Over the next few weeks I am going to explore a series of gubernatorial and Senate races for 2013 and 2014. Due to my Masters collegiate schedule and the research required (think demographics, exit polls and geography, precinct level data, etc.) the articles may be infrequent. My apologies ahead of time. So with that said I would like to start by analyzing the 2013 Virginia gubernatorial race.
Virginia has not elected a Governor of the same party as the President since the 70’s. Yet if polls are to be believed it appears that trend is about to change. Democrat Terry McAuliffe has a narrow lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli in the race. As both candidates head for the home stretch with the election a mere six weeks away, they should concentrate on their strengths. In other words their bases. Both candidates are deeply unpopular with Independents so it may be demographics and geography that determines the race, not partisan labels or ideology.
I want to focus more on geography and voting trends each candidate can exploit, not write another article on the particulars of the race thus far. Certainly Cuccinelli’s ties to scandal plagued Governor Bob McDonnell hurt him as do McCauliffe’s ties to Greentech and a federal investigation of said company but they seem to be cancelling each other out.
Historically, Virginia has been a reliably red state. From 1968 to 2004 the state voted Republican for President in every election. Even when Republicans ran subpar candidates such as Gerald Ford and Bob Dole the state stayed with the GOP (though not my commanding margins). This strength in the state for the GOP was fueled by blue-collar whites in the Southwestern and Southeastern regions of the state voting GOP for President but remaining Democratic at the local level. Until recently the suburbs of Norfolk, Loundon and Prince William counties were considered swing counties. Since the 2000’s however they have moved uniformly to the left.
Despite GOP strength in the state since the late 60’s at the federal level, control of the Governor’s mansion alternated between the two major parties. For the most part, Democrats were smart enough to run candidates for statewide office that reflected at least a majority of the values of conservative whites. In both 2001 and 2005 Democrats ran smart, charismatic, moderate to conservative candidates in Mark Warner and Tim Kaine (ironically both now represent the state in the US Senate) who could win conservative whites and the liberal/moderate Northern suburbs. In the 90’s when Democrats ran candidates from the Northern suburbs they were crushed.
In 2009 Democrats sought to recreate their success from 2001 and 2005. Instead of settling with Clintonite and adopted Virginian McAuliffe, the party went with Southern Democrat Creigh Deeds. Republicans backed Bob McDonnell. What resulted was a bloodbath. McDonnell won with over 58% of the vote and even captured the moderate/liberal counties of Prince William, Loundon and Fairfax. Whether in a neutral environment such as 2013 this feat can be accomplished is unlikely. The circumstances that drove the 2009 race are noticeably absent and Republicans are running a much less charismatic and appealing candidate this year.
The largest takeaway for the GOP from the 2009 gubernatorial race is it solidified their control of Southwestern Virginia at every voting level. These same voters election of a new Republican Congressman in 2010 was anticlimactic only. In 2012 this did not matter as Tim Kaine won the state’s open Senate seat and President Barack Obama captured its 13 electoral votes. Their victories came off the backs of massive victories in Fairfax, Prince William and Loundon counties.
Using what we have gleaned above it is easy to see why both campaigns have proceeded the way they have. McAuliffe’s campaign has largely targeted North Virginia while paying little attention to Southwest and Southeastern Virginia. Airing a few ads does not show a genuine interest in courting culturally conservative and white voters. Cuccinelli’s campaign has been forced to take the tougher route, Be conservative enough to drive turnout in Republican areas of the state and appeal to enough Northern Virginia voters to hold down McAullife’s margins in this region.
So far polls show Cuccinelli has been unable to do so. Likely part of this is due to the simple fact these counties have drifted left and left leaning suburban women are more likely to be moved by arguments on social and cultural issues. None of this suggests however Cuccinelli is down and out. In surveys he is within striking distance and is holding down his base and winning Independents. However, his problem seems to be demographics and turnout. Without stronger support from women or the non-white population, of which he seems to have maxed out in safe GOP areas he is likely to lose a close race.
Two more debates could move the needle in the race but both candidates are deeply unpopular. Geography and demography seems to be moving this race and that is to McAuliffe’s benefit. In 2012 Northeast Virginia made up over 30% of the state vote and it gave Obama the state. It also was far more diverse than the rest of the state. McAuliffe is trying to motivate these voters to turn out in even small numbers. But if these voters stay home and Cuccinelli’s base turns out he could be carried to victory on the backs of conservative whites.