Trumpism May Not Scare Virginia's Suburbs as Much as Democrats Want

Donald Trump isn't on the ballot in Virginia but Democratic hopeful Terry McAuliffe certainly wants to act like he is.

McAuliffe has looked to tie his opponent Glenn Youngkin firmly to the former president, while Youngkin appears somewhat to have attempted to keep what distance he can.

The partisan state of politics in the nation and Trump's looming presence in that context gives a broader reason for doing so. But another explanation could be due to a key target for the race: The suburbs.

Throughout the former president's tenure, the GOP suffered with suburban voters. And the Democrats clearly hope harking back to his influence could scare them off again.

But with Trump not actually up for election, the races will test whether Trumpism can have the same effect. And it's not clear that it has so far.

For one, the race is a dead heat—with a recent poll even putting Youngkin ahead.

Polling from the Wason Center for Civic Leadership at Christopher Newport University in Virginia showed McAuliffe at 49 percent and Youngkin at 48 percent among 944 likely voters. The poll's margin of error is plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

"Is Trumpism as potent as the man himself was in terms of its damage? I think if polling is accurate, the answer has to be no," Quentin Kidd, dean of the college of social sciences at Christopher Newport University and academic director at the Wason Center, told Newsweek.

"For the last five years in Virginia, Democratic candidates have been doing better. The term I've used for it is 'Trumpflation.' Voters were reacting very viscerally to the man himself."

Kidd said the polling as it is has posed a sort of "existential crisis" for Democrats, who might not have expected polling to be as it is. For Republicans, on the other hand, he said, "there is almost like a high" leading to more enthusiasm among their voters.

"This is the first big test and I think it seems pretty clear that Trumpism is less potent than the man himself was," Kidd said.

"Democrats are going to have to find another path."

He said this also appeared the case in areas such as Richmond, where "the suburbs have been what have led the Democrats to do better in recent years, because of Trump."

"Trump is just not doing it for Dems this time around," David Richards, chair of the political science department at the University of Lynchburg, told Newsweek.

"I am sure the hardcore party faithful are still worried about Trump, but McAuliffe needs the middle voter, and they do not seem to care too much about Trump right now."

A reason for this lack of impact from Trump? Voters want to focus on other issues.

"Voters don't like candidates connecting the dots for them, especially if those dots aren't visible," David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center, told Newsweek. He also said Trump-linked topics have become "less impactful," and less motivational.

"The polling tells us that suburban voters are focused on the economy, the influence of parents vs school boards on a given curriculum, and getting rid of the grocery tax," Paleologos said.

While voters more broadly might have other priorities, for the Democrats utilizing Trump might be their best option to energize their base.

"The focus on Donald Trump reflects the nature of our current party polarization," John McGlennon, professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary, told Newsweek via email.

"Trump is the way Democrats are trying to re-energize their base. After four years of extremely high participation, Democrats have felt the need to fall back from politics a bit. They defeated Trump last year, and now needed time to recharge. But politics doesn't wait for voters or activists, it moves on and now McAuliffe needs to convince his base that the job isn't done (and in fact never will be done—but don't tell them that now)."

He referred to record turnout in elections over the last five years, "driven by the now defeated President's domination of the political scene."

"So the absence of Trump from the ballot does not make him unimportant. Youngkin has tried his hardest to keep Trump out of the state while trying to harness his supporters without alienating suburbanites. Hence, President Biden's taunting of Trump on Tuesday night," McGlennon said.

"Ultimately, the two campaigns are talking past each other to vastly different constituencies. Youngkin needs to maximize GOP turnout and try to discourage Democrats from voting. McAuliffe has to energize a larger base to enter the fray one more time."

Trump might motivate their voters—but it might not put those undecided at this point off.

In the final furlong, Youngkin and his supporters look happy to continue the Trump-linking push. President Joe Biden called Youngkin "an acolyte of Trump" when he stumped for McAuliffe last week.

Youngkin, on the other hand, looks to have made his own push for the suburbs—aiming at education, rounding on McAuliffe having said he does not think "parents should be telling schools what they should teach." Recent polling showed Youngkin with a lead among parents, perhaps an indication such a strategy is having an impact.

Time will tell who wins out.

If it's the Democrats, perhaps they will stick to Trump-bashing a while longer. If not—or if the count is tight or the suburbs lost—future elections might require a change of tack.

Newsweek has contacted the McAuliffe and Youngkin campaigns for comment.

donald trump and terry mcauliffe split
The race in Virginia has seen a focus drawn on former President Donald Trump, left. Terry McAuliffe has looked to link his rival to the former commander-in-chief. Brandon Bell/Win McNamee/Getty Images