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Schapiro: Putting Youngkin's campaign on the couch

Schapiro: Putting Youngkin's campaign on the couch

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Donald Trump may not be coming to Virginia, but he’s getting into Glenn Youngkin’s head.

The former president is creating for the aspiring governor a paralyzing case of PESD: Pre-election Stress Disorder. It keeps Youngkin from looking ahead because he is always looking over his shoulder.

With Nov. 2 fast approaching, the Republican finds his candidacy beset by the political equivalent of a psychological concept: approach-avoidance conflict.

That’s what you call the emotional stress caused by an opportunity that is defined by positive and negative consequences, by desire and anxiety.

If you’re Youngkin, a campaign virgin with a lot of money and no political experience, you welcome Trump’s support — he’s endorsed Youngkin three times — because it validates you with Trump voters, of whom you will need every single one for your candidacy to be competitive.

For Youngkin, that’s a supposed positive.

But Youngkin knows that because he is running in a blue-trending state Trump lost to Joe Biden by roughly 10 points, that Trump’s meddling — he’s made baseless warnings of election fraud here and fulminated over the toppling of a towering statue of Robert E. Lee — alienates election-deciding swing voters.

For Youngkin, that’s a definite negative.

The remedy for approach-avoidance conflict — the concept is the brainchild of Kurt Lewin, a German-Jewish psychologist who studied leadership and groupthink and who fled the Nazis, becoming a U.S. citizen on the eve of World War II — is to somehow find a circuitous route around it.

For Youngkin, the path has been labyrinthine, seeming only to put greater distance between himself and his objective: a governorship that hasn’t been won by a Republican since 2009.

Trump’s not the only bump in the road for Youngkin. He’s just the most visible.

Over the past two weeks, Trump has loomed large, giving Democrat Terry McAuliffe a fresh opportunity to depict Youngkin as a Trump clone. If the political class is sick of hearing McAuliffe’s rant, it means those whose views count most — ordinary voters — are just starting to hear it.

On conservative radio, Trump declared the Virginia race close and said the only way McAuliffe could win is to steal the election.

Trump never mentioned Youngkin by name but his claim spotlighted Youngkin’s perilous balancing act, talking up election integrity for Trump voters while slowly — very slowly — acknowledging for Biden voters the president’s victory.

As the state-owned likeness of Lee in Richmond fell, Trump attacked Democrats for erasing history and defended the rebel general as a brilliant battlefield leader and unifying force after the Civil War.

That, too, put Youngkin on the spot, because he kinda, sorta endorsed the statue’s removal. That can only anger those must-have Trump voters and Republican legislators — on the ballot with Youngkin — who backed a state law, since repealed, protecting Confederate statues.

The just-signed Texas law that all but prohibits abortion — and is being challenged by the Biden administration in federal court — creates for Youngkin an approach-avoidance conflict from which there may be no escape.

It recalls 1989, when the U.S. Supreme Court’s first attack on Roe v. Wade drove the governor’s race in favor of Democrats.

The Republican nominee, Marshall Coleman, was running as an absolutist on abortion restrictions. Because the Supreme Court was opening the door to limits on the procedure, Coleman suddenly found himself isolated from moderate suburban voters. With Coleman stranded on the right, Doug Wilder — running as a centrist — became the nation’s first elective Black governor.

Youngkin has restated his opposition to abortion, allowing it for rape, incest or to save a woman’s life. He hides out on whether he would push for Texas-like restrictions in Virginia. About the only thing Youngkin will say is that McAuliffe is an extremist on abortion rights because he is against restrictions.

Youngkin has been saying that for at least five months. In May, as the newly installed nominee, he squirmed around questions on whether he favored a Mississippi abortion ban taken up by the Supreme Court only days after Youngkin’s convention victory.

His position on COVID-19 vaccinations was supposed to be a shot in the arm for his campaign. Youngkin may have hit his foot.

He said he’d been vaccinated and urged others to do the same. Instead, with a spike in infections attributed to people’s refusal to get jabbed — risking the health of others and the economy, and triggering state and federal vaccination mandates — Youngkin seems out of touch.

Maybe all of this explains why Youngkin — to, at minimum, keep the Republican base invigorated and optimistic — is attempting one of the oldest plays in the book: leaking private polling that shows him surging, if not overtaking, McAuliffe because inflation and Afghanistan are undercutting Biden in Virginia.

The polling is showing up on conservative news sites, apparently unchallenged and unquestioned. And that’s precisely the idea. Youngkin wants Republicans, many of whom figured they would take a chance on him because he’s a rich guy who can self-finance and has no record to attack, to remain calm and to believe all is well.

Winning campaigns don’t resort to such games.

There’s nothing wrong with the Youngkin campaign that a good shrink couldn’t fix.

But the first thing the therapist would say is that Youngkin has to want to change.

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or

Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond; 89.1 FM in Roanoke.

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