Chris Sautter: What we learned from the off-off year elections
Thursday, November 07, 2013 10:53 AM
WASHINGTON - Off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia have long been touted as bellwether signs of what to expect in upcoming congressional and presidential campaigns. It is tempting to overstate what their results mean for future elections. Yet, there are some clear conclusions that can reached following Tuesday’s off-off year elections in New Jersey, New York, and Virginia.
Chris Christie is the presumptive frontrunner for the 2016 Republican nomination. Democrats may regret having put up only token opposition to Christie, as the New Jersey governor easily won re-election taking more than 60% of the vote. Christie demonstrated his ability to win votes from all voting groups—carrying women by 13%, nearly half of the Latino vote, and surprisingly one-third of Democratic votes. Christie’s impressive showing has elevated him to the status as the one Republican presidential candidate—with the possible exception of Jeb Bush—who seemingly can compete in the new world of presidential demographics that strongly favor the likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The biggest question with Christie is whether he can win over a skeptical ultra-conservative Republican base without undercutting his strengths and electability as Romney did. Conservatives were offended by Christie’s embrace of President Obama during the 2012 Hurricane Sandy crisis and interpret Christie’s pragmatism as a sell-out of their ideals. But their alternative is to nominate a Republican with strong libertarian leanings in Rand Paul or Tea Party idol Ted Cruz. Either would almost certainly result in a third consecutive campaign defeat for the White House.
Virginia no longer votes like a southern state. Changing demographics especially in the Washington, D.C. suburbs have turned Virginia into a swing state that is strongly trending Democratic. Former Democratic National Committee Chair Terry McAuliffe’s 48 to 45% victory over Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli marks the first time in 40 years that a candidate of the same party as the President won the governorship. The Virginia governor and both U.S. Senators are now Democrats.
President Obama carried the state twice. While gerrymandered legislative districts still give Republican the upper hand in the General Assembly and an unresolved attorney general race may allow the GOP to retain one statewide office, the election underscores how much the Republican national base is shrinking. Cuccinelli won the independent vote by 9% and held on to 92% of the Republican vote in spite of a libertarian candidate but still lost the race by 3%. The Obama coalition delivered for McAuliffe as more voters described themselves as Democrats (37%) than did Republicans (32%). African American Americans voted in nearly equal numbers as they did in 2012. If the 2016 Democratic nominee can count on continued support at equal levels from African American voters, you can mark Virginia’s 13 electoral votes in the Democratic column again.
Republicans will continue losing statewide if they nominate hard right candidates. Terry McAuliffe was not an especially strong candidate, but won in a race in which Cuccinelli was originally favored. Cuccinelli was no ordinary Tea Party candidate. He had a lot going for him—a solid record as attorney general, statewide name recognition, and the ability to raise money. But Cuccineli’s history of embracing extreme right-wing causes—especially his support of the “personhood” constitutional amendment—cost him the ability to compete for the votes of single women whom he lost by a whopping 42 points. Even a candidate as well credentialed as Cuccineli simply came across as too out-of-the-mainstream to too many people. In the last five years, Republicans have now lost a half dozen U.S. Senate races and now one gubernatorial contest because they nominated someone too extreme for many voters. This trend will likely continue as the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party remains strong in many swing states.
Money matters but how it is spent matters more. McAuliffe outraised Cuccinelli by $15 million. His best use of that money was early media that portrayed Cuccinelli as too extreme to be governor. Republicans believed they could disqualify McAuliffe because of a history of shady business dealings but didn’t start to define him on TV until the fall when it was too late. Cuccinelli’s failure to match McAuliffe’s early media campaign allowed McAuliffe to jump ahead in the polls. And once McAuliffe was ahead, the Republican establishment—never a fan of Cuccinelli—abandoned him, though independent conservative organizations like the NRA invested heavily. Meanwhile liberal interest groups began to pour money into Virginia as McAuliffe’s lead grew in the public polls. Many in the conservative media argue that the Republican establishment’s betrayal cost Cuccinelli the race. Indeed, the Republican National Committee gave only $3 million to Cuccinelli’s campaign compared to the $9 million they put into Robert McDonnell’s campaign in 2009. Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that “the GOP simply didn’t want a Tea Party candidate winning there.” But the fact remains that Cuccinelli was a flawed candidate who ran a poor campaign, failing to spend the money he had as wisely as McAuliffe did.
The government shutdown and Obamacare are the two top issues. Virginia voters who blamed Republicans for the shutdown (48% compared to 45% who blamed President Obama) voted overwhelmingly for McAuliffe. The shutdown occurring a month before the election clearly helped solidify McAuliffe’s lead. Cuccinelli for his part never really got any traction in the campaign until the end when he tied McAuliffe to Washington through the administration’s bungling of the Obamacare website. Forty-six percent of Virginia voters said they back the Affordable Care Act while 53 percent opposed it. Nine in 10 who supported the ACA voted for McAuliffe while 8 in 10 who opposed it voted for Cuccinelli giving him some momentum down the stretch when he finally began to focus on the issue. Democrats will continue to embrace the shutdown as an issue while Republicans will continue to bang away at Obamacare for the foreseeable future.
Growing inequality in America is a winning issue. Bill DeBlasio made income inequality the central issue in the New York City mayoral campaign and it catapulted him from the back of the pack to an easy primary victory and a 50-point general election win. DeBlasio’s success in using inequality along with Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s cult-like popularity is likely to influence Democratic primary campaigns including the presidential primaries. There are growing disgruntled feelings within the base of the Democratic Party about the Obama administration’s failure to focus on progressive ideals. That discontent within the Democratic base will translate into support for primary candidates who elevate issues like the growing income gap in America.
Most public polls cannot be trusted. Many public polls were wrong in the presidential race and many were wrong again in Virginia. The final Washington Post poll had McAuliffe up 12% going into the final 10 days of the election. McAuliffe’s own internal polling had him up only 4%. Polling is only as reliable as the sample. Predictions of a McAuliffe landslide were based on public polling with flawed sampling. The most reliable polls are usually the ones commissioned by the candidates themselves.
Sautter is a Democratic consultant based in Washington.