A new survey of voters in battleground legislative districts following the 2023 Virginia General Assembly elections finds that 45% of those who voted before Election Day, either via mail or at an early voting polling place said that convenience was their top reason for voting that way. Just 21% of voters surveyed who cast their ballots on Election Day said they didn’t trust other methods of voting relative to security and fraud, though that is lower than the 30% who said they still vote on Election Day because they’ve always done it that way and enjoy voting that way.
Nevertheless, a majority of voters (63%) said they were encouraged to vote early or by mail, including equal levels of encouragement to vote absentee/early from both Republican candidates (50%) and Democratic candidates (49%). Governor Youngkin’s “Secure Your Vote Virginia” ABEV push got significant reach, as 72% of modeled Republicans report being encouraged to vote ABEV by their Republican candidate, compared to 52% of modeled Democrats who were encouraged to vote ABEV by their Democratic candidates. The aggressive push from Governor Youngkin and his team helped the GOP candidates reduce the deficit GOP candidates have in absentee/early voting.
In addition to insights about voters’ shifting attitudes about early voting and voting by mail, this survey highlights the key issues in the election, how voters engage with campaigns, and where voters get their news and information. The survey was co-sponsored by the Center for Campaign Innovation and the State Government Leadership Foundation.
This survey offers important insights for campaigners seeking to encourage early voting either in-person or by mail with an emphasis on the convenience factor of these methods. Voters continue to disperse among the fragmented media landscape making it more difficult than ever for campaigns to reach them at sufficient scale.
Virginia Republicans’ coordinated early voting push was effective in reaching voters as nearly 3 in 4 Republican voters received messages encouraging them to vote early. In verbatims, these voters specifically mentioned the push by Republican candidates to embrace early voting. However, much of the impact was in converting high propensity voters into absentee or early voters, rather than pushing low propensity voters into absentee or early voting.
Republicans and Democrats were roughly at parity in terms of direct voter contact in Virginia, contrasting what we observed in our 2022 federal post-election surveys. Virginia’s state campaign finance laws permit unlimited individual and corporate contributions to candidates, which limits Democrats’ typical grassroots fundraising advantage.
Finally, despite being an older, lower turnout electorate, this is the first time these post-election surveys show more voters who are cord cutters and reachable only via streaming and digital than voters who are only reachable via linear TV advertising. Many of the key target groups like low propensity and swing voters over index on being reachable only via streaming or digital. While this may be driven by the highly-educated, suburban voters within battleground districts, it is a clear indication that campaigns need to adjust their budget allocations in order to reach voters.
Abortion was the most important issue for voters surveyed when it came to deciding which candidate to support at 35%. The economy followed at 23%. Both crime and education tied for 10% as the most important issue in the election, followed by taxes and spending at 7% and guns at 5%.
Despite the narrow GOP losses in the state, 51% of voters said they believed the Republican candidate “supports reasonable limits on abortion, like outlawing late term abortions while allowing exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother,” compared to 35% who said the Republican candidate “is an extremist who would vote to take away women’s rights, criminalize doctors, and ban abortions.”
Postal mail was the primary form of voter contact in the Virginia 2023 General Assembly elections with 78% of voters reporting receiving mail. Sixty-nine percent (69%) of voters said they saw campaign ads online.
Texting has decisively overtaken phone calls with 67% receiving text messages about the election compared to just 39% who reported receiving phone calls. Online, 48% of those surveyed say they saw social media posts from a candidate and 38% received emails from the candidates.
Low-dollar fundraising continues to be broadly targeted, with half of voters (50%) reporting donation solicitations via mail, texts, email, or online ads from their state legislative candidates. 39% of modeled Independents and 42% of persuadable voters report being targeted for donations.
Unlike 2020 and 2022, where Democrats' small-dollar fundraising edge led to voters reporting they saw more TV ads from Democratic candidates, Republicans reached parity on TV advertising recall, as 50% said they saw more TV ads from Republican candidates and 47% said they saw more TV ads from Democratic candidates.
In addition to paid advertising, more than half of voters (52%) in these suburban districts had someone knock on their door or leave literature at their door, and one-in-five voters (20%) met a candidate. But as campaigns have come close to maxing out paid advertising and voter contact, relational organizing still has room to grow as just 15% said they were encouraged by a friend, family member or co-worker to vote for a candidate.
Voters’ information and entertainment consumption habits continue to reflect the fragmenting media landscape, which campaigns must overcome to reach voters with relevant communications.
A majority of those surveyed (70%) use an online streaming service to watch shows, movies, and live events, evenly split between those who only use a streaming service (36%) and those who use both a streaming service and traditional television service (34%). About a fifth of voters (21%) say they only use cable, satellite or antenna for watching TV, while 7% report not watching any TV.
Netflix is the most popular streaming service among all voters, with 39% saying they use the platform. Amazon Prime Video followed at 33%, then Hulu at 24%, YouTubeTV at 19%, and Disney+ at 16%. Among these streaming services, only Hulu and YouTubeTV permit political advertising by candidates.The streaming landscape is fractured as there are nine streaming platforms that over 10% of voters use, meaning campaigns should look to deepen and broaden their media buys to reach increasingly fragmented audiences.
While most of the state legislative campaigns in these districts were up on broadcast television, linear television advertising is having diminishing returns. More voters were reachable via streaming advertising only (27%) or unreachable (13%) via TV or streaming advertising (because they either don’t watch TV at all or only watch streaming on platforms that cannot be advertised on) than are reachable via traditional TV advertising only (30%). An additional 25% of voters can be reached via both linear TV and streaming advertising.
Facebook continues to dominate voters’ social media usage with 60% of respondents describing themselves as active users. Second is Instagram at 40% followed by YouTube (26%), X/Twitter (22%), and LinkedIn (20%) rounding out the top five.
While TikTok is one of the fastest growing social media platforms, its users are not yet showing up in the electorate, particularly in a lower turnout environment such as this year’s Virginia elections as just 14% of voters use TikTok. Even among voters under age 35, TikTok was the 5th most commonly used social media platform, with just 23% of younger voters saying they use it.
Forty-one percent (41%) of voters surveyed said they trusted news and information from traditional media like television and newspapers more than they did from online sources. Just 15% trusted social media and online platforms more than traditional sources of news. More concerning, 30% of voters surveyed said they trust neither source for news and information.
Asked about technological advancements like artificial intelligence, 57% of respondents said they felt more anxious and concerned about the future. Only 19% were more hopeful and optimistic.
Virginia’s off-year elections often give us early previews of the following year’s campaign strategies and messages, but inferring too much from the actual electoral outcomes may lead to erroneous conclusions. For example, the 2023 Virginia General Assembly elections were the first elections under new maps based on the results of the 2020 Census. Throughout much of the United States, the post-2020 districts were used during the 2022 midterm elections.
A measured analysis of the elections must control for this factor, which is why post-election surveys are essential for decoding the lessons learned from individual campaigns.
The Center for Campaign Innovation and the State Government Leadership Foundation commissioned 3D Strategic Research to conduct a post-election survey of voters in Virginia’s targeted legislative districts (HD-21, HD-22, HD-75, HD-97, SD-16, SD-17, SD-24, SD-27 and SD-31). These districts were selected since they are largely Biden-Youngkin districts and featured the most competitive races in the state. The survey was conducted Tuesday to Wednesday, November 7th to 8th, 2023 among N=600 voters. The margin of error for the survey is ± 4.00%. The margin of error among sub-groups is greater.
The survey was conducted with a mix of live calls to landlines and cell phones, and text messages inviting voters to take the survey via a secure web link. Respondents were matched to the correct individual in the household based on their gender and age. Modeled party and vote history were pulled from the Data Trust voter file for the correct respondent within the household. The sample was stratified based on the probability of voting, with the final dataset weighted to the actual election results and vote method cast across the battleground districts.