What the Maps Tell Us About Ed Gillespie’s #VAGov Chances

With the general election just beginning get underway in the Virginia Gubernatorial race, we’ll look at what some the past contests can tell us about this fall.

First, the Republican nominee is ex-RNC Chair Ed Gillespie (R). Gillespie’s claim to fame was his surprisingly strong showing in the 2014 Senate race. Though his race was considered Leans/Likely Democratic, he almost beat Sen. Mark Warner (D), who was considered untouchable:

Gillespie’s opponent is current Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam (D). Northam was elected in 2013. Though a formidable candidate in his own right, he got lucky that year. Republicans, operating under their since-abandoned convention system, nominated E.W. Jackson (R). Jackson, a black pastor, was a favorite of the party’s activist wing, but had a history of taking controversial stances, especially on social issues. As a result, while the other Democrats running statewide in 2013 won in competitive races, Northam easily beat Jackson by 11%:

Of course, as the Gubernatorial contest this year has received a fair amount of nationalization, President Trump is not popular in the Old Dominion. Secretary Clinton, who chose favorite son Sen. Tim Kaine as her running mate, beat Trump by a little over 5% in Virginia; it was one of a handful of states where she improved over President Obama:

One of the biggest challenges this year for Gillespie will be getting crossover support in northern Virginia. NOVA, and to a lesser extent the Richmond suburbs, have helped to drive the state’s lean leftward.

Going into 2016, I thought that E.W Jackson’s performance in NOVA was the Republican floor. I was wrong. President Trumps’ anti-establishment rhetoric and populist style was an exceptionally poor fit for this area. Even compared to Jackson, he cratered there.

Here’s Trump (orange) vs Jackson (blue):

Trump’s statewide margin was still 5.26% better than Jackson’s though. In this next map, what I call the ‘trend’ map,I looked at Jackson’s performance relative to that difference. In blue precincts, Jackson did at least 5.26% better than Trump – if he did worse than that, the precincts are orange:

Still, Gillespie came considerably closer than either to winning, and was much more competitive in the larger metros.

Compared to Jackson, Gillespie performed better in all regions but the southwest. Gillespie was running against Warner, who did well out in Appalachia in past races and, despite the red trend of the area, seemed to have some residual appeal there.

Minority-heavy precincts near Richmond also stand out. This makes sense, as Jackson, who is black himself, would have some stronger than usual appeal there for a Republican. Still, in his race this year, Gillespie is making efforts to reach out to minority communities. Given that Jackson received some crossover support with this group against Northam, could they be open to Gillespie?

Compared to Trump, he performed much better in NOVA, Richmond, though the Hampton Roads area roughly stayed the same between them:

Many of the precincts that supported Gillespie, but flipped to Clinton two years later, were in Fairfax, Loudoun, and Henrico Counties. Likewise, there was a scattering of Warner -> Trump precincts, mainly throughout southwestern VA:

We’ll wrap up by comparing Gillespie, Jackson, and Trump to each other.

In looking at which performed best, Trump was essentially the rural candidates. Gillespie dominated in NOVA, suburban Richmond, as well as near Charlottesville. Jackson’s strongest areas were minority precincts in Richmond, the Hampton Roads area, and Danville:

Looking at which Republican did the worse in each precinct, things line up pretty much as you’d expect. Jackson, who lost by the largest margin, did worse in the majority of precincts. Gillespie’s weakness in southwestern Virginia shows up again, as does Trump’s in the north:

Going forward, Gillespie will need to focus on two goals. First, he’ll have to come close to his 2014 numbers in NOVA and the Richmond metro area; Trump’s unpopularity there makes that a more challenging proposition this time around. A second, and easier order, is to improve in Appalachia. This area has only gotten more GOP-leaning since 2014. Still, in the primary this year, Gillespie’s opponent from the right, Corey Stewart did very well there. His campaign should be working to ensure base voters don’t stay home.