Why Terry McAuliffe barely won
By: James Hohmann
November 6, 2013 01:06 AM EST
How the heck did that happen?
Most public polls leading up to Election Day had Democrat Terry McAuliffe coasting to victory, some by double digits, in the Virginia governor’s race. Instead he squeaked by, beating Republican Ken Cuccinelli by less than 3 percentage points.
The much-closer-than-expected outcome blunts the narrative that this was a clean win for Democrats going into 2014 and guarantees an intense blame game among Republicans about what might have put Cuccinelli over the top.
Based on a review of returns, exit polls and conversations with operatives, here are six takeaways from the surprise election of the night:
Obamacare almost killed McAuliffe.
The main news stories of the last two weeks of the race were about the botched rollout of the health exchanges and troubling revelations about people getting kicked off their health plans.
Cuccinelli called the off-year election a referendum on Obamacare at every stop during the final days.
“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of Obamacare,” Cuccinelli said in his concession speech Tuesday night.
When President Barack Obama crossed the Potomac for McAuliffe on Sunday, he glaringly avoided even mentioning his signature accomplishment — trying instead to link Cuccinelli with the federal government shutdown.
Exit polls show a majority of voters — 53 percent — opposed the law. Among them, 81 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 8 percent voted for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. McAuliffe won overwhelmingly among the 46 percent who support the health care overhaul.
Cuccinelli actually won independents by 9 percentage points, 47 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls conducted for a group of media organizations. They made up about one-third of the electorate.
“Obamacare helped close the gap,” said Richmond-based strategist Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.
Cuccinelli might have won if he had more money.
Even before Cuccinelli delivered his concession speech, the candidate’s close allies were beginning to blame outside groups for not helping out more.
McAuliffe outraised Cuccinelli by almost $15 million, and he used the cash advantage to pummel him on the airwaves. A lack of resources forced the Republican to go dark in the D.C. media market during the final two weeks.
The Republican National Committee spent about $3 million on Virginia this year, compared to $9 million in the 2009 governor’s race.
The Chamber of Commerce spent $1 million boosting McDonnell in 2009 and none this time.
“If the Republicans would have rallied around the nominee instead of refusing to support Cuccinelli, he would have won,” said a GOP source involved in the race.
A constellation of liberal interest groups, meanwhile, poured money in as McAuliffe’s lead grew in the public polling. They wanted to claim credit for their particular issues, whether the environment or abortion. Mike Bloomberg’s super PAC spent $2 million in the final two weeks on ads boosting gun control, for example.
The Republican Governors Association spent $8.3 million for Cuccinelli, compared to $5.2 million four years ago, to try making up for the fundraising disparity. But much of that money came earlier in the summer, and the RGA eventually stopped pouring cash into what looked like a losing campaign.
Cuccinelli personally was not a great fundraiser. Removing direct contributions from outside groups, McAuliffe raised $28 million to Cuccinelli’s $11.7 million.
RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski defended the committee, saying that it has to make hard choices about how to spend limited resources.
“The RNC spent millions of dollars to fund the ground game efforts in both New Jersey and Virginia, working in coordination with both campaigns to identify and turn out voters,” she said.
It was a base election.
McAuliffe declared in his victory speech that “a historic number of Republicans” supported him. But that’s just not how it happened.
The Democrat won only 4 percent of self-identified Republicans, according to exit polling. His key was getting more of his people to the polls — 37 percent of voters self-identified as Democrats and 32 percent self-identified as Republican.
In the exit polling, 28 percent of voters supported the tea party movement and another 28 percent were neutral. Virtually all the rest who oppose the tea party backed McAuliffe.
The partisan outcome wasn’t for lack of trying. During the campaign, the former Democratic National Committee chairman embraced one of the main attacks against him — that he is a wheeler-dealer — and tried to flip it into an asset, calling himself a problem solver in a period of paralysis.
And, after his win, McAuliffe pledged to reach out to Republicans in the statehouse.
The gender gap mirrored the presidential.
Exit polls showed McAuliffe won women by only 9 points, the same margin Obama won them by in the presidential election last year. The Washington Post poll last week had put McAuliffe ahead among women by an astonishing 24 points.
This raises questions about whether women are starting to tune out “war on women” messaging and whether apocalyptic suggestions that Cuccinelli would try to ban common forms of birth control were effective at driving women to the polls who might not typically vote in an off-year.
Cuccinelli is a true-believer social conservative, who has spent his career battling abortion and trying to limit divorce. After avoiding social issues the first half of the year, he began defending himself and touting his anti-abortion bona fides in the final weeks as he tried to galvanize his base.
The margin will embolden both sides of the abortion issue to claim victories of sorts.
The Susan B. Anthony List, which spent $870,000 for Cuccinelli through a Virginia affiliate, noted that McAuliffe ran more than 5,600 spots on the abortion issue alone.
“This election shows that it is imperative for pro-lifers to be on offense in 2014 against the distortions and extremism of the left,” said SBA President Marjorie Dannenfelser.
NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said the attacks worked: “Ken Cuccinelli tried to mislead voters by downplaying his extreme social agenda, but ultimately, he couldn’t hide from his long record of attacking women’s reproductive health.”
Obama himself was a mixed bag.
A 54 percent majority of those voting Tuesday disapproved of Obama’s job performance, according to the exit polling. But 30 percent of those who “somewhat disapproved” of Obama nonetheless voted for McAuliffe.
And despite the widespread criticism directed at Republicans for the government shutdown, an equal number of voters pinned the closure on Obama vs. congressional Republicans.
The president’s approval rating has slipped in the wake of the Obamacare fiasco and other scandals of his fifth year in office, and his trip to Virginia Sunday probably motivated some independents and Republicans to back Cuccinelli, but he still has deep appeal with the Democratic base.
Whether blacks would show up without Obama on the ballot was a big concern for the McAuliffe campaign, and they used the trips of Bill Clinton and the president to push turnout specifically among this community.
African-Americans made up 20 percent of the electorate, according to exit polls, on par with the presidential race as a share of the electorate and up from 16 percent in the 2009 governor’s race. Since McAuliffe won 90 percent of the black vote, a 4 percent drop-off in the share of the electorate could have proved fatal.
The black vote helped Virginia Democrats break a four-decade streak — electing a governor of the same party as the sitting president for the first time since 1973.
The shutdown still hurt Republicans.
Though an equal number in the exit polls blamed Obama as blamed congressional Republicans, analysts in both parties agree that the shutdown galvanized Democratic intensity and helped give them the turnout advantage.
Republicans had a 4- to 5-point advantage on the generic ballot through the spring and summer, but internal GOP polling showed a flip during the shutdown. Likely voters preferred “Democrats” by 6 points on the generic ballot in their final polling.
“The shutdown demoralized a chunk of the Republican base and really energized a chunk of the Democratic base,” said GOP pollster Wes Anderson, a partner at OnMessage Inc. “Terry McAuliffe had not found any way to energize the Democratic base prior to the shutdown.”