Virginia Capitol Connections Winter 2022

Virginia Capitol Connections, Winter 2022 10 A lot of ink has been spilled trying to parse the results in the weeks since the Virginia gubernatorial election. Explanations for the drubbing the Democrats took range from public dissatisfaction with Democrats nationally, to the Republican Party of Virginia’s more disciplined approach to candidate selection, to the failure of Congress to pass the infrastructure bill in a more-timely manner, to an outsized role for parental anger, to the fact that Glenn Youngkin ran a nearly flawless campaign while Terry McAuliffe’s campaign strategy was… well, what was it exactly? Put me in the camp that believes that as much as the political headwinds were against the Democrats, the results equally reflect a lack of enthusiasm among Democrats and independents for former Governor Terry McAuliffe’s candidacy. Republican voters inVirginia were fired up to vote in 2021. Meanwhile, while anti-Donald Trump sentiment fueled Democratic and independent voters’ energy over the last four years, their enthusiasm waned without Trump himself on the ballot. Overcoming Democrats’ and independents’ flagging enthusiasm required a candidate that gave them affirmative reasons to turn out to vote. In that respect, McAuliffe himself was part of the problem. He entered the Democratic primary months after the other candidates—all African American elected officials—had already begun to campaign. Accused of suffering from the “white savior complex”1 his late entry alienated some number of Democratic voters, who felt that McAuliffe had had his chance to govern and needed to make room for new, more diverse voices. Once nominated, McAuliffe’s campaign did the Democrats no favors. It focused too heavily for too long on Northern Virginia. It failed to coordinate with other state and local campaigns and often ended up competing with them for volunteers and information. It spent extraordinary resources trying to tie Youngkin to Trump, rather than giving voters any clear, affirmative reason to vote for McAuliffe. One of my neighbors summed all of this up in a social media discussion of the election results, writing: “My own lackluster vote for McAuliffe reminded me of voting for John Kerry against Bush way back when. I did it, but meh. I would’ve knocked doors for Jennifer McClellan.” Voters were not only less excited about McAuliffe than they were about Youngkin but they were also less excited about McAuliffe than they were about the other Democratic candidates for statewide office. Indeed, both the candidates for lieutenant governor and for attorney general—Hala Ayala and Mark Herring, respectively—won more votes than did McAuliffe. This reflects a pattern I have noted before in the pages of this magazine: Virginians do not simply reward copartisans at the top of the ticket for having been nominated. Instead, when they dislike the nominee, they simply tend not to vote in that race. Consider: • In 2005, only 912,000 voters selected Republican Jerry Kilgore as their choice for governor, while 979,000 voters selected Republican Bill Bolling as their choice for lieutenant governor, and 971,000 voters selected Republican Bob McDonnell as their attorney general. • In 2009 Democrat Creigh Deeds won 861,700 votes for governor, while 903,850 voters selected Democrat JodyWagner to be lieutenant governor and 874,603 voters selected Democrat Steve Shannon to be attorney general. Virginia’s Election Results Reflect Dissatisfaction— with the Democratic candidate as much if not more than with the party By LAUREN C. BELL • In 2013, in McAuliffe’s first campaign for governor, he won the gubernatorial election with 1,069,789 votes—fewer votes than Ralph Northam won for lieutenant governor (1,213,155) or than Mark Herring won in his first bid to be attorney general (1,103,777). Likewise, Republican candidate for governor Ken Cuccinelli won fewer votes (1,013,354) than Republican candidate for attorney general, Mark Obenshein (1,103,612). • In 2017, Republican candidate for governor, Ed Gillespie, won 1,175,731 votes. But Republican lieutenant governor candidate Jill Vogel garnered 1,224,519 votes, while voters awarded Republican candidate for attorney general, John Adams, with 1,209,339 votes. The act of deliberately failing to vote at the top of the ticket—what political scientists refer to as intentional undervoting—has not been studied as much as the related phenomenon of ballot roll-off, where voters cast votes at the top of the ticket and then fail to vote further down the ballot. Ballot roll-off results from declining levels of information about candidates farther down the ballot from the race at the top of the ticket, which causes voters to skip those races because they lack the information to make an informed vote choice. Thus, all else equal, we should expect to see more votes cast in the gubernatorial election than in the elections for lieutenant governor or attorney general. And yet, as the data above make clear, in Virginia we often see the opposite, especially in the case of the party that loses the gubernatorial election. Moreover, intentional undervoting tends to reflect specific dissatisfaction with the candidate at the top of the ticket. The post mortem on the 2005 gubernatorial election noted that Republican Jerry Kilgore ran a tactically-flawed campaign.2 In 2009, it was a lackluster campaign by Democrat Creigh Deeds that turned many voters off. In 2017, Republican nominee Ed Gillespie tried to capitalize on Trump’s 2016 coattails by taking a hard turn to the right, but in doing so he alienated more moderate Virginia Republicans and independent voters. This year, a lack of enthusiasm about McAuliffe likely suppressed votes at the top of the ticket. McAuliffe supporters will counter that he won more votes for governor than any previous Democratic candidate. But that can both be true and miss the point. The results in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races demonstrate that there were more voters out there willing to vote for a Democrat—but who weren’t willing to vote for McAuliffe. To be sure, it’s difficult to know exactly who the undervoters were with the exit poll data we have available, since we don’t know exactly who failed to vote at the top of the ticket or whether some voters simply split their tickets—although ticket splitting is less and less likely as levels of partisan polarization continue to climb.3 But studies that have explored intentional undervoting in the presidential election context have found that those who intentionally neglected the topline race were more likely to be independents and to come from racially-minoritized groups.[4] Interestingly, McAuliffe did less well with both independents and African Americans in 2021 than Ralph Northam did in 2017, according to the exit polls from both years. Taken together, the data—both from the 2021 election itself as well as the comparative results over the last several gubernatorial elections—offer some interesting insights into the ways in which partisanship and candidate emergence may affect election outcomes in Virginia. Even in a hyperpartisan, nationalized election context, partisanship may not be sufficient to induce voting when the candidate at the top of the ticket fails to excite the voters. Who the candidates are at the top of the ticket and what kind of campaigns they run, still matter. And in a close race, intentional undervoting can make the difference between winning and losing.