Despite encouraging polling numbers for Glenn Youngkin’s gubernatorial bid in Virginia, the race is slipping away from his reach. Behind the polling numbers are clear warning signs that Mr. Youngkin has failed to acknowledge. If they remain unresolved, this election will be remembered as a stunning disappointment and missed opportunity for him and supportive Virginians.
When he first announced his candidacy in January of this year, he did it by laying out an articulate vision for Virginia. He did it with authenticity and as an outsider who could easily connect with people. His messages resonated across political party lines. He garnered support from Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, ultimately propelling him to his nomination.
Over the last several months, Mr. Youngkin’s edge has slowly deteriorated. He has personally lost sight of the individual that he was when he first announced his candidacy. He has allowed his political operatives (many of which do not understand Virginia’s complex political landscape) to drive his strategy, message, and actions instead of leading the campaign himself. This has diluted his effectiveness and momentum. The confidence he has built throughout his professional career has not yet transitioned over to his political efforts. At this moment, Glenn, the person, is overshadowed by Glenn, the candidate.
Mr. Youngkin’s supporters need not be discouraged. This is not an epitaph for his defeat. It is a wake-up call for Mr. Youngkin to step up, take charge and navigate his campaign back on course. He still has time. He can certainly do it, and he can absolutely win in November. Here is what needs to be done:
Glenn needs to take control of his campaign, its strategy, and its decisions. With less than a month before the election, he needs to set the priorities and drive the messaging. Every day until November 2nd he needs to remind Virginians about his vision. He needs to define who he is, what he will do, and how he will do it. Mr. Youngkin has suffered over the last several months by allowing Terry McAuliffe to define him. Regaining confidence in himself and momentum from supporters are crucial factors for winning. Momentum drives emotions. Emotions propel the intensity of voters to come out to the polls on election day.
Simultaneously, Mr. Youngkin needs to take advantage of a colossal blunder Mr. McAuliffe made during their last debate. When asked about parental choice in education, Mr. McAuliffe arrogantly but errantly stated, “I’m not going to let parents come into schools and make their own decision. I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” In less than 20 seconds, Mr. McAuliffe exposed his true intent for Virginians. He will take away your rights and freedoms. Mr. Youngkin must drive this point home to every voter.
Glenn must focus the majority of his remaining resources in the time left on an aggressive digital strategy. He is losing the digital and social media battle. Badly. Mr. McAuliffe has been flooding social media platforms with a variety of digital ads for months. Even among Republican activists, Mr. McAuliffe’s use of social media is recognized as resoundingly effective and has stalled Mr. Youngkin’s momentum. A digital media blitz is the only weapon in Mr. Youngkin’s arsenal that can have an immediate impact. He needs to land a damaging blow sufficient to derail Mr. McAuliffe’s present trajectory. Deploying a “shock and awe” digital strategy can erode Mr. McAuliffe’s strides in two meaningful ways. First, it will rev up Republican voters and ensure they come out to vote on election day. This is crucial. No matter what any political poll predicts until voters actually vote, nothing counts. Second, it will provide a mechanism to influence persuadable and undecided voters. These are two voting blocs where Mr. Youngkin made strong gains at the start of the campaign. However, in delaying the implementation of a sustained digital plan early on, he has failed to capture many of these voters as the race has progressed.
Finally, he must blast out targeted ads across digital platforms to encourage early voting by his supporters. Mr. Youngkin was very late to the party here. He missed valuable opportunities to promote early voting and curtail any initial gains by Mr. McAuliffe. Turning out early voters has been essential for recent Republican victories in other close national races. In Virginia, it could invariably decide the winner of the race.
Although an outsider to politics, Mr. Youngkin can win. Virginians across the state believed Mr. Youngkin was the one Republican candidate that could seriously challenge a preordained return of Mr. McAuliffe. Mr. Youngkin’s ceaseless energy, genuine demeanor, and decisiveness make him a captivating candidate in a competitive race against an uninspiring and manipulative Mr. McAuliffe.
Both political parties are cautiously calculating the impact of this election. The majority of Republicans across our nation would view a Youngkin win in November as a referendum against President Biden and his miserable leadership. It would solidify the momentum Republicans need heading into the 2022 midterm elections to reclaim majorities in the U.S. House and Senate.
Mr. McAuliffe has long been labeled as disreputable, but he is a seasoned and combative operative. A political henchman for the Clinton’s, he arguably lurks deeper in the sludge than any gubernatorial candidate in our state’s history. Democrats would welcome the return of his politically powerful and expansive network. He has conjured support and money from Democrats across the U.S., including Michael Bloomberg and George Soros. He knows the value better than anyone of secret favors, soothing lies, and dramatic acting in the electoral process. It wins votes. It wins elections.
Time is Mr. Youngkin’s enemy. Despite the value that his outsider status, vision, and authenticity offer Virginians, he and his campaign are subject to the same political rigors and tests as any candidate. The lining of hope for Mr. Youngkin is that on any given day at any given moment, anything can and will happen in political elections. He still has a strong chance at succeeding. Now, the responsibility to put his house in order quickly rests solely with him. His greatest test of leadership is upon him. Mr. Youngkin can and should win this race. It is his to lose.
• Rick Gates has worked on U.S. and international political campaigns over a span of 25 years. Most recently he served in multiple senior roles with Donald Trump rising to deputy campaign chairman. Following the successful 2016 election, Rick served as the deputy chairman to President Trump’s Inaugural Committee, and after, as a co-founder of his Super PAC, America First Policies. He is the author of “Wicked Game: An Insider’s Story on How Trump Won, Mueller Failed and America Lost.”