Virginia, New Jersey exit poll analysis explores Trump’s impact

Exit poll results in Virginia and New Jersey this evening will explore the prime motivators of voters’ preferences in the two biggest-profile contests since the 2016 presidential election – giving analysts a look at any impact of Donald Trump’s presidency, among other factors.

Preliminary exit poll results mark Trump’s substantial unpopularity in Virginia and New Jersey alike, where analysts will seek to divine whether his troubled presidency impacts the outcome of today’s gubernatorial elections.

A substantial anti-Trump vote and a broad advantage on health care boosted Democrat Ralph Northam in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, while Republican Ed Gillespie pushed back with vast support from evangelical and working-class whites in preliminary exit poll results.

With the outcome uncertain as polls closed, 33 percent of Virginia voters said they were casting their ballots to show opposition to Donald Trump, twice as many as said they were voting to show him support (17 percent). While that benefited Northam, Gillespie prevailed among those who said the president wasn’t a factor.

Trump had a 42 percent job approval rating, 11 points weaker than that of the incumbent Democratic governor, Terry McAuliffe. Northam is his lieutenant governor. Further, half of voters expressed a favorable attitude of the Democratic Party overall, vs. 38 percent for the Republican Party.

Gillespie prevailed on at least one issue in the bitter race: Virginia voters by 59-37 percent said Confederate statues in the state should be left in place, and he won by a wide margin among those who said so.

He also won eight in 10 white evangelicals, who accounted for one in four voters, and nearly three-quarters of whites who don’t have a college degree, a GOP mainstay. Whites overall accounted for 68 percent of voters, about the same as in the 2016 presidential race, and down from their 2013 and 2009 shares. They backed Gillespie by a 19-point margin, while Northam won nonwhites overwhelmingly.

On Northam’s side, turnout by liberals was up sharply from previous gubernatorial contests, to 28 percent of all Virginia voters, up from 18 percent in the 2009 race and 20 percent in 2013. (It was 26 percent in 2016, when Hillary Clinton notched her only southern-state win in Virginia.) Conservatives, meanwhile, at 32 percent of voters, were slightly off their 2013 level, 36 percent, and down from their 2009 share, 40 percent of voters in the state.

Also helpful to Northam: Given a list of five issues, Virginia voters by a wide margin picked health care as the top concern in their vote for governor, and they favored him by 78-21 percent over Gillespie. Other issues offered were gun policy (the two split voters who called it their top issue), and immigration, taxes and abortion, (which, combined for an adequate sample, were big for Gillespie)..

There were, as expected, sharp regional differences in the state, with Northam very strong in the Washington D.C. suburbs and Hampton Roads region, Gillespie in the mountain region. The two were about even in preliminary results in central Virginia and Richmond/Southside.

In New Jersey, similarly, 29 percent say they voted to express opposition to Trump, vs. 11 percent to support him. Fifty-seven 57 percent said he didn’t figure in their decision.

Regardless, there’s more at stake in these races than Trump’s potential impact.

Virginia’s bitterly fought contest pits Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, who as a state senator represented the Eastern Shore but needs broad support in the state’s more Democratic north, against Republican Ed Gillespie, who focused his campaign on conservative causes ranging from immigration to Confederate monuments to gun issues.

VIRGINIA – In early exit poll results, 60 percent of Virginia voters say Confederate monuments should be left in place, vs. 36 percent who say they should be removed Northam’s position). At the same time, they fracture on trust to handle race relations, with 39 percent picking only Northam, 24 percent only Gillespie, 16 percent both and 15 percent neither.

Alongside Trump, the Republican Party in Virginia is broadly unpopular, with a favorability rating of just 38 percent.

By contrast, the Democratic Party is seen favorably by 50 percent, and outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe has a 53 percent job approval rating, far better than Trump’s.

And as another potential boost to the incumbent party, 30 percent said the state’s economy is improving. (Half said it’s staying the same, with 20 percent saying it’s getting worse.)

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Asked the top issue in Virginia, 37 percent of voters in these preliminary results said it was health care, dwarfing the others presented: 17 percent gun policy, 14 percent taxes, 14 percent immigration and 9 percent abortion. Gun policy was one of the issues that sharply divided the candidates, and 52 percent of voters say someone in their household owns a gun.

Among groups, whites account for 68 percent of voters in these preliminary results, compared with 72 percent in the 2013 governor’s race and 67 percent in 2016, when a higher minority turnout helped Hillary Clinton win her only Southern state. Nearly two-thirds of white voters have college degrees, potential help for Northam; non-college whites are a solidly Republican group in general.

Liberals made up a larger share of the vote in these early results than in the past, 28 percent, compared with 20 percent in 2013 and 18 percent in 2009. For their part, the conservative share of the vote was 33 percent, somewhat lowered from 2013 (36 percent) and 2009 (40 percent).

By party, Democrats look to have a slight advantage, accounting for 39 percent of voters, vs. 31 percent Republicans and 29 percent independents. That’s good news for them, if it holds in later data: Democrats also had an edge in turnout in 2013, when McAuliffe became governor, whereas Republicans did in 2009, when they won.

Tens of millions were spent on the Virginia contest, much of it in the closing weeks. But only 7 percent of voters said they finally decided just in the last few days, 9 percent in the last week. By contrast, fully 66 percent said they decided in September or earlier.

Note, these are preliminary exit poll results, and can change as additional data becomes available.

NEW JERSEY – In New Jersey, where outgoing Gov. Chris Christie was re-elected by a vast 22-point margin four years ago, the exit poll indicated how political tables can turn. Today just 19 percent of New Jersey voters in preliminary exit poll results say they approve of Christie’s job performance. And half say that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno’s ties to Christie make them think worse of her, rather than better. (Four in 10 say they make no difference.)

That’s a much harder hit for Guadagno than that taken by Democratic nominee Phil Murphy; 29 percent think worse of him because of his past work at Goldman Sachs; 58 percent no difference.

Beyond Christie himself, New Jersey voters aren’t happy about current economic conditions under his tenure. Nearly four in 10 said the economy is getting worse, compared to fewer than two in 10 who say it’s getting better. (The remainder said it’s staying the same.)

The Democratic Party is seen favorably by six in 10 New Jersey voters, twice as many as say the same of the Republican Party. In 2013, 51 percent of voters saw the Democrats favorably, vs. 38 percent for the Republicans – even as Christine won.

Within the party, ratings for the state’s two U.S. senators range vary widely, from six in 10 for Cory Booker to 35 percent for Bob Menendez, who’s currently on trial on bribery charges, with closing arguments just yesterday.

Among groups, Democratic and liberal turnout are at their highest in gubernatorial races since 1993 in these preliminary data, making up 45 percent and 36 percent of New Jersey voters, respectively. By contrast, just over a quarter of voters identify as Republicans; about a fifth as conservatives. Independents and moderates come in at 28 percent and 43 percent, respectively.

As in Virginia, white college graduates, 43 percent, are outnumbering white non-graduates, 30 percent, in this early data. Nonwhites make up 26 percent of the vote.

Of four issues presented, 35 percent selected corruption in government as their top concern in this race, followed by 30 percent for property taxes – a frequent Guadagno talking point. Fewer said health care, 19 percent, or immigration, 8 percent, mattered the most in their choice.

Results can change as the night progresses, so check back regularly.

The exit polls are being conducted by the National Election Pool, a media consortium. Through 2016, early state exit poll results like these were adjusted to reflect pre-election polls in that state. Given the errors in some state polls, that approach has been changed starting this year. The NEP now produces an estimate of the typical error in exit polls in a given state in past years, and adjusts the new results on that basis. The adjustment will be removed as actual vote data come in.