Factors That Will Determine the Va. Governor's Race

Factors That Will Determine the Va. Governor's Race

By Sean Trende - October 31, 2013

Pre-mortems on the Virginia governor's race are flying fast and furious these days. Here are my thoughts:

1) Ken Cuccinelli hasn't lost, yet.

I have expected the Republican attorney general to lose this race since May, and it certainly hasn’t developed in a way that would cause me to reassess. But we have elections for a reason. How could he win?

Three things would have to happen. Right now, in the RealClearPolitics Average, Democrat Terry McAuliffe has 45.4 percent of the vote, Cuccinelli receives 37.1 percent, and Libertarian Rob Sarvis gets 10 percent.

For Cuccinelli to be elected, Sarvis has to run well behind his average on Election Day. This is often the case with third parties. For example, in the 2009 New Jersey gubernatorial race, Independent Chris Daggett polled 10.4 percent in the RCP Average. Only three surveys of the race commissioned in October and November showed him falling below 8 percent. Yet he received only 5.8 percent in the actual election. Could that happen here? It wouldn’t surprise me; the latest Quinnipiac poll found that only 62 percent of Sarvis’ supporters said they would definitely vote for him.

Second, that drop-off needs to flow disproportionately to Cuccinelli. That sort of shift probably happened in New Jersey, as Chris Christie outperformed the poll averages by a couple of points. It’s less likely here, because surveys show Sarvis pulling about evenly from both candidates, but we don’t necessarily have to assume that the people who decide to vote for a third-party candidate ultimately will be evenly distributed between the parties (in fact, Quinnipiac found a closer race without Sarvis).

Even if that happens, McAuliffe is probably still up by four to five points or so. The third thing that needs to happen is Cuccinelli has to outperform the polls by a substantial margin. Again, this has recent precedent: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell outperformed the RCP Average by about four points in 2009. Given that pollsters disagree substantially regarding the likely partisan makeup of the electorate, it wouldn’t be shocking to see either candidate outperform the polls. A further unknown: A very high proportion of McAuliffe’s voters say they are voting against Cuccinelli, not for the onetime DNC chairman. It’s possible they just won’t show up.

Now let's be clear: Cuccinelli has trailed in every poll taken since early July. Recent polls have had him down by as much as 17 points. The RCP Average has him down eight points.  At a minimum, we'd probably need to see at least one more poll showing result similar to what Quinnipiac shows before we place a great deal of weight on this scenario. Still, it's important to remember that the strong third party showing in the polls and the inherent difficulty modeling turnout in elections occuring in odd-numbered years gives us a bit more uncertainty here than we're perhaps used to seeing in poll results.

2) It probably isn’t about demographics.

Some analysts have tried to place Cuccinelli’s likely loss in the context of Virginia’s changing demographics and the supposed “coalition of the ascendant.” It’s hard to say without seeing the exit polls, but we should bear in mind that the impact of demographic change in recent elections there is almost certainly overstated. Harry Enten has estimated that demographic differences between Barack Obama’s 2008 electorate and McDonnell’s 2009 electorate accounted for a mere four points of what was a roughly 25-point swing between the parties.

In other words, this electorate will almost certainly be substantially similar to the one that voted for McDonnell by 18 points in 2009 and gave the entire GOP ticket double-digit wins, because the Obama electorates were similar to that electorate. The difference isn’t the makeup of the voters, is how the candidates connected with those voters.

3) It isn’t about McDonnell.

Speaking of the current governor, this race probably isn’t about his recent scandals. The Roanoke Poll, which is one of the more favorable polls for the Democrats right now, had McDonnell’s favorable/unfavorable rating at 40 percent to 33 percent. Other polls have had it higher. Obviously, Cuccinelli might prefer a more popular governor to hit the campaign trail with him, but despite his problems, McDonnell isn’t exactly radioactive.

4) It probably isn’t about the government shutdown.

We can’t really explore a counterfactual where the government never shut down, but we can look at polling averages. For most of late September, the RCP Average gave McAuliffe a lead of somewhere between four-and-a-half and five points. As the government shutdown unfolded, that lead grew to around eight points.

The shutdown probably added a point or two to his showing, but it isn’t the reason Cuccinelli is losing. This is particularly hard to sort out, because the shutdown occurred when McAuliffe began outspending his opponent dramatically. The shutdown also probably made it difficult for Cuccinelli to mount any hypothetical comeback.

5) It probably isn’t about the Republican Party.

As Enten and I have argued, the GOP’s favorables may have dropped in the wake of the shutdown, but they really weren’t that much worse than they had been even in very good GOP years like 2010. In this country, elections tend to be about candidates, not parties.

This is why we don’t really see a sharp collapse in Cuccinelli’s poll ratings that correlates with the Republicans’ declines. Perhaps more importantly, if we were to see a candidate suffer from a generalized backlash against the party, it would probably be Christie in New Jersey; such a backlash is probably going to be more concentrated in blue states. And yet, we see the opposite.

6) It is probably about stridency.

Instead, this race is about a candidate who is simply too stridently conservative for the state. This isn’t to say that a conservative candidate can’t win in Virginia; far from it. Most observers agreed that if the GOP had nominated Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, he would have defeated McAuliffe handily. Bolling is quite conservative; he has been consistently pro-life and anti-gay marriage. McDonnell, also very conservative, won by almost 20 points in an electorate that looked a lot like this one. For that matter, Christie is probably the most conservative governor the Garden State has had in living memory, and he’s on track for a huge win in a state that is much bluer than Virginia.

McDonnell, Bolling and Cuccinelli probably agree on 95 issues out of 100, but what makes the first two different is that they don’t fit the mold of a culture warrior, either in terms of style or emphasis, and the five issues that they disagree on tend to be tough sells for conservatives. Because of this, McDonnell got the benefit of the doubt from voters when his master’s thesis from Regent University emerged, which staked out a number of highly conservative positions.

Cuccinelli’s problem in a nutshell is this: The Old Dominion would probably vote for a candidate who had sued a professor at the University of Virginia over his climate science research. It would probably vote for a candidate who referred to homosexuality as unnatural. It would probably vote for a candidate who tried to limit no-fault divorce. It would probably vote for a candidate who covered up an exposed breast on the state seal. It would probably vote for a candidate who wasn’t sure if the president was born in the United States. It would probably vote for a candidate who told colleges and universities to strip protections for gays and lesbians.

What it won’t typically do is vote for a candidate who holds all of these positions, and is unapologetic in them. Truth be told, Virginia hasn’t been particularly fond of strident social conservatives for quite some time; Oliver North, Michael Farris, Mark Earley, and a host of other similar Republicans have met similar fates. The mold of a successful statewide Republican here has been John Warner, Jim Gilmore, and Bob McDonnell, all of whom would check most of the boxes on a conservative scorecard, but who also knew how to communicate those stances to your average suburban voter in a non-threatening way.

As for Terry McAuliffe, he doesn’t really fit the ideological mold for successful Virginia Democrats, although his business experience and his financial edge have allowed him to slide more into the mold of your average pro-business Virginia Democrat. And he’s hardly beloved. He’s averaging a negative-seven favorability. To put this in perspective, as Ben Tribbett points out, Mark Warner had a plus-31 favorable rating when he won by five points, while Tim Kaine had a plus-24 favorable rating when he won by six points.

Ken Cuccinelli is simply more conservative than the Virginia electorate will bear, and is conservative in all the wrong ways for the state. Unless there’s a major surprise next week, that will be the main takeaway from this election. 

Sean Trende is senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics. He is a co-author of the 2014 Almanac of American Politics and author of The Lost Majority. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @SeanTrende.

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