Virginia Election: Does "Trump Clone" Have a Shot in Republican Primary for Governor?

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Ed Gillespie, who was a senior political adviser to Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, speaks during the Romney election night rally in Boston, November 6, 2012. Gillespie is the heavy favorite to win Tuesday's Republican primary for Virginia governor. Mike Segar/REUTERS

Is Virginia in for a momentous political upset Tuesday night in its primary election for governor? A new polling firm is suggesting it's possible. But the Change Research findings, which show longshot gubernatorial candidate Corey Stewart surging past heavy favorite Ed Gillespie in the Republican primary, are so far from what established polls have found that it’s left many experts scratching their heads.

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“I’m very, very skeptical that Stewart is surging that way,” George Mason University professor Jeremy Mayer says of the Change Research poll, which has Stewart, a Donald Trump acolyte, leading Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, by a percentage point. Frank Wagner, a state senator, comes in a distant third, at 16 percent. The independent poll was not sponsored by any of the gubernatorial campaigns.

Change Research’s survey is a marked contrast to a Washington Post-George Mason University Schar School poll released in mid-May, in which Gillespie enjoyed a 20 percentage point lead over Stewart and 23-point lead over Wagner. That Change Research is a brand new polling outfit—it’s only conducted three polls, and this is its first in a primary—and is completely unfamiliar to those inside the Beltway has only heightened Mayer and others’ skepticism.

“It seems odd to me,” says professor Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and a veteran elections analyst. Sabato says he talked to some of the Virginia gubernatorial campaigns Monday about this mysterious new poll and none of them were familiar with Change Research, either. That hasn’t stopped Stewart’s campaign and its conservative allies from touting the results, however. Breitbart News, a leading online force for President Trump, hailed the findings after their release Sunday with the headline: “SHOCK POLL: PRO TRUMP COREY STEWART TAKES LEAD IN VA GOVERNOR PRIMARY.” Stewart posted the story prominently on his campaign website. The conservative Daily Caller also ran a story. But otherwise, there’s been little press coverage of the survey. And, not surprisingly, the Gillespie campaign has been doing its best to knock down the poll, says Sabato.

One of Change Research’s founders, Pat Reilly, tells Newsweek it’s hard to know why the company’s poll results portray such a different race than past surveys, given that they don't know other firms' methodologies. But she emphasizes, via e-mail, that the firm weights its poll results based on a person’s likelihood of voting and how definitive that person is about supporting a particular candidate. In the case of Virginia’s gubernatorial primary, Change Research found Stewart’s supporters were much more intense than Gillespie’s. “Stewart's core support seems to be among Donald Trump's biggest fans—those who rate Trump a 9 or 10 out of 10—where he leads by nearly 20 points,” Reilly says. That’s not surprising, since Stewart has unabashedly embraced Trump and followed a similarly incendiary playbook. This spring, for example, he attacked decisions in Virginia and elsewhere in the South to take down monuments dedicated to Confederate heroes. (Critics have pointed out that while Stewart may profess Dixie loyalty, he was, in fact, born in Minnesota.) Politico Magazine dubbed the Prince William County Board of Supervisors chairman a “Trump clone.”

Unlike traditional pollsters, which primarily rely on phone interviews to survey voters, Change Research conducts its polls online, “primarily via Facebook,” says Reilly. “Our samples are built through online ads targeted with demographic data.” The political community has long questioned the validity of online polls, but that’s changing. “There’s nothing wrong with online polls,” Sabato says, highlighting the struggles polling firms have had getting respondents on the phone in recent years. The number of U.S. households abandoning landlines and using only mobile phones has intensified the challenge. It’s one, but not the only, factor in polling firms’ struggles to capture shifting grassroots sentiments, the kind that propelled Trump to the White House in November and that just toppled British Prime Minister Teresa May’s Conservatives in the U.K. parliamentary elections.

And as Sabato reminds us, primary elections can be particularly unpredictable, because turnout tends to be low. Much of the attention in the Virginia governor’s race has been focused on the neck-and-neck Democratic contest between former U.S. Representative Tom Perriello, who has the endorsement of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, and Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam. That may bring Democratic voters to the polls in higher-than-average numbers (the Change Research poll shows Perriello pulling ahead in that race, which analysts think is more plausible than its Republican findings). But the Republican race has largely been written off, with most political observers expecting Gillespie to run away with the vote on Tuesday.

That’s likely to depress voter turnout on the GOP side, which, counterintuitively, could help Stewart, if he does indeed have more strongly committed supporters than Gillespie. “An intense group of people who are absolutely dedicated to some single issue”—like Confederate monuments—“can have a disproportionate impact,” says Sabato. Still, Mayer says there hasn’t been a major inflection point in the Republican race, such as a gaffe by Gillespie or a crowning moment for Stewart, necessary to drive such a big swing in momentum in the contest.  

A Stewart upset, however, wouldn’t be the first time a Virginia primary shook the Republican establishment. It  was only three years ago that an unknown economics professor named Dave Brat came out of nowhere to defeat House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a Virginia Republican primary. One of Brat’s leading cheerleaders? Breitbart News. And as The Washington Post noted in the aftermath, Cantor’s internal polling had the veteran lawmaker up by 34 points over Brat just a week before the shock result.