Note: the following release was written and originally published by Bellwether research. Click here to see their original report as shared on Twitter, September 29, 2021.
September 29, 2021
Virginia gubernatorial debate: How did the candidates do with undecided voters?
Bellwether Research convened a group of 9 undecided voters* from across Virginia to actively watch the 2nd Virginia gubernatorial debate (September 28th) and participate in an online text chat and video focus group. This research was conducted in partnership with the qualitative research technology company itracks, using their innovative new itracks Realtime qualitative research platform.
- With polls showing a slight advantage for Democrat Terry McAuliffe (+3 average), businessman Glenn Youngkin didn’t do what he needed to make the sale in last night’s Most of the participants ended our conversation saying they were still undecided, while three were leaning toward Terry McAuliffe.
- The negative attacks were a big turn-off and Terry McAuliffe came across as more negative, while Glenn Youngkin was perceived as more nervous and
- Undecided voters felt the mud-slinging was a distraction and a lost opportunity to talk about important issues which – to them – included: the economy, taxes and jobs, COVID, climate change, and affordable
- Not everyone supported a COVID vaccine mandate, but for those for whom the issue mattered most, McAuliffe’s position was preferred. They didn’t like Youngkin’s response on the follow-up question about existing vaccine
- Unlike the political and pundit class, these voters don’t see the Virginia election through a national lens. Nearly all were sharply critical of Joe Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, but they didn’t see their view of Biden as relevant in their decision-making for
- Similarly, many were exasperated when Terry McAuliffe raised the name “Donald Trump” Some thought the past president was irrelevant to this race, while two men thought Youngkin’s connection with Trump was a big strike against him.
- Generally, they thought things in Virginia were going fairly well and Youngkin’s portrayal of Virginia as failing or falling behind didn’t ring
- On education, our mom from Loudoun County said that being a parent there – amidst school board fights and critical race theory allegations – is “insane,” and while the participants thought parents should be involved in their children’s education, several said that it was important to also trust
- On police, the participants stressed the need for reform and training – which may require more funding. They didn’t walk away from the debate with a firm idea of where either candidate stood on police reform/defunding and or
- The participants were not keen to talk about the abortion issue. Several of the women said they supported Planned Parenthood and a woman’s right to choose, but it wasn’t a key voting issue for them, and no one mentioned the Texas ban.
Glenn Youngkin didn’t seal the deal with any of these voters.
- “Youngkin sounded very nervous. Didn’t answer the questions.” Missy
- “I was trying to embrace Youngkin – a fresh face. But it seemed he wasn’t answering the questions. I liked his climate change answer, but I think he is off the table now. After his stance on abortion and he went after McAuliffe – too much time on that.” Robert
The negative attacks were a big turn-off.
- “I hate how they spend any time at all calling each other names. So unnecessary.” Robert
- “McAuliffe looks relaxed. Not as nervous. But also too pointed with his comments – name calling and politicizing.” Kathy
- “I did not like the immature name-calling. McAuliffe was more negative in the name calling and immature behavior.” Kathy
- “Both sides focusing more on attacking the other than answering questions.” Eric
- “Yes, that is all they’re doing. Who cares about his (Youngkin’s) backyard and horses.” Lisa “I feel like this is every other political debate I see.” Jamie
- “Politicians have forgotten they are supposed to represent us. They have their own agendas and want to carve their own legacies. We can’t trust them for anything and the best we can hope for is to keep them from harming us.” Kevin
- “I like McAuliffe’s policies more, but he performed poorly with all the hostility.” Hern
- “If anything, I lost respect for both. With everything going on in the world, it didn’t have to be name calling and bashing.” Lisa
- “They could win my confidence by outlining a clear plan on how they will bring jobs to the area and keep taxes down so people want to live here.” Eric
Generally, they think things in Virginia are going well. One participant disapproved of the job Governor Northam was doing, others “somewhat” approved or were unsure. They cited high vaccination rates and kids being back in school as key reasons for optimism. Their concerns were high taxes and affordable housing.
- “Youngkin makes it sound like we are in the dumps – we are not. That’s discouraging. We are in a decent place but could be better.” Kathy
- “Youngkin said education was failing and we rank 44th and the latest ranking I saw was 17th. A lot of what he was saying didn’t seem true. I just know we rank 17th.” Robert
These voters were critical of Joe Biden, but that wasn’t influencing their decision- making for governor.
- “I am not in agreement with how Biden handled pulling out of Afghanistan, however it does not impact the way I plan to vote for governor.” Jamie
- “I think he mishandled Afghanistan and had confusing messaging early in his presidency on COVID and mask mandates. It sounds like he wants to dramatically increase taxes.” Eric
- “I still think we’re on the right track for the most part despite the Afghanistan debacle.” Hern
- “The national scene has no bearing on me. We stand alone. There have been times when one party was doing well but I voted for the other party for governor because it made sense to me.” Kathy
Glenn Youngkin’s connection to Donald Trump was news to these voters. Some thought it was irrelevant, a few thought it was disqualifying.
- “Trump endorsement is an automatic disqualifier.” Hern
- “The Trump endorsement adds no value to me and for many turns Glenn Youngkin from a ‘maybe’ to an ‘absolutely not.’” Kevin
- “Trump endorsement hurts; shows he’s likely too extreme for me.” Eric
- “If Youngkin is endorsed by Trump that suggest there are issues he may feel a certain way about that I don’t. I have to follow up.” Eric
- “Trump has nothing to do with my decision for governor.” Lisa “The Trump stuff is a tactic. It’s a distraction.” Robert
- “I’m wary about Trump’s endorsement.” Jamie
- “Trump has nothing to do with the governor election and he is no longer president so why does everyone still bring him up?” Missy
COVID vaccine requirements generally favored McAuliffe; Youngkin’s difficulty explaining his support for requiring other vaccines was costly.
- “To me, just saying you support the vaccine is not enough.” Eric “Youngkin stumbling through the follow-up question. Terrible answer.” Eric “Covid is important for most people and McAuliffe was more logical.” Eric “Youngkin is struggling – yes. Can’t find his words.” Kathy
- “McAuliffe’s stand “shows he believes in science and protecting the public.” Hern
- “Vaccine mandates need to be off the table. Testing across the board seems to be the only equitable stance. Vaccine mandates won’t withstand the Supreme Court. I’m more liberty minded than either candidate.” Kevin
Taxes were a key issue for several participants, but they were skeptical of Youngkin’s plan to eliminate the grocery tax.
- “What will you tax us on if you lower the grocery tax? How do you make up on that money you are losing?” Missy
- “It is all well and good to cut taxes, but are we going to then be creating a shortfall?” Kathy
- “I hear great ideas, but where is this money coming from? Our kids will be paying for this. It’s not free money.” Lisa
- “I would like to know if he is going to keep taxes low or lower them for the lower middle class people in SW VA.” Missy
- “When I look at the economy, I have to look at it from a business perspective. It should be run more like a business. McAuliffe won’t run the economy like a business.” Lisa
These voters did not want to talk about the abortion issue.
- “Abortion is not our problem as a state. Really – get to the problems at hand.” Missy
- “I feel personally the issue is important and feel that Planned Parenthood and the right to choose is important, but it is not a huge issue for most people.” Kathy
- “Yes, Planned Parenthood is a great resource, but I agree with Kathy – cut public funding for abortions.” Missy
- “Let’s get off this (topic) and back to the economy.” Lisa
The exchange on police funding and gun safety left them unsure where the candidates stood.
- “I’m unclear on McAuliffe’s stance on defund the police; he seemed to deflect. Same for Youngkin on gun control.” Eric
- “If anything they need more funding for training and better vetting.” Hern
On education and teachers – they want a balance.
- “I agree. Parents have to be involved.” Lisa
- “The problem is…some parents do not have the motivation to be involved and some are over-involved.” Kathy (Loudoun county)
- “I don’t like the craziness going on in Loudoun Co. public schools.” Jamie
- “Parents need to be engaged 100%, but need to also trust their teachers. There is a balance.” Hern
In the immediate post-debate write-ups, there was little coverage of two issues that were important to our voters: affordable housing and climate change.
- “There needs to be more affordable housing in Virginia.” Kathy
- “Affordable housing is important. Youngkin has no response. Disheartening.” Robert “Climate change is VERY important right now and should be to all of us.” Missy
- “The Democrats have proven they are more in tune with climate change and environmental issues.” Kathy
- “Climate change is at the top of my list. We need to act now. It’s an investment in the future.” Hern
- “Government can’t control what goes on in our homes. Climate change will happen but us as individuals help.” Rachel
- “Economy and climate change are my issues.” Missy
Bellwether Research will be uploading video clips from the discussion when they are ready. All participants signed a consent form agreeing to the release of audio and video clips from the discussion.
If you are interested in a link to the video clips or to interview Christine Matthews, President of Bellwether Research, who moderated the groups, please contact: cmatthews@bellwether- research.com and phone: 202-750-1615.
*The recruited voters were undecided or just leaning toward Youngkin or McAuliffe; all were planning to vote. Each identified as “independent,” although most said they tend to vote for either more Republicans or Democrats. Some voted for Joe Biden while others vote for Donald Trump or wrote in a name.
Participants came from Northern Virginia, Richmond and suburbs, Hampton Roads, Tidewater, and western Virginia (Salem). Some voted for Joe Biden while others voted for Donald Trump or wrote in a name.
They participated in a moderated text chat while watching the debate from 7pm – 8pm and a 45-minute video discussion after the debate.
itracks has been a world-leading expert in online qualitative research technologies since 1999. They offer a complete qualitative research technology solution, allowing researchers to collect quality insights from wherever, whenever, including during live televised events. For more information about itracks, visit www.itracks.com.