RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Democrat Terry McAuliffe backs vaccine mandates and believes they help combat the coronavirus pandemic. His Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin, thinks people should get the vaccine but opposes the orders to require them.

The candidates are divided on the topic and a new Nexstar/ Emerson College poll shows Virginia voters are split on which one they think would best handle the pandemic as governor.

The poll of 620 likely voters show McAuliffe about even with Youngkin, 51% to 48%, when it comes to which one would handle the coronavirus pandemic better if elected. The survey, which shows a virtual tie between McAuliffe and Youngkin in the governor’s race, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points. 

The poll also reveals where Virginia voters stand on key issues like the economy, the grocery tax and who should have more influence on school curriculums. It gives further insight into where the electorate stands on abortion and whether they believe Youngkin has been honest about his position. Additionally, it provides clarity on the impact of President Joe Biden’s endorsement of McAuliffe’s campaign.

Here are the key takeaways from the poll:

Despite Youngkin’s opposition to vaccine mandates, voters appear divided on who would handle the pandemic better

Emerson poll - Handling COVID

Youngkin says he is encouraging people to get vaccinated, but that he doesn’t believe they should be required to get one. McAuliffe generally supports vaccine mandates and has accused Youngkin of spreading “anti-vaxx rhetoric” in debates and in ads, pointing to when Youngkin encouraged college students to fill out an exception form if they don’t want to get vaccinated.

“I’m really frustrated with our universities across Virginia who are requiring the vaccine in order to come back to class. They do have an exception policy because I actually looked at the Virginia Tech one,” Youngkin said in June. “And I encourage people to fill it out and stand for your exemption. And when I’m elected governor, we’ll figure out how to get it fixed permanently.”

When asked which candidate would best handle the pandemic as governor, regardless of who they were voting for, McAuliffe received 51% support and Youngkin got 48%, a difference within the poll’s margin of error.

Two percent of voters said they believe third-party candidate Princess Blanding would handle the pandemic better than McAuliffe and Youngkin.

Majority of voters think abortions should be legal and most think Youngkin is telling the truth about his position

Emerson poll - abortion

A majority of voters think abortions should be allowed, with 32% saying procedures should always be legal and 27% believing there should be some restrictions. Twenty-three percent said abortions should only be allowed in special circumstances.

Fourteen percent of voters believe abortions should be outlawed and 4% said they were unsure about their position.

Questions over Youngkin’s abortion position and how in line they are with Virginia voters have emerged after a secretly recorded video of him talking with liberal activists posing as anti-abortion supporters was released in July.

When pressed about his views on a so-called fetal heartbeat bill like the one in Texas and defunding Planned Parenthood, Youngkin says in the video that pushing the issue won’t get him the independent votes he needs to win, but he believes Republicans can go “on offense” if the Virginia House of Delegates flips red.

McAuliffe has claimed those comments reveal his Republican opponent’s true intentions “to turn Virginia into Texas.” While a federal judge has since temporarily blocked Texas’ abortion law, Youngkin was asked in a Sept. 16 debate if he would sign a similar bill that includes the exceptions he supports — in cases of rape, incest and when a mother’s life is in danger.

Youngkin said he wouldn’t sign the Texas bill, calling it “unworkable and confusing,” but did not answer the question. He said then, and in their final debate, that he does support a “pain-threshold bill.” Other states have passed similar laws, which outlaw abortions after about the 20-week mark based on claims that a fetus can feel pain at that point.

When asked if they believe Youngkin has been honest about his stance on abortion, 45% of likely voters polled said yes and 34% said no. Twenty-one percent of those surveyed said they were unsure or had no opinion.

When it comes to curriculum, most voters believe parents should have more influence than school boards

Emerson poll - school boards

Republicans have turned their attention to education since McAuliffe addressed whether parents should be able to tell schools what to teach to students in the final gubernatorial debate on Sept. 28.

“I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach,” McAuliffe said during the debate, remarks that have since been used by the Republican State Leadership Committee PAC in an ad attacking the former governor and Virginia Democrats.

A majority of voters polled, 52%, said they believe parents should have more influence in a school’s curriculum than school boards. Thirty-three percent of respondents believe school boards should have more say in the curriculum and 16% had no opinion or were unsure.

An even split on the economy and widespread support for ending the grocery tax

Emerson poll - handle the economy

Voters were split evenly between McAuliffe and Youngkin, 49%-49%, when asked which candidate would best handle the economy.

Youngkin has proposed ending the state’s 2.5% tax on groceries and personal hygiene products as part of a sweeping plan to cut taxes. The GOP gubernatorial candidate has argued that eliminating the tax would help “make Virginia more affordable for Virginians.”

Sixty-two percent of those polled said they support eliminating the grocery tax in Virginia, while 19% said they think it should remain and another 19% were unsure or had no opinion.

McAuliffe has also come out in support of getting rid of Virginia’s grocery tax.

Emerson poll - grocery tax

Biden’s endorsement could hurt McAuliffe, but 38% of voters say it makes no difference

The political party in the White House has historically struggled to win Virginia’s governor’s race. From 1977 until 2013, the losing candidate in the governor’s race came from the same political party that won the presidential election the year before.

While President Joe Biden carried Virginia by 10% last November, his approval rating has dropped to a new low. Whether Biden’s endorsement of McAuliffe will impact his chances against Youngkin remains unclear, but 39% of voters said it makes them less likely to vote for the former governor.

Thirty-eight percent of voters said Biden’s endorsement makes no difference on how much they support McAuliffe and 22% said it makes them more likely to back McAuliffe.

Virginia voters will cast their ballot for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general in the Nov. 2 election. All 100 House of Delegates seats and certain local races will also be on ballots. Early voting has already begun in Virginia.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9%, with higher margins of error for subsets based on gender, age, party breakdown, ethnicity and region. Emerson College contacted likely voters using cellphone sample using SMS-to-web, a landline sample using IVR and an online panel provided by Amazon MTurk. 

Nexstar Media Group, the parent company of WRIC 8News, contracted Emerson College to conduct the poll.