Lessons Learned From the Virginia Gubernatorial Race

Win or lose, there are always lessons to be learned from campaigns. Here are five lessons from Virginia:

  1. In a toss-up political environment, candidate quality matters most. The political environment has shifted back to even, away from Dem dominance. The mood of the state under a Democrat governor was mixed, and President Obama had a 51% approval rating. So the political environment was a coin flip.
      So, Bob McDonnell’s big win was a result of his superior skills as a candidate. Voters said Bob was more likable, someone they could trust, and right on the issues. He was seen as talking about what mattered right now – jobs, spending, taxes, energy/environment, and transportation. Conversely, Creigh Deeds was seen by voters as completely lacking a positive message for governing.
  2. The Republican electorate is fired up. We ask survey respondents how interested they are in the election on a scale of 1-10. In the 2005 elections in Virginia (we did the polling for Bob’s Attorney General campaign), we found Democrats were seven points more likely than Republicans to rate their interest as a 10 (top end of the scale).
      This year, even at the end of the campaign, Republican interest was twenty points higher than Democrats (54% to 34%). In the years of asking this question, I’ve never seen such a wide disparity between the two parties. As campaign chairman Ed Gillespie was fond of saying, “the most dangerous place to be on Election Day is between a Republican and the ballot box.”
  3. Issues matter. Bob McDonnell talked about jobs, spending, taxes, transportation, and the three E’s – energy, the environment (green jobs), and education. On the issue handling section, Bob won jobs (the most important issue) by nearly 20 points. He won transportation (the Northern Virginia issue) by 17 points. He crushed on taxes and spending, and tied on education.  As Attorney General, Bob establish a record of accomplishments that received bi-partisan support.
  4. Turnout can not overcome a failed message. Turnout programs can make a winner out of a campaign that would otherwise lose a close election, but can’t do anything for a campaign that had no message. For all of the Democratics (they don’t like being called a Democrat) bragging about their turnout program, their voters had no reason to actually vote.
  5. Off-year elections ARE a referendum on the party in power. While the political environment did not overwhelmingly favor Republicans (as it did for Dems in 2005 and 2007), we were running down a gentle slope with the wind at our back. Our issue messages about spending and taxes would not have resonated in recent years, but the Obama Administration’s policies have put these GOP strength issues front and center with the electorate once again. Taxes and spending are back! That wasn’t Deeds’ doing, it was the larger national force of the Obama/Democratic Congress working to help us out.
      Also, the notion that Obama did not do much to help Deeds is laughable based on the clear-cut evidence. Not only did Obama do two rallies for Deeds, they also sent numerous emails, direct mail, and most likely recorded calls. The Obama political team tried a bluff equivalent to a World Series of Poker star – “we’re not involved,” and then they went all in.
Public Opinion Strategies