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February 9, 2016

Why Most Postmortems of Virginia’s Gubernatorial Race Are Wrong

The dust has settled (mostly) from last week’s elections, so I thought it time to present a very different assessment of what happened in Virginia than the snapshot I’ve seen from others.

For example, Democracy Corps and Women’s Voices, Women Vote Action Fund distributed a wholly self-serving and unconvincing memo titled “Unmarried Women Cast Deciding Votes in Virginia Election.” It’s unconvincing, of course, because Republicans always lose unmarried women, regardless of an election’s outcome. Unmarried women are more liberal than most voters and are not part of any winning Republican coalition.

NBC’s Domenico Montanaro and The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart credited African-American turnout for Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s victory, as did Jamelle Bouie of The Daily Beast. Wrong as well, I’m afraid.

Others have noted, quite incorrectly, that the partisan makeup of the 2013 electorate wasn’t very different from the makeup of the 2012 electorate in Virginia, suggesting that Democrats have found some formula for turning out key voting groups in lower turnout elections that could help them offset what most expect to be a less Democratic-inclined electorate for the 2014 midterms.

While these assessments tell a part of the story and certainly should force Republican voters and strategists to take a clear-eyed look at the long-term prospects of the current GOP coalition, they don’t explain last week’s results in Virginia, nor do they offer meaningful insights into 2014.

While African-American voters made up one-fifth of the Virginia electorate in both 2012 and 2013 and Democrats held a partisan advantage in both contests (7 points in 2012 and 5 points in 2013), McAuliffe did not win because of the makeup of the electorate or the GOP’s weaknesses with black voters.

He won because Republican Ken Cuccinelli failed to get the same level of support from the normally Republican voting groups that Mitt Romney had a year earlier. And any complete comparison of the 2012 and 2013 electorates in the commonwealth suggests turnout problems for Democrats in next year’s midterms.

The 2013 Virginia electorate was older, wealthier, more married and, surprisingly, more male than the Virginia electorate during the presidential race just a year earlier. In other words, it was a measurably more Republican-looking electorate than the one that turned out in the commonwealth for President Barack Obama’s re-election, even with the impressive black turnout.

In 2012, the Virginia electorate, according to exit poll data on CNN’s website, was 53 percent female and 47 percent male. This year, the exit poll showed an electorate that was 51 percent female and 49 percent male.

Voters age 18-29 constituted a strong 19 percent of the electorate in 2012, but made up only 13 percent of this year’s electorate. On the other hand, voters 65 and older were 18 percent of this year’s Virginia electorate, 4 points more than the 14 percent they constituted in 2012.

This year’s electorate was also much wealthier. In 2012, 34 percent of voters made $100,000 a year or more, but this year 40 percent fell into that income category.

In 2012, only 62 percent of the electorate was married. This year, 67 percent said they were married.

So, in many important demographic categories, the 2013 electorate was much different than the one that showed up to the polls last year. And the differences should have favored the Republican ticket. That wasn’t true of race and partisanship, of course, but there is no reason to pull out only two categories for examination, especially given the richness of the exit poll data.

The survey data are pretty clear on why Cuccinelli lost. He lost because he was unable to match Romney’s percentages with key demographic groups that almost always vote Republican. Those voters showed up at the polls, but too many Romney voters crossed over to cast ballots for McAuliffe or Libertarian Robert Sarvis.

The Republican nominee for governor won a plurality of male voters (48 percent), but well below the 51 percent that Romney won in the state last year. Cuccinelli would have gained an additional 48,000 votes if he had matched Romney’s percentage, much of which would have come from McAuliffe, thereby completely erasing the Democrat’s 55,100 victory margin. (See Virginia’s total vote here.)

Add in white women (Romney won 59 percent of them in the state in 2012, while Cuccinelli won only 54 percent this year) or wealthy voters (Romney won 51 percent of voters earning at least $100,000 a year in Virginia in 2012, while Cuccinelli drew just 43 percent of them and lost the category to McAuliffe) and the Republican would have had a comfortable victory last week.

And if you don’t want to focus on gender, the marital status numbers tell the same story. Romney won 55 percent of married voters in Virginia last year, while Cuccinelli won only 50 percent of them this year. That’s about 75,400 fewer married voters than a Romney-like Republican gubernatorial nominee should have drawn.

Though you hear a lot about the changing face of the electorate, both nationally and in Virginia, that’s not why Cuccinelli lost last week.

The Virginia election in 2013 was one where the Republican nominee would have won merely by attracting the votes of the same people who voted for Mitt Romney. The party’s candidate for governor did not need to improve his showing among young voters, African-Americans, Hispanics or unmarried women. He just needed to get white guys and their wives.

That conclusion, which is based on an evaluation of all of the data, not on merely cherry-picking one or two variables, ought to be little comfort for Democratic strategists worrying about the makeup of the midterm electorate.

Correction Nov. 12, 12:49 p.m.

An earlier version of this post misstated one reference of the income range of wealthy Virginia voters who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Romney won 51 percent of voters earning at least $100,000 a year in Virginia in 2012.

  • PatrickG

    Is the author kidding. This is even better news for democrats. If correct, the author is saying that even with a more republican electorate, the Republicans cannot win because they keep going ever rightward. Perfect.

    • LMirza

      Actually, it is not good news for Dems in VA. Looks like a moderate Republican would have won in VA

      • ThatPeterG

        you mean the moderate Republican who can’t win a nominating convention or a primary?

        • LMirza

          yup,,,the money part of the party is trying to recruit acceptable ones ..they have already started in Michigan against Amash

          • Bill

            Looks like most here are just as wrong about breaking it down as most post-mortems.

            Republicans who are viewed as emphasizing social issues and religion over fiscal issues and personal liberty lose. End of story. An analysis of who won and who lost in Senate races in particular over the past few cycles bears this out.

      • BigGuyDon

        Good luck finding a “moderate Republican” in Virginia. In the commonwealth, they call those Democrats.

        Democrats shouldn’t rest on their laurels by any means. McAuliffe was an awful candidate for Virginia as well. Much too much “old school liberal” backage and no charisma. Democrats need to focus on recruiting good candidates in a race like this, and particularly ones with moderate credentials that will negate the opportunity for the GOP to go to the middle.

        It’s still unlikely that we will see any kind of significant move to the middle for 2014 from the GOP. You still have a lot of elected tea partiers and the perception of the base is still “we weren’t true enough to our principles”. You can’t nominate a “moderate” if you disqualify anyone who would consider immigration reform, recognition of gay unions and wouldn’t futher restrict women’s choice.

        • ID-2

          You do not need to be a Republican who embraces those issues to win. Chris Christie opposes gay marriage and abortion and he won in a much bluer state easily. It is how the candidate portrays his stances on the issues and his past record on them that matter. Note, Lt. Governor Bolling was anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage. It is widely accepted he would have creamed McAuliffe.

          • proudestamerican

            Christie has not actually DONE anything on those two issues. If he did, he would not be Governor anymore. New Jerseyans vote for him despite his radical fringe view on social issues because they know the legislature wont pass any of that stuff.

          • ID-2

            Exactly what did Cuccinelli DO on the issue? Christie actually did more than Cuccinelli thiugh to be fair he was in a better position to do so. Should look it up sometime.

          • proudestamerican

            I’m not sure exactly what your point is. Christie is starting his second term as Governor. Cooky has never been and will never BE governor. He has not been empowered to DO anything yet. My comment was simply addressing the question of how a Republican like Christie gets elected twice in a blue state.

          • ID-2

            Christie vetoed PP funding five times. Did Cuccinelli? In other words Christie has done more on social issuses but again it is how it is presented to the public.

          • CVBeethoven

            Christie also vetoed the NJ marriage equality bill, though his veto was overturned in the courts. He fought the ruling at first, but then gave up on it when he decided he’d sufficiently established his anti-gay marriage credentials.

          • ID-2


          • Roberto M

            Vetoing PP funding is smart politics since the majority of voters just about everywhere doesn’t thing the government should be in the business of funding abortions anymore than it should be banning abortions.

          • mjcc1987

            Perhaps. I think Christie is riding the Post Sandy wave more than the actual results of his policies. Voters overturn his veto on min wage and the House/Senate was poised to overturn marriage equality. I don’t discount his political savvy, which seem very good.

        • LMirza

          U r right. Good candidates on the Democratic side also help to magnify the craziness on the other side.

          Democrats should focus on getting some house seats from there. Like Pereillo’s old seat plus others. And I hope the weasel Cantor gets primaried…

      • proudestamerican

        You are correct. Cooky’s extremism cost him several points amongst reliable GOP voters. That was just enough to give the Dems a victory.

      • easton

        but even the AG race is down to the wire. right now we don’t know who will win that. McAuliffe was a terrible candidate himself, so your hypothesis is flawed, at most based on the AG race it is safe to assume the Democrat would have won because of the siphoning of vote away from the Republican by Sarvis.

  • narnia

    So he was so extreme moderate gopers left him. and went with McAuliffe. Priceless.

    • proudestamerican

      NO read the article. They stayed home. They did not vote for McAullife.

  • Bob Viering

    It appears the message is that who the candidate is really does matter. Duh…The Tea Partiers are not going to go gently. At best, its going to take a couple or more election cycles to really limit their influence. And, for that to happen it will mean some real, actual political work be done by moneyed Republicans and I just don’t see that actually happening. Those folks just want to write checks and talk big with their friends.

  • proudestamerican

    Very interesting article. The million-dollar question is WHY did whites and married people NOT got to the polls in large enough numbers. We need research and polling on this. Some will argue that it was because Cucinelli was TOO conservative while other will argue that he was NOT conservative enough. Perhaps we will never know.

    • Roberto M

      No one is talking about the fake Libertarian placed on the ballot by a Obama fundraising bundler. He syphoned off far more votes from Cooch than from Mac. Altogether, right leaning voters pulled 52% of the vote in this election. Democrats can put this on their pipe and smoke smoke it. Good luck finding and funding more fake libertarians to place on the ballot in 2014!

      • Billly

        I’m sure that will be a great comfort to Cuccinelli as he takes offic… oh wait.

    • Roberto M

      Let’s also face the fact that Cooch wasn’t the most inspiring candidate out there. Bland and boring is what come to mind when you think of him!

      • renfriend

        No, he managed the far more difficult task of being bland and extreme.

  • Nicholas Breakspear

    Yes, Lt Gov Bill Bolling would likely have won the race if he had been the GOP nominee. Ken Cooch was the wrong candidate, even without GOP support. He is too extreme, and this election result confirmed it. Terry McAuliffe was very fortunate to win, but win he did, and that’s all that matters at the end of election day. Ken Cooch can blame all of the lack of help he wants, but ultimately he was the candidate, and it’s up to him to get the job done. He lost, and it’s his responsibility to acknowledge it to himself. But unfortunately for him, he now will have plenty of time to reflect on this loss and his own personal responsibility toward that loss.

    • Nana Mary

      It certainly would have been nice if all who agreed, before the convention, to support the chosen ticket, would have “manned-up”
      to their promise.
      The GOP did not give 1 thin dime to his campaign starting Oct. 1. Many local GOP supporters did not display the large signs as they usually did.
      He was, and IS, a remarkably capable candidate. His experience, even fighting FOR protection of women while in college at UVA, is unlike
      that of his opponent, but the media neglected all of that. Had he had more money to rebut the FALSE ADs PP and McAwful ran against him, especially in October, he could have won, I’m convinced.
      I can’t wait to hear the wailing from our businessmen when McAwful sends even MORE to China. Actually, I can, as it will be so sad for us peons.
      “The saddest words of pen or tongue, are wisdom’s wasted on the young.”

    • Roberto M

      I doubt Bill Bolling would’ve have won given that the corrupt VA Democratic machine would have pulled the same dirty tricks as it did against Cooch. Funding a fake libertarian candidate in order to syphon votes from the GOP candidate is about as low as it gets but it did get the job done which was to elect an unelectable Democrat. If the GOP started funding Green party candidates for the same purpose, the media would be all over it.

  • TH

    Interesting analysis. Mr. Rothenberg seems to be saying that Cucchinneli lost because Romney’s voters did not turn out for Cucchinnelli in 2013 the way they did for Romney in 2012.

    Since Mr. Rothenberg seems to subscribe to the theory of “a vote for Romney should be a vote for Cucchinnelli” I wonder what theory he has for a vote for Obama as it relates to McAuliffe and had Obama and Romney voters turned out in numbers and voted in 2013 the way they did in 2012 if a Cucchinnellui victory would have still been on the cards.

    I’d like to know.

  • The Webcast Guru

    I dismiss your analysis en toto. Not one word discussed the purposeful suppression by the Republican power structure in the Commonwealth of Virginia of more than 40,000 qualified voters. That strategy was effective, yet for some reason unsuccessful. I wonder why. Maybe becaue telling citizens they no longer have the right to vote will make them vote in unprecedented numbers that the Republicans counted as theirs. Travesty!

  • RememberSekhmet

    Where was the African-American turnout in Virginia? Specifically, in which counties was it turnout high? Was it all over? Was it more Tidewater or Northern VA/Suburban DC? Because that might be able to tell you what African-Americans will do with a Caucasian at the top of the ticket. If the African-Americans who turned out in such good numbers were also the DC government workers…well, not every state has a DC suburb.

    • Nana Mary

      I guess a brilliant black Marine, Harvard-trained lawyer and minister as candidate for LT Gov wasn’t enough to suit some.

      • disqus_VxeNnTIVwA

        You forgot hate-mongering!

        • Nana Mary

          Sometimes hearing the truth can hurt.

          New International Version
          And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

          • disqus_VxeNnTIVwA

            Being patronized by a smug God Botherer is even worse!

  • ArlingtonRed

    No wonder Cuccinelli lost – he got only 83% of the conservative vote. So much for the strategy of turning out the base.

  • truthshallmakeyoufree

    Romny lost Virginia and other states due to the brutal Republican primary campaign and the rebublican establishment in Virginia usinf a seive to limit our candidates to Ron Paul and Mitt Romney.
    2. I would draw attention of the election results of the counties and cities within the and the votes within each will give a more accurate analysis. The counties and cities with voters who live a life of self reliance voted overwhelming the republician ticket. The counties and cities near Washington D.C. and those with heavy afro-american populations who feed on the bloated pig and of the federal government voted for the democratic ticket.
    3. I do not see a loss but an uprising against big government intrusion in our daily lives
    4. Augusta County, Waynesboro, and Stauntion with a total population of 130,000 + voted over 68% for the republician ticket.

  • Jimofthejungle

    I believe we can now add your post mortem to the list of the ones that are wrong.
    Its really very simple: you had two ugly, flawed candidates that the other side was voting against as much or more than they were voting for their guy. Any attempt to parse the results beyond that are unfounded. And please, Stu, stop with the nonsense comparisons. Its an off year election. Of course its going to have fewer young people, the turnout will be older and richer. DUH. The bottom line is Cooch was uglier than McAuliffe, but not by much.

  • Mojojojo

    You ask whether Dems improved midterm turnout, then proceed to compare 2013 not to 2009, the last Virginia midterm—like any logical person would—but only to 2012, a full-on presidential. In what universe does that make sense?

    • jackDC

      Very good Point!!!!!!

  • Evan Schuman

    This column appears to have a major typo. It said “wealthy voters (Romney won 51 percent of voters earning at least $10,000 a year in Virginia in 2012,…”
    If we’re defining wealthy as earning more than $10K/year, we’re wealthier than I thought. I am guessing someone dropped a zero.

  • John Herling

    Bottom line: Virginia is turning blue, and the GOP split hurt its candidate. In 2014, not many other states will even be turning purple, but the split could occur in just about every red state. For that reason, Virginia is a bad omen for the Republican Party.

  • Tom

    He failed to win because the Democratic party was funding a Libertarian candidate to split the vote. Had their been no Libertarian candidate he would have easily won.

  • truthseeker53

    Bottom line is if the candidate is dished up by the DNC or RNC they’re no good.

  • Will Bishop

    Well, these are legitimate points – of course we should call out people making false claims about the makeup of the electorate. But isn’t it a bit silly to say, “McAuliffe didn’t win because of group X, he won because of group Y”? Clearly, BOTH black voters and white voters, male and female, married and unmarried, etc., contributed to Cuccinelli’s loss. If any group had given more votes to him, he could have won.

  • Capsrus

    It’s odd to see a pro like Rothenberg making the case for the “we just need to do better among white voters” wing of the GOP. Comparing 2013 turnout to 2012 turnout must be fun for political hacks looking at the trees rather than the forest. The reality is that off-year electorates are fundamentally different from presidential year electorates, regardless of how hard Democrats try to recreate the Obama coalition. But there is nothing that Republicans can do to stop the fundamental demographic change that is occurring in VA and across the country: we’re getting less white. Rothenberg ignores the number that really matters: a comparison of the white share of the VA electorate in 2009 (when whites made up 78% of voters) to 2013 (when whites were only 72%). By 2017, whites will be less than 70% of the VA electorate, and less than 70% of the 2016 national electorate. Republicans are not going to win if they can’t attract more non-white voters.

    • Roberto M

      We are getting less white and there are more people working in government today than in manufacturing. Northern Virginia is becoming an extension of Maryland with more and more government workers fleeing D.C. It is only a matter of time before Northern Virginia becomes another crime and welfare infested shithole just like D.C. and Baltimore.

      • anthony002

        better to live in DC than any red-state sh*thole like Mississippi or Alabama.

        • Roberto M

          You are far more likely to get shot or mugged in the streets of D.C. than in either Mississippi or Alabama, unless of course you are hanging out in neighborhoods full of Democratic constituents. Get back to me when the murder rate of either state matches the murderous rampages going on in D.C.

        • Lorenzo Rodgers

          DC is a sh*thole where sh*thole little houses cost $950,000.
          Northern VA is just one big happy can of government leeches now.

  • Billly

    This is Rothenberg doubling-down on an earlier mistake – the assertion that the (highly precedented) shifts in the electorate to a more republican-friendly base in off-year elections is somehow “bad news” for democrats. As the top poster correctly points out, this is -even better- news for democrats if a terrible candidate like McAulliffe can win in the most hostile of conditions in Virginia. It means that unless there is a sea-change in the republican nominating process the party has little hope of winning a statewide election in Virginia in years with a higher turnout of the democratic base (read: every other year).

  • jackDC

    While Cuch was surely a very weak GOP candidate, and lost because of his Tea Party-ism that cost him tradition Republican Votes, you MUST also consider he was running against McAuliffe’s – a super weak Dem candidate!!!!

    I’m a strong Dem, but McAuliffe impressed me as a used car salesman. Criegh Deeds was an equally weak candidate in 2009, and neither hold a candle to Former Dem governors Kane and Warner.

    So in 2017, if Dems elect (in a primary) a strong, moderate Dem. candidate, then they have a good chance at defeating even a stronger GOP candidate that Stu thinks will run.

    Bottom line VA is Purple, but gets a little bluer every year!

  • dinthecenter

    One thing has been clear for a long time. Both parties ran candidates who could easily have lost to a good candidate from the other party.

  • BarbCarmel

    I appreciate this careful analytic work. Mr. Rothenberg does tease out that Cuch lost some normally GOP voters to McAuliffe. He attributes this to Cuch as a candidate. He omits the deterioration of the GOP brand, which Mr. Ultrasound Probe, Mr. Pro traffic, more or less personified. We know that many business oriented contributors, who are normally GOP backers, switched to McAuliffe. It appears that the same is the case for business oriented GOP voters.

    IMHO, this is related to Cuch having too radical positions. We learn that a part of the GOP base is not radical and will vote for the other guy. An alternate analysis of the difference between votes for Romney and votes for Cuch from normal GOPers is that there is a moderate part of the base which can, and will, switch if the candidate is more radical than Romney was.

    I agree with his analysis if the GOP runs “normal, business friendly” GOP candidates. However, as others have commented, there is a GOP war which is, variously, turning out either nut-cases, or RINOs that the Tea Partyers hate. That is the expected context of the 2014 mid-terms.

    He omits how much better the Dem GOTV worked in 2013, versus 2009. IMHO, if the Dems are happy in 2014, it will be the combination of a split GOP, GOTV, and an attractive Dem candidate (in targeted elections). I find the polls that he cites to be supportive of the good Dem case because they show that some normal GOP voters can get disgusted, and will vote Dem. He is correct that the winning formula in a lower turnout election includes moderates voting Dem. This happened in Virginia. The last time that it happened nationally was 2006.

  • RHallman

    Virginians will regret this like America is now regretting Obama… will take a few years after the Clinton lackey jacks up taxes, expands food stamps, and starts to ban guns…….

  • WhatMightBe

    Good grief the reason the Conservative lost is simple – the RNC.

    The RNC spent only 25% on the Conservative as they did 4 years ago on the non-conservative.

    The RNC would rather have a wacko Liberal win than a Tea Party Conservative.

    Same thing will happen in the 2016 election…………

  • JoeS4

    The only problem with what you’ve said is that you’re comparing percentages for Cuccinelli and Romney without accounting for Sarvis. Cuccinelli got fewer votes than Romney, but McAuliffe also got fewer votes than Obama (and perhaps to a greater degree). Sarvis got almost 7% of the vote. You’re comparing apples and oranges there to some degree.

    • chaos344

      I’m not sure that the Sarvis factor actually made that much of a difference. All the exit polls I’ve heard about, say that the Sarvis votes were almost evenly split between both candidates. Hence a push, and the reason Mr. Rothenberg didn’t factor it into the equation?

      Just Sayin!

  • TeamRed_vs_TeamBlue

    He lost because he’s a religion-addled kook. It’s not complicated.

  • Native_New_Yorker

    Until the Republicans get true leaders, they will continue to fail…..Liberals vote blind!!!!!

  • bralinshan

    When the libertarian candidate draws that high a percentage it comes from the Republican…
    The Libertarian lost it for the R’s…FYI, when the higher premiums and deductibles hit…and, when corporation put employees on the exchanges next September? Democrats are in DEEP trouble. This healthcare is a financial killer for families and it will cost families their healthcare because they’ll opt out due to cost. And even D’s that are now pissed will be less likely to vote for D’s. EVERYBODY votes for their own financial interest and Obama just crushed everybody.
    Obama just handed the R’s a senate majority next November. Bank on it.

  • Kunigunda

    I prefer your more comprehensive assessment. I don’t agree with your conclusions. What you failed to deal with is why Cuccinelli failed to meet Romney’s “winning” numbers in an off-year election. This is where the peculiarities of increased turnout by the young, minorities, unmarried women tend to tell the tale. My conclusion is that the Dems have a pretty good change of winning in 2014 if they remain diligent, think ahead and promote what they believe in.

  • ted lotring

    c’mon Stu. stop being a wacko bird flack. you’re better than that

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