virginia and New Jersey gubernatorial races in the first year of the new administration. Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush also saw the opposition party sweep both races a year after their first elections.
But what is unusual about Tuesday night is the extent to which the two races were about Trump. And the stark results cast fresh doubt on the health of Republican majorities in the House and Senate, in addition to gubernatorial races in next year’s midterm elections.
Trump’s approval rating in Virginia was just 40 percent, according to the exit poll. Among the 57 percent of voters who disapproved of Trump’s job performance, Democrat Ralph Northam beat Republican Ed Gillespie, 87 percent to 11 percent.
The intensity gap strongly favored Northam, too. Nearly half of Virginia voters, 47 percent, strongly disapproved of Trump — and Northam won 95 percent of that vote. In other words, nearly 45 percent of the votes cast on Tuesday were from strong Trump disapprovers who voted for Northam.
Half of Virginia voters said Trump was a reason for their vote — with twice as many saying they were voting to oppose Trump (34 percent) as to support him (17 percent). Northam won 97 percent of voters for whom opposing Trump was a factor.
In the 2009 race, 41 percent of Virginia voters said they meant their vote to express support or opposition to Obama, according to exit polls conducted then, with opposition (24 percent) ahead of support (17 percent) by a narrower margin. And while Obama was underwater in Virginia when Republican Bob McDonnell won that race, his approval rating was closer to parity: Forty-eight percent approval to 51 percent disapproval, with strong disapprovers only 4 points ahead of strong approvers.
The numbers were even worse for Trump in bluer New Jersey. His approval rating there was only 36 percent, compared with 63 percent who disapproved — with 54 percent of voters strongly disapproving. Only 11 percent of voters said they were voting to express support for Trump. Nearly three times as many voters, 28 percent, said they were voting to oppose Trump — and Gov.-elect Phil Murphy won 96 percent of them.
In 2009, Obama had a 57 percent approval rating among New Jersey voters — and Republican Chris Christie won the governorship anyway. The same percentages of voters said they were voting to express support (19 percent) and opposition to Obama (19 percent), but Christie won narrowly among those for whom Obama was not a factor.
Republicans in both states actually carried those voters who said Trump was not a factor — Gillespie won them by 15 points in Virginia, and Kim Guadagno won them by 6 points in New Jersey.
But it wasn’t nearly enough. The voting patterns looked a lot more like the 2016 presidential race than previous statewide contests in Virginia. Hillary Clinton carried Virginia by 5 percentage points last year by running up rarely seen margins in the suburbs, where better-educated white voters — accustomed to voting Republican — rejected Trump in last year’s primary and general elections.
That was repeated on Tuesday, according to exit polls and election results. Northam narrowly carried white voters with a college degree over Gillespie, 51 percent to 48 percent. The Democrat was especially strong among white women with a college degree, winning them by a 16-point margin, 58 percent to 42 percent. Clinton won them by only 6 points last year.
Trump actually won college-educated white voters by a thin, 4-point margin last year, after decades of GOP dominance. Gillespie had won them by 10 points in his failed 2014 Senate bid against Democrat Mark Warner.
Northam’s strength among these voters could be seen throughout the commonwealth’s suburbs. He improved on Clinton’s margin in Loudoun County, west of Washington, winning by 20 points, compared with her 17-point margin. In Prince William County, south of Washington, Northam won by 23 points, improving on Clinton’s 21-point lead.
It’s a dangerous sign for Republicans in states beyond Virginia — particularly in suburbs around cities like Philadelphia, Atlanta, Tampa, Miami, Houston, Phoenix and Southern California that are crucial to the party’s House and Senate majorities.
But rather than see the results as a rebuke to his presidency, Trump took to his Twitter account within a half-hour of The Associated Press’ projection that Northam had been elected Virginia’s next governor to claim that Gillespie lost because he didn’t support him enough.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!” Trump tweeted. (Republicans had won four of five special congressional elections this year going into tonight, not four out of four.)
Trump had endorsed Gillespie, in tweets sent over the past few weeks and in robocalls directed to select Virginia voters over the final days of the campaign. But he didn’t have a rally or fundraiser with the president.
There is some evidence that the Virginia electorate leaned more Democratic than in years past: Forty-one percent of voters identified as Democrats, compared with 30 percent who said they were Republicans and 28 percent who said they were independents. Comparatively, Democrats had a 7-point edge in 2016.
The exit poll surveys only those who voted — not those voters who didn’t. And it’s possible Democrats were more motivated to vote by Trump, even if he never appeared with Gillespie. When Virginia’s voter files are updated next year, it might be possible to see whether some Trump voters stayed home on Tuesday. It almost certainly would not been enough to help Gillespie, but other Republicans running next year may decide to embrace Trump more fervently to keep the base engaged.
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