What Happened in Virginia?
For those of you following the 2009 elections, I don’t have to tell you that Virginia–one year after voting Democratic for President for the first time since 1964–is about to sweep our most conservative Republican ticket in history to victory today. What you might find useful though is why–and how you can prevent something similar from happening in your state in 2010.
Some have compared this year’s election to the 1993 election that served as a preview for what would happen in 1994. I actually think things are a little bit worse. In the 1992 election, senior citizens were one of the best voting blocks for Bill Clinton–and of course seniors have excellent voting patterns and represent a larger share of the electorate in low turnout mid-term elections. That helped save a number of Democrats in 1994–like Lawton Chiles in the Florida Governor’s race. But in 2008, seniors were one of the groups with which Barack Obama struggled. The strongest groups for Democrats in 2008 were voters under the age of 30 and minority voters. Also known as the two groups whose participation historically falls in midterm elections. In Virginia this year, one poll showed the percentage of the likely electorate under the age of 30 falling 70% from 2008–and the African American share of the vote falling 39% from 2008! That’s why virtually every poll has shown today’s likely electorate as having voted for John McCain by double digits over Barack Obama in Virginia last year–despite Virginia having voted almost exactly the reverse.
Unfortunately for us, the Deeds campaign freaked out and read these polls wrong over the summer. Instead of attempting to energize more young and minority voters to the polls to make the electorate more representative of Virginia–they began running a campaign targeted to the people already planning to vote. Creigh began bashing federal Democratic priorities like “Cap and Trade” and health care reform to appeal to the conservatives that were headed to the polls.
And every time he did it, polls indicated turnout shriveled even further among Democrats and progressive voters–making the electorate even older, whiter, and more conservative. To which Creigh responded to by bashing federal Democrats more–which resulted in even more progressives becoming disengaged. Over and over, the cycle continued. Over the last six weeks, PPP polls indicated the share of the electorate that identified as Democrats declined from 38% to 31%. In other words almost one out of every five self-identified Democrats planning to vote on Labor Day has since then looked at Creigh Deeds and his conservative message, and decided they weren’t voting. Ouch!
The people feeling this voter depression most are Democrats running downballot from Creigh for Lt. Governor, Attorney General and the House of Delegates. When an upballot candidate loses because Independents break against them, downballot candidates still have a chance by winning those Independent voters back to vote for them. But when an upballot candidate depresses the base and changes the composition of the electorate, there is nothing a downballot candidate can do. Which is the major reason why Republicans will sweep all three statewide offices today and make major gains in the House of Delegates, barring a last minute miracle.
The lesson for candidates in 2010 is clear: do not depress your base when our electorate is already far less likely to vote than Republicans to begin with. Successful candidates in 2010 will find a way to engage young voters and minority voters so they come back to the polls–and AFTER they do that, work on winning over enough Independents to win.
If this election serves as a reminder that pandering to right wingers is not a successful electoral strategy, then Creigh Deeds will have done even more good for Democrats than if he had won the Governorship today.