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Did The Democrats Actually "Win" in Virginia's Governor's Race?

Updated on August 24, 2019
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ME has spent most of his retirement from service to the United States studying, thinking, and writing about the country he served.


TERRY McAULIFFE WAS SUPPOSED TO HAVE WON the 2013 Virginia's governor's race going away, yet he almost lost! What happened??

Even though I now live in Florida, 20 years of my life was spent in Virginia and, consequently, keep up with the activities there; then there is my insatiable appetite for politics. Normally I would have ignored the Virginia's Governor's race because, like everybody but the die-hard Republicans, I thought there was no contest ... imagine my surprise when the margin was only 3%! This, of course, has prompted me to look for an answer.

Fortunately, pollsters accomplished a great exit poll with tons of data to probe. For starters, let me talk about some preconceived notions based on the reporting leading up to the election and its meaning, as I see it, to the result. McAuliffe's opponent, Ken Cuccinelli, was an unabashed Tea Party conservative with fundamentalist social views. Conventional wisdom would say this stance would be a major turn-off to the more populated areas such as Norfolk-Newport News, Richmond, and Prince William County, especially to women; the poll numbers seemed to support this view in the months leading up to voting day.

Further, Cuccinelli should have been hurt by the government shutdown and debt ceiling near-debacle, which has been largely attributed to the far Right. Add to that, Cuccinelli, is a poor campaigner, but on a positive note, his boss was a well liked and respected Republican governor running in what has been an historically conservative state at the local level; although it appears to be turning purple at the national level.

On the flip side, McAuliffe isn't that great a campaigner either plus, which is even worse, he lost a previous attempt win the Governorship. But, he did receive an unbelievable amount of money from inside and outside sources in addition to having very high profile people, like President Clinton, come and speak on his behalf. McAuliffe also learned from his previous loss and improved his performance considerably by presenting himself in stark contrast to his opponent. McAuliffe's lead just kept increasing ... until the last few weeks of the election cycle; shortly after the Obamacare roll-out catastrophe began to dominate the news.

Reports began to come out that the race was tightening up and, in fact, ended up in single digits. But, nobody seemed to care, including Cuccinelli's funding sources, which largely dried up weeks before; something the Tea Party and Cuccinelli's campaign is castigating them for. The vote happened on Nov 5, and McAuliffe won by just 55,000 votes out of 2.2 million cast; the spread was expected to be more than 100,000. So what happened?




LET ME START BY DESCRIBING the typical person who voted for Terry McAuliffe for Governor. A McAuliffe voter would be:

  • a minority man or woman,
  • between the ages of 18 and 39,
  • unmarried
  • lives in the D.C. suburbs or Tidewater area (coastal Virginia)
  • Democrat,
  • moderate to liberal,
  • post-graduate,
  • earns less than $30K or more than $200K
  • is not a Born-Again Christian
  • believes abortion should be legal in some fashion
  • opposes the Tea Party
  • supports Obamacare
  • somewhat or not worried about the economy
  • approves of President Obama
  • blames the GOP for the gov't shutdown
  • was affected by the gov't shutdown
  • the gov't ought to do more for the People
  • does not own a gun
  • and disliked Cuccinelli




ON THE OTHER HAND, THE CHARACTERISTICS of those who voted for Cuccinelli are:

  • 65 or older
  • white male or female
  • conservative
  • Republican or independent
  • some college
  • earns between $50K to $100K
  • Born-again Christian
  • abortion should be illegal
  • supports or is neutral about the Tea Party
  • opposes Obamacare
  • very worried about the economy
  • disapproves of President Obama
  • blames Obama for the gov't shutdown
  • wasn't affected by the gov't shutdown
  • feels gov't does too much
  • dislikes the other candidate
  • married
  • owns a gun
  • lives in Central or Western Virginia

In between categories, such as ages 40 - 64, basically split their vote among the two candidates.


  • Women outvoted Men 51% - 49%
  • Minorities, mainly Black, made up 28% of those who voted
  • 18 - 24 year olds (6% of voters) voted for Ken Cuccinelli 45% to McAuliffe's 39%
  • 25 - 29 year olds (7% of voters), by contrast, voted for Terry McAuliffe 50% to Cuccinelli's 35%
  • 14.5% of each youth group voted for Libertarian candidate, Robert Sarvis
  • White women and men (36% of vote each) voted overwhelmingly for Cuccinelli, beating McAuliffe by around 20 points
  • 25% and 23% voted for Cuccinelli or Sarvis, respectively, because they didn't like the other candidates. That figure was 50% for McAuliffe voters.
  • 7% of Liberals, 10% of Moderates, and 3% of Conservatives voted Libertarian.


... GIVEN THE TREND OF VIRGINIA toward the Blue side of the aisle, at least nationally? To me, it looks like the principal reason for the narrower than expected victory was female vote, more specifically, the independent, white, female vote: at least in terms of what the polls were predicting. Prior to Nov 5, the polls showed McAuliffe with a large double digit edge with women; 24% according to a 10/28 report by the Washington Post.. In the end, McAuliffe didn't win the women vote by double digits, but it was still large, 9%. So who abandoned Terry McAuliffe? White women did, 38%(D) to 54%(R). Further, white women made up 36% of the vote! Compare this to black women, who represented only 11% of the vote but went for McAuliffe 91%(D) to 7%(R).

Given the way things turned out, the polls (which were of likely voters) should have given McAuliffe a three point advantage with women in the polls going into the election. Pollsters need to dig deep to find out 1) what was wrong with their polling or 2) what factors drove such a huge shift in the last eight days before the election. On the face of it, the biggest external event that took place in that period of time was the shift of focus from the now over government shutdown/debt ceiling nuclear bomb crisis to the Obamacare web page debacle. Maybe they ought to look at the before and after polling on who was blamed for the financial crisis (it ended up being evenly split among Virginia voters) and who was personally impacted by it.

Another place where McAuliffe did poorer than one would expect is with the youth vote, 18 - 24. In this case, the Libertarian, Robert Sarvis, played a potential roll by picking up 6% of the total votes cast. McAuliffe lost to Cuccinelli 39% - 45%, in this group, with Sarvis gathering in 15%. Could this could mean the Democrats didn't get out their vote well enough or was this subgroup of youth turned off by the negative ad campaign? On the other hand, the 25 - 29 age group (who represent another 7%) did just the opposite, but more dramatically by going for McAuliffe 50% to 35%; 7% of that group went Libertarian as well.

I mention that Robert Sarvis may have played a role in siphoning off McAuliffe votes because 7% and 10% of Sarvis' votes came from the Liberal or Moderate ranks, respectively, primarily from the Independent camp who are generally considered Blue votes.. To cement the deal, 23% of Sarvis voters voted for him because they didn't like Ken Cuccinelli or, more likely, Terry McAuliffe given the liberal, moderate, conservative breakdown.

McAuliffe also suffered from the difference between the national opinion, and how the Virginia voter felt about "who was to blame for the government shut down-debt ceiling crisis." Nationally, the Republicans were taking the brunt of the blame by quite a few percentage points. But, but the time of the election, those who voted were evenly split in their blame, and, as would be expected, those who blamed President Obama (45%), voted overwhelming for Cuccinelli while the reverse was true for those the GOP (48%).

Regardless of who was to blame for the crisis, however, those who were personally affected by the shutdown (32%) voted 56% to 37% for Terry McAuliffe, while those that weren't went for Ken Cuccinelli 50% to 43%. This gave Cuccinelli a one point advantage in this category, which, for me at least, is counter-intuitive.


AGES 18 - 24

A FINAL FACTOR IN WHY TERRY McAULIFFE shouldn't be too delighted with the results and, at the same time, probably explains why Cuccinelli lost is the last statistic in the table above. If you weren't Conservative to start with, a plurality of Virginians really don't like Ken Cuccinelli! Fully 50% of those who voted for Terry McAuliffe did it because they didn't like Ken Cuccinelli (and to a very small degree, Robert Sarvis)! Only 25% of those who voted for Cuccinelli or Sarvis did it because they didn't like McAuliffe; that should better be a very depressing and arresting figure for both candidates.

So, to wrap up, it seems to me the primary reason McAuliffe's results were so disappointing is he was abandoned by white women, especially independent white women. Minor roles can go to the super young vote which one would have expected to be similar to the next age group up; having liberal and moderate Democrats vote libertarian in such large numbers wasn't helpful either; and probably all of the terrible news regarding Obamacare.

All the other statewide offices were won by Democrats, except the Attorney General which is probably going to go to a recount, so all around it was a bad day for Republicans; maybe in no small measure to Cuccinelli, in addition to Terry McAuliffe, even though he won.

© 2013 Scott Belford


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