Throughout the just-completed campaign in Virginia, the eventual loser, Democrat Terry McAuliffe, continually attempted to make the election a referendum on Donald Trump. He referred to his opponent, now the Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin as ‘Trumpkin’ and warned that a vote for Youngkin was essentially a vote for Trump.
One can easily argue that this strategy didn’t work, as Youngkin won by approximately 80,000 votes. However, you can understand why the McAuliffe campaign thought Trump’s low favorables would make it the right move to attempt to put Trump on the ballot. Youngkin’s ability to both maintain appeal to the Trump base while also assuring those voters who identify as Independent that he was not just a Trump clone was one of the key elements of his win.
Looking at the data from Edison Research’s exit poll conducted for the members of the National Election Pool, one can see that Youngkin was vastly more popular with Independents than is Trump, and that made all the difference for him.
It’s worth noting as well that even among Republicans, Youngkin had higher favorability than Trump. Trump is viewed favorably by 87% of Republicans who voted in Virginia in 2021, as compared to 95% for Youngkin.
A strong majority of the electorate in Virginia on Tuesday told us they have an unfavorable opinion of Donald Trump. Meanwhile, a majority told us they have a favorable opinion of Youngkin.
It’s also worth noting that losing the Independents was a significant factor in Trump’s loss in 2020, as he went from winning Independents nationally by four points over Hillary Clinton to losing among them to Biden by 19. The current exit polls show that Biden’s job approval among Independents is 35% and McAuliffe’s favorable among Independents is 37%.
Youngkin won for many reasons and McAuliffe can point to his own list as to why he lost. Net favorability is only one, especially when we are looking at ‘off-year’ elections that are so dependent on differential turnout. Elections are more referenda on the party and people in power, and Biden job approval and McAuliffe favorable/unfavorables were more correlated to the vote outcome than either Trump or Youngkin favorable/unfavorables.
But it seems clear that had Trump himself been the Republican candidate, or had McAuliffe been able to successfully attach Youngkin’s brand to Trump’s, the outcome may well have been different.
 (Among those who responded to this question in the exit poll)