McAuliffe’s Abortion Miscalculation

Analysis of Virginia’s gubernatorial election shows the abortion issue did not mobilize voters the way Democrats thought it would.

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia for a second term, tours the abortion facility, Whole Women's Health of Charlottesville, with managing director of the facility Jesse Torrey (R) September 9, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Democratic gubernatorial candidate for Virginia for a second term, tours the abortion facility, Whole Women's Health of Charlottesville, with managing director of the facility Jesse Torrey (R) September 9, 2021 in Charlottesville, Virginia. (photo: Win McNamee / Getty)

WASHINGTON — Democrats sustained a big loss in the Virginia gubernatorial election last week, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe lost to Republican Glenn Youngkin in a race that was seen as having implications for the 2022 midterms and beyond — and one issue that became a centerpiece of McAuliffe’s campaign against Youngkin was abortion.

But exit polling indicated that, despite looming threats to legal abortion in the United States, such as the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case before the Supreme Court and a law banning abortion after detection of a fetal heartbeat in Texas, promoting abortion rights did not motivate voters the way the McAuliffe campaign expected. 

According to CNN’s exit polling, abortion ranked last behind the economy, education, coronavirus and taxes, with only 8% of voters listing it as the “most important issue” facing Virginia. And of the 8% of voters ranking it as important, Youngkin had an edge, as 58% voted for him and 41% for McAuliffe. 

In Fox News exit polling, just 5% of voters ranked abortion as “most important,” again trailing far behind such issues as education and the economy. Among that 5%, 55% voted for Youngkin and 45% for McAuliffe.

However, the McAuliffe campaign did not treat abortion as an issue that ranked behind so many other issues for voters. In fact, the losing Democratic candidate made abortion a centerpiece of his campaign and even campaigned at an abortion facility. NBC reported that “three of McAuliffe’s most expensive ads, which cost from $510,000 to $922,000 to produce and run, have attacked Youngkin for his abortion stance. They are among the former governor’s most aired ads on broadcast or cable television, with each airing over 1,100 times, according to AdImpact data.” 

In those ads, McAuliffe featured a secretly recorded video of Youngkin saying he didn’t want to risk losing “independent votes” over the abortion issue, but when he was governor he could “go on offense.” The ad said Youngkin wanted to “ban abortion and defund Planned Parenthood” and that he was “caught on video admitting his far-right agenda.” Another ad featured former President Barack Obama, who said that McAuliffe stood “strong on the values we all care about,” including “defending a woman’s right to choose.”

McAuliffe told Politico that the Texas ban on abortions after detection of a fetal heartbeat “will be a huge motivator for individuals to come out and vote,” describing himself as a “brick wall” on women’s rights. 

He also said at a campaign event with first lady Jill Biden, “For 50 years, this has been a hypothetical. We always felt that the Supreme Court would protect Roe v. Wade, but now with Trump’s Supreme Court that has all changed.” 

At a campaign event with Vice President Kamala Harris in October, McAuliffe said, “Glenn Youngkin got caught on tape saying when he is governor he will go on the offense to defund Planned Parenthood and ban abortions. He wants to bring the Texas-style laws here to the Commonwealth of Virginia.” He added, “Every woman, listen to me, you have got to get out and vote, because if Glenn Youngkin is elected, abortions will cease.” 


Youngkin’s Approach

While Youngkin was not as vocal on the issue as McAuliffe, during a September debate, he made clear that “I would not sign the Texas bill today. As I’ve said through this entire campaign, I’m pro-life. I believe in exceptions in the case of rape and incest and when the life of the mother is in jeopardy. But the Texas bill also is unworkable and confusing. … What I have said is that I do believe that a pain-threshold bill legislation would be appropriate.”

Youngkin also pushed back against McAuliffe’s stance on late-term abortion, highlighting that the Democratic candidate had called a bill that allowed for abortions up till birth “commonsense.” In contrast, Youngkin promised to “advocate to limit abortions when the unborn child can feel pain,” saying, “The United States is one of just seven countries around the globe — in the company of China and North Korea — to allow late abortions when the child can feel pain.” He also pledged to “protect Virginia taxpayers from paying for abortions. Earlier this year — on Good Friday — Gov. Northam signed into law a bill that expands taxpayer funding of abortions. I will work vigorously to stop our tax dollars from funding abortions.”

While McAuliffe seemed to think abortion would be a motivating factor for women concerned by the Texas law and the Supreme Court revisiting the Roe v. Wade decision when it hears oral arguments in the Dobbs case in December, some pro-life groups backing Youngkin accurately predicted abortion would not be as big of an issue for voters. 

“Abortion isn’t a top issue for Virginia voters,” Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, told The Washington Post in October. “McAuliffe is desperate to talk about anything other than jobs and the economy, so he’s focusing on a side issue.” Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told the Post, “Terry McAuliffe seems to think abortion is the key issue that motivates women voters. It’s not.”


McAuliffe’s Strategic Failure 

Ryan Burge, an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University, told the Register via email that “McAuliffe’s major strategic failure was that he tried to nationalize his race and make it about Trump. Neither of those things were particularly effective.” 

He said that in regard to the abortion issue, McAuliffe attempted to portray Youngkin as someone “who was trying to abolish abortion completely,” when Youngkin “hardly ever talked about abortion on the stump and, when he was asked about it in a debate, said that while he was generally pro-life, he wouldn’t have signed the Texas bill into law in Virginia.” 

Burge said he would be surprised “if Virginia passed a bill that was similar to the one in Texas,” and “voters know that Virginia isn’t going that direction,” so McAuliffe’s ads on the topic were “more about the McAuliffe campaign miscalculating,” adding that, “to Youngkin’s credit, he tried to speak to the right-of-center electorate, not the far-right electorate (which was going to support him anyway).” 

That strategy seemed effective when it came to voters who were more toward the center on abortion. 

According to the CNN exit polling, while those who thought abortion should be legal in “all” cases went for McAuliffe by 85% and those who said it should be illegal in “all” cases backed Youngkin by 85%, Youngkin had an edge with the voters in the middle of the issue. 

Among those who thought abortion should be illegal in “most” cases, 88% went for Youngkin and 12% for McAuliffe; and for voters who thought it should be legal in “most” cases, 37% went for Youngkin and 62% for McAuliffe. 

For those voters who thought abortion should be legal in “most” cases, in the Fox poll there was a similar pattern to the CNN polling, with 65% going for McAuliffe and 35% for Youngkin, while in that poll 82% of voters who thought it should be illegal in “most” cases voted for Youngkin.

Burge said, “If abortion was the key issue, that should have given a big boost to Democrats across the board. But, by any objective metric, they did very, very poorly on Nov. 2. Thus, I think it’s fair to assume that abortion was not a high-profile issue in this race.”


A Bellwether Race

Prudence Robertson, spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group that backed Youngkin in the race, told the Register that she does believe abortion “played an absolutely critical role in Glenn Youngkin’s win, mainly because he was able to expose the extremism of his opponent, Terry McAuliffe.” 

She called Youngkin’s victory “a huge win” because “this Virginia governor’s race is viewed as a bellwether for 2022, and we really see this win as a clear message to Republicans on what they need to do to win next year.” She pointed out that, with the decision in the Dobbs case coming in June, “the months leading up to the election are going to be key to Republicans securing that win, and they need to go on offense for life in those critical days.”

Robertson added that, despite McAuliffe’s attempts to frame the Dobbs case as potentially the end of legal abortion, “what’s happening here is the court is going to answer whether or not pre-viability bans on abortion are legal and if they give the power back to the states to enact laws reflective of the will of their people.”

“That will just mean that the consensus which changes among states will be honored, that states will be allowed to pass laws that reflect what their people want, whether that be to ban abortion completely in states like Texas or Alabama, or to have more liberal abortion laws, like in New York and California,” she said. 

She said McAuliffe’s framing was clearly “not resonating,” and “the complete extremism of Democrats on this issue is not resonating with voters.” 

McAuliffe “spent $25 million in advertising,” Robertson said, “and emphasized his support for unlimited abortion almost every time; and every ad — I think we counted six, maybe more — was focused solely on abortion,” and, consequently, “all Glenn Youngkin had to do was point out his extremism.”