Virginians who voted in Tuesday's gubernatorial election were less concerned about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic than other issues facing the state, according to exit polling.
Republican Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin pulled off an upset victory in the state, which President Joe Biden carried by 10 points last year.
Just 14 percent of Virginia voters said the pandemic was the most important issue facing the state, according to the National Election Pool's exit poll, behind taxes (15 percent), education (24 percent), and the economy/jobs (34 percent). Of the five choices provided, the only issue which mattered less to voters than COVID was abortion, with just 8 percent of Virginians saying that was most important.
But among the voters who did say the pandemic was their top issue, 83 percent of them backed Democratic nominee and former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, according to the poll. Asked who voters trusted more to handle the pandemic, 43 percent said McAuliffe, while 37 percent said Youngkin.
McAuliffe backed strong public health protections, supporting vaccine and mask mandates in most situations and releasing a promotional campaign entitled "Virginia is for Vaccine Lovers." Youngkin, meanwhile, has stated his opposition to vaccine and mask mandates, though his spokesman later told the Washington Post that he would leave the decision of whether schools can mandate masks up to the individual districts. In exit polls, 55 percent of Virginians supported vaccine requirements for employees, with 42 percent opposing them.
These early findings confirm prior expectations about the politics of the pandemic while also suggesting that the conventional wisdom may be changing for elections going forward.
McAuliffe's strong support among those concerned about the pandemic conforms with past findings that Americans tend to view Democrats as better suited to handle the public health crisis. In the recent California gubernatorial recall election, 31 percent of voters said the coronavirus pandemic was the most important problem facing the state. Of those voters, 82 percent said they voted against the recall of Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Yet while the pandemic loomed large in other races, Virginia voters seemed less concerned. Youngkin won a majority of voters who listed issues other than COVID as the most important and did particularly well among voters who said taxes were their most important issue. The Republican nominee also won a majority of voters who listed education as the most pressing issue, after making conservative fears about "critical race theory" central to his campaign pitch.
At the national level, Americans' attitudes towards Biden's handling of the pandemic have been falling, though a majority still approve of his handling of the crisis. A Gallup poll released Tuesday showed a newfound sense of optimism about the pandemic's trajectory, with 51 percent of Americans saying the coronavirus situation is getting better — up 31 points since September.
One possible reason for the growing optimism is the rise in U.S. vaccinations and falling case numbers. In recent weeks, federal officials approved COVID-19 booster shots for most Americans. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention night gave final approval to Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for children aged 5-11.
The number of new daily COVID-19 cases has fallen 57 percent since Sept. 1.
Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.