COVID was not a priority for most Virginia voters, exit polls show

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Voters who expressed concern about the pandemic overwhelmingly backed Democrat Terry McAuliffe. But most voters had other priorities.

Virginians who voted in Tuesday's gubernatorial election were less concerned about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic than about other issues facing the state, according to exit polling.

Republican Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin pulled off an upset victory in the state, which President Joe Biden carried by 10 points last year.

Just 14% 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%), education (24%), and the economy and jobs (34%). Of the five choices provided, the only issue that mattered less to voters than COVID was abortion, with just 8% of Virginians saying that was most important.

But among the voters who did say the pandemic was their top issue, 83% 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% said McAuliffe, while 37% 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% of Virginians supported vaccine requirements for employees, with 42% 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% of voters said the coronavirus pandemic was the most important problem facing the state. Of those voters, 82% 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' approval of Biden's handling of the pandemic has 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% 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 millions of Americans. On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended Pfizer's coronavirus vaccine for children ages 5-11.

The number of new daily COVID-19 cases in the United States has fallen 57% since Sept. 1.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.