As the post-election spinning and tea-leaf-reading commences, it should be a matter of simple, non-partisan observation to note that Republican Ken Cuccinelli’s 48-45 loss to Democrat Terry McAuliffe in Virginia on Tuesday night was an astounding comeback for Cuccinelli. He was behind by double digits in almost every poll going into the homestretch. The Clinton money man outspent him by an incredible $15 million. A third-party spoiler funded by Obama money men, fake Libertarian Robert Sarvis, pulled over 6 percent of the vote – perhaps not decisive, given that many of his votes were young people who might otherwise have chosen McAuliffe or stayed home, but in a race this close, it was surely a factor. Cuccinelli had less than enthusiastic support from key elements of the Republican Party; the heaviest artillery that could have been deployed in his favor, Governor Bob McDonnell, has been wrestling with a donor scandal, plus an unpopular tax hike that played perfectly into Democrat hands. He was running in a state filled with government employees who were exceptionally grumpy about the shutdown.
There’s no honest way to portray a 3-point win under those circumstances as a triumph. Cuccinelli is the “Tin Cup” candidate. Like Ken Costner’s character in that film about golf, his comeback and narrow loss will be studied long after McAuliffe’s corruption scandals catch up with him.
One lesson to be learned from the Virginia race is the power of negative advertising. McAuliffe’s campaign was nothing but negative ads, blanketing the airwaves with his gigantic spending advantage to relentlessly attack Cuccinelli. The next time a Democrat complains about negative campaigning or “too much money in politics,” point at them, say “McAuliffe,” and laugh. Of course, there have been plenty of other lessons in negative campaign power, including Barack Obama’s vicious “Kill Romney” campaign in 2012, but this one is so crystal-clear that Republicans might finally learn it. There are very good strategic reasons why Democrats would like negative campaigning to be a tool reserved exclusively for themselves.
Ben Domenech makes an interesting point about the timing of negative advertising at The Federalist:
Cuccinelli has been outspent in each race he???s ever run, but the truth is that while the party???s elected moderates backed him up (Romney, Jeb, and others all fundraised for him), the NOVA business community and establishment Republicans didn???t. A smarter campaign would???ve made it harder for McAuliffe to get this support early on, driving up his negatives when he still had low name ID and making it harder for business dollars to justify backing him ??? but a campaign that gets completely shaken up two months out from Election Day isn???t a smart one, typically.
Pumping up a candidate’s negatives, the way McAuliffe’s slash-and-burn campaign did to Cuccinelli, scares away crucial early support by making a race look hopeless. In the endgame, disaffected swing voters are powerfully influenced when they can’t turn on the radio without hearing an ad calling one of the candidates a maniac. Republicans seem to think sweet reason can overcome massive media buys aimed at making them radioactive, but that clearly isn’t the case. They’re looking down their noses with disdain at the baseball bats Democrats use to bust their kneecaps.
There have been some laughable efforts to spin the McAuliffe win as a “vindication” of ObamaCare. On the contrary, as Fox News notes, “exit polls showed voters opposed to the federal health care law overwhelmingly backed Cuccinelli, helping him narrow the gap on Tuesday.” Public revulsion against ObamaCare – in a state with a very hefty population of federal workers! – was arguably the primary reason Cuccinelli was able to stage such a huge comeback. He campaigned hard against ObmaaCare in the final days, and it almost got him over the top. If Virginia voters had another few weeks to digest the ObamaCare disaster, it might have become all but impossible for McAuliffe to win. That’s not good news for Democrats in 2014, so it’s not surprisingly they’re frantically trying to spin it away.
On the other hand, the exit-poll results highlight a persistent demographic problem for Republicans: the single female vote. Analysts will spend many days picking apart the weak spots in Cuccinelli’s campaign persona – it might fairly be said that both he and McAuliffe were deeply flawed candidates, in almost precisely opposite ways. But it’s stunning to see Cuccinelli winning married women… while losing single women by over 40 points. And this to a candidate who once bailed on his pregnant wife in the delivery room to hit a Washington Post party! But does that sort of thing – does any aspect of personal character – really matter to single female voters, who have been taught that support for abortion and generous social programs are the most important metrics for judging a candidate?
Judging by the last few rounds of exit polling, there seems to be no demographic more vulnerable to the “Santa Clause” campaign approach of throwing out taxpayer-funded goodies and laughing off questions about how to pay for them. Single women tend to swing for such candidates even when they’re comfortably well-off, and would not personally benefit from social-welfare generosity. That might be a signal that they equate “compassion” with the eagerness to hand out government money – Democrat campaigns certainly work to reinforce that impression.
The single female vote also seems easily manipulated with negative social-issue attacks, as Republicans learned to their cost after the Todd Akin implosion, which still has electoral echoes to this day. There is much talk of how various events damage the “brand” of one party or the other. I wonder if anything has inflicted more lasting damage on the Republican brand with a major demographic than Akin. At the very least, the political environment in many states makes it much easier for Republicans to shoot themselves in the feet on social issues. They should be ready for the inevitable “War on Women” assault that will always come, never making the mistake of dismissing it as nonsense they should not dignify with a response.
Another bit of bad news for Republicans is that McAuliffe was a truly horrible candidate, a cartoon character of political corruption, but he won anyway. “No experience in office? Check. Sketchy business partners? Check. Media manipulation? Check,” writes Stephanie Mencimer at… super-left-wing Mother Jones. She offers a personal anecdote to illustrate the kind of “media manipulation” she’s talking about:
I learned about McAuliffe’s dark side firsthand while trying to report on his business deals. He sicced his lawyer, Watergate prosecutor Richard Ben-Veniste, on me early on in the process. And when the Washington Post hired me to continue working on McAuliffe stories, he continued to threaten my editors with veiled libel threats. He even came in for a meeting with Len Downie, then the paper’s executive editor. It was eerie how much he knew about what I was doing at the paper. It turned out that McAuliffe was a good source for some of my colleagues, and they were feeding him information that he was using to try to kill the investigation. It was a classic example of McAuliffe playing the inside game, a skill that has helped him survive this long in politics despite questionable financial dealings and now, perhaps, has helped him get elected to an important and high-profile political job.
He’ll fit right in with the Obama Administration’s strongarm tactics against the media. It really is not good news for the GOP that it couldn’t beat someone like that, even with his huge financial advantage. Perhaps the electorate has lowered its standards for politicians so much that they’re willing to laugh off scandals that would have ended careers a generation ago, at least when the scandalous politician is a Democrat with the usual built-in media protection. Maybe the inertia of the Big Government machine is such that its loyal servants don’t have to be perceived as honest, or even experienced at leadership, any more – as long as they promise to keep the goodies coming. Maybe the electorate has grown so numb and superficial that big money spent on shrewd media buys matter more than almost anything else. Whatever the explanation, Ken Cuccinelli made a remarkable comeback in a race where he really shouldn’t have been the underdog, and the bottom line is that he won’t be the next governor of Virginia.
Update: Interesting take on the political aftershock of the government shutdown from Michael Barone at the Washington Examiner:
Northern Virginia was perhaps more impacted by the shutdown than any other part of the country. Yet when the exit poll asked who was more to blame, 47 percent of voters said Republicans in Congress and 46 percent said Obama. Considering that individuals almost always poll better than groups of people???particularly Republicans (or, for that matter, Democrats) in Congress, this is a devastating result for Obama.
It reminds me of the story of the Teamsters Union business agent who was in the hospital and received a bouquet of flowers. The card read, ???The executive board wishes you a speedy recovery by a vote of 9 to 6.??? However, in this case, the margin was narrower.
McAuliffe campaigned heavily on shutdown resentment, with an assist from President Obama, so a 47-46 apportionment of blame is nothing for them to brag about.
Update: There will be much debate over whether the Republican National Committee should have invested more heavily in Cuccinelli, as with hindsight it seems likely that more money would have won the race. Of course, as they say, hindsight is 20/20, and for most of the race, Cuccinelli didn’t look like a good investment (which recalls Ben Domenech’s point about how a pre-emptive negative campaign strike can frighten money away from a viable candidate.)
Personally, I think the RNC should have been more nimble in exploiting the political opportunity ObamaCare’s launch disaster gave them – they should have cut some money loose to get ahead of the wave that pushed Cuccinelli to within 3 points. Erick Erickson at RedState is considerably less forgiving, and makes an interesting point about how a sharp political operation should have detected and exploited the Libertarian spoiler’s connections to Obama money sooner:
The RNC spent $9 million in 2009 to win and spent $3 million this time, pulling money out of Virginia, to lose by a hair. The RNC truly screwed up in Virginia this time and no amount of spinning can distract from that screw up. It was Election Day itself when someone finally noticed the 3rd party candidate, Sarvis, had been funded by a major Obama donor. Election Day the GOP finally notices this!
In the Washington Examiner piece linked above, Michael Barone mentions some exit-polling data that suggests the Sarvis spoiler candidacy hurt McAuliffe as much as Cuccinelli, maybe even slightly more with key demographics. But the RNC could have used his Obama money connections to their advantage.
Erick also chastises New Jersey governor Chris Christie – rolling to an epic victory just two states away – for refusing to help Cuccinelli with an appearance. The Republican Party, as a whole, needs to bring all of its resources to bear on winning these races. Hopefully a sharper game will be played in 2014.
Update: Jonah Goldberg of National Review on the RNC’s failure to move in for Cuccinelli when the tide turned in his favor: “For all the talk about how the base needs to cooperate with the establishment more, it???s worth remembering that the base almost always does its part on Election Day. It’s the establishment that is less reliable in returning the favor.”