How Glenn Youngkin Pulled off the Biggest Political Upset Since 2016

A political earthquake shook the United States this week. Its epicenter was in Virginia. I didn’t think it could be done, but it happened. Republicans won their first statewide races there since 2009. Glenn Youngkin led Republicans to a crushing victory in Virginia, which has become a reliable blue state since 2008. How did he do it?

Step 1: Know Your Audience and Assume the Character

The fourth chapter of Stumped is called “Politics or Pro Wrestling?” The idea is that politics is largely theater. It is not driven primarily by rational choice, but by theatrics that resemble a professional wrestling show. Characters and personas matter. Just like Ron DeSantis didn’t catch nearly as much traction with his “Trump-lite” gimmick as he has with his “Refined Florida Man” gimmick, it was imperative for the Virginia Republican Party (one of the more inept party organizations in the country, historically) to find somebody with a persona that worked for the state. Fire-breathing populists would not cut it in the Old Dominion. They simply aren’t a good fit for the tastes of that audience.

In a move that has serious implications for the rest of the country, the Republican Party organization decided to not have a primary, to prevent those types from winning the nomination and losing the election in November. This reminds us of some of the “bosses” that Theodore Roosevelt railed against in 1912, but there’s no doubt it worked here.

The party organization chose Glenn Youngkin, an accomplished businessman in the Carlyle Group. A private equity background would be less than optimal in a place like Florida or Ohio, but it works in Virginia, because the first thing Republicans need to do to win there is to make sure they aren’t killed in the very upscale Northern Virginia suburbs – Fairfax and Loudoun Counties most notably. Safe to say, those counties are full of private equity people and other upscale professionals.

One of Robert Cialdini’s seven universal principles of influence is the liking principle. We’re more open to influence from people we like, and we like people that are like ourselves. Nominating a smart, accomplished guy like Glenn Youngkin is about as good as the Republican Party can do to appeal to those now very blue areas.

Glenn Youngkin Virginia

Yes, Donald Trump was wealthy and accomplished, but he didn’t act like them. He wasn’t like the people in Fairfax and Loudoun, and so they disliked him intensely. This was not the case with Glenn Youngkin.

But there were other pieces of the puzzle. We are presented with a mystery. How could someone like Glenn Youngkin connect with other parts of Virginia? The other parts of his victory provide us the answers.

Step 2: Dominate the Space

Stumped came out in 2016 as an experiment of sorts. I am of course biased, but I think it’s proven largely accurate in the years since. Each election allows me to refine the chapters and give feedback as to which of the factors are more important than the others.

I think we’ve seen, for example, that charisma and social proof, while important, carry less weight than the pendulum factor and spatial domination.

Glenn Youngkin is tall at 6’7.” His height certainly helped him, since height is seen subconsciously as a sign of leadership.

His real domination, though, came in the conversational space.

Youngkin’s opponent, former Governor Terry McAuliffe, thought he had an easy path to victory. His idea was to take it easy and play sing along with the Democratic base by talking about how Donald Trump wanted to use the Virginia gubernatorial election as a springboard for his comeback. It’s nonsensical, but those theatrics work for the Democratic base. Given how blue Virginia has become since 2008, many people would forgive him for making these assumptions. Alas, as Louis XIV said in his memoirs, he who is content to rest on his laurels isn’t even worthy of the glory he has already received.

As McAuliffe sang the Epic of Resistance to Orange Orangutan, a quite different resistance brewed in Loudoun County. It was a surprising base for such a resistance, as Loudoun County has the highest median income of any county in the country. While not as much of a woke central as neighboring Fairfax County, Loudoun is still full of the kind of high social capital white suburbanites that I spoke of in my overview of the Seventh Party System.

Yet, it was where the current pushback against neoracist Critical Race Theory in America’s schools began.

I suppose when your kids are involved, even the elite social credibility that comes with paying allegiance to wokeness takes a backseat.

Then, in June, a boy who pretended to be a girl raped an actual girl at a Loudoun County school. Instead of taking serious action, the school board covered it up and transferred that student to another school, where he promptly raped again. As Thomas Sowell predicted in 1995, the law was stretched and strained to protect this “mascot of the anointed.”

But it lit a firestorm and Glenn Youngkin capitalized on it. The news of the coverup coming out in October seemed almost divinely ordained.

Recall that all of this controversy came on top of 18 months of coronavirus hysteria which saw schools shuttered for a year and kids being treated like disease vectors instead of human beings even when they reopened. It came after teachers unions became some of the most hated organizations in the country.

When Terry McAuliffe revealed his inner thoughts and said parents should have no say in their children’s education…

…the field was wide open. Glenn Youngkin took all of this and dominated the issue of parents, schools, and education. Everything that involved education now orbited Glenn Youngkin, the champion of parents.

Earlier, we wondered how a private equity guy like Glenn Youngkin could find himself liked by the other parts of Virginia, the ones lower in social capital, and more pro-Trump. This was how. They connected with him as a fighter against corruption and woke elitism.

Terry McAuliffe was shut out. He called in celebrities and outside help but none of it resonated. Glenn Youngkin furthered his case by talking about reducing the cost of living like eliminating the grocery tax, suspending the gas tax, and tarring his opponent as an errand boy for a hated energy monopoly in Virginia. He even had a benefits-based slogan going around called “#WinWithGlenn.” In response, Terry McAuliffe just did a rally with Biden, who rambled about “extremism in a fleece vest.” McAuliffe had lost the conversational initiative.

Step 3: Outwork the Other Guy

This was always going to be a necessity for Glenn Youngkin as the underdog. He had a difficult needle to thread. To win Virginia, he needed to do much better than Donald Trump in the northeastern part of the state (colloquially known as “Northern Virginia” or “NoVa”), match or exceed Donald Trump’s performance in both turnout and vote margin in the southwestern part of the state, and flip places like Virginia Beach that are more purple but hated Trump.

Amazingly, Glenn Youngkin managed to do all three. He exceeded Trump’s margin in the southwest rural parts of the state (which clearly questions the idea that Trump is uniquely appealing to these kinds of places), significantly improved on Trump’s margin in NoVa, specifically in Loudoun and even Fairfax Counties, and flipped the purple places like Virginia Beach. A roadmap for Republican victory is outlined on my Patreon page. Glenn Youngkin followed it almost perfectly.

How did he do it? He traveled all over the state on a bus, extensively documenting his journey so that everyone could follow along, and indeed, take part, on his adventure. He created his own hero’s journey story. It was an interactive one. In contrast, Terry McAuliffe was far more limited and more staged in his appearances. Youngkin’s rallies in deep blue places like Alexandria drew bigger crowds and made it socially acceptable to display support for him – social proof coming to the fore in a big way.

In the end, this, along with the pendulum factor which saw the mummy about 10 points underwater in a state he won by 10 points, proved too much. In the final days of the campaign, Glenn Youngkin had “it” while Terry McAuliffe didn’t even come close. His rally with Pharell, which eerily resembled Hilary Clinton’s rallies with celebrities in the closing days of 2016, summed it up best.

Conclusion

If Glenn Youngkin keeps the same energy as governor that he had in his campaign, he’ll be a huge star in the Republican Party, and even a potential presidential contender. Turning Virginia purple again is no small feat, though we’ll see if that extends to future elections other than governor (blue states often elect Republican governors but still vote solidly blue in federal elections).

A post on what his victory over Terry McAuliffe means in terms of the broader political picture is forthcoming on my Patreon page. This post is about the man.

He shows that if you assume the right persona, listen carefully to your audience, dominate the things they care about, and take them along on your journey, you can win even on what seems to be the worst terrain.

Stumped will give you that blueprint.

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