Interesting analysis from Virginia/National Democratic political guru Mo Elleithee:
I’ve worked in politics a long time. I’ve had some great wins. And I’ve been on my fair share of losing campaigns. I know what it feels like to have momentum, and I definitely know what it feels to be stuck in quicksand – when desperation just makes you sink even faster.
Looking at Ken Cuccinelli’s campaign for Virginia Governor, they’re up to their necks in the quicksand.
With just over three weeks left in this campaign, Cuccinelli and his team are exhibiting all the tell-tale signs of a campaign that has no real strategy, no real message, and no real traction.
In short, they are not acting like a winning campaign.
Now, I know each campaign and election are different. But, there are some universal truths in this business. Here are a few I’ve picked up throughout my career.
The closer you get to Election Day, the more important the trendline is. And in Virginia, the trendline is clearly headed in the wrong direction for Cuccinelli. In the last 19 public polls on the race, Cuccinelli has trailed McAuliffe by an average of almost 6 points. In fact, he hasn’t even broken 40 percent in the Real Clear Politics average since early July. Since the government shutdown began, Cuccinelli has trailed by an average of nearly 8 points. And with nearly half of Virginians viewing Cuccinelli unfavorably, it’s clear voters don’t trust him – making it even harder for the Cuccinelli camp to change course.
In swing states, winning campaigns expand the universe. Losing campaigns give up on everyone except the base. Instead of making a final pitch to undecided, independent voters in Virginia with less than a month to go, Cuccinelli is already shifting focus to turning out his conservative base. Just this week, he told WJLA, “For us, we’re focusing on turning out our folks, and that means everybody who agrees with us on an issue.” In recent weeks, he’s headlined a Family Foundation gala with Senator Ted Cruz and held a rally with conservative firebrand Mark Levin. Rather than sticking with a broader message to appeal to the women voters and independents he’s struggling to win over, he’s gone home to the base and has counted out independents. Win independents, win the election. That’s how it’s gone for the last three governors – McDonnell, Kaine and Warner – and it’s likely to be true this time as well.
You cannot win statewide in Virginia if you are losing women by 20 points. Polls aren’t just showing bad toplines for Cuccinelli. The numbers actually get worse in the crosstabs – especially with women voters. Yesterday’s Quinnipiac poll has Cuccinelli trailing McAuliffe by 20 points – 54 percent to 34 percent – among women. To put that in perspective, President Obama won women by near double digits in 2012, a key to him carrying the Commonwealth.
Campaigns expand their media buys when they’re winning. They cut them when they’re losing.Politico reported this week that “Cuccinelli’s campaign has been making smaller and smaller ad buys over the past three weeks.” This is the same move that George Allen made last year when his campaign began sinking in the final stretch. By staying off the air in this critical time of the race, Cuccinelli is giving up on making a pitch to undecided, independent voters. Their challenge is compounded by the fact that Terry McAuliffe has reserved about $2 million in airtime over the final four weeks to make his closing pitch to Virginians while Cuccinelli’s camp has reserved none beyond this week. When you have the cash, you buy early because you get better placement and a better deal. Cuccinelli’s inability to attract the traditional GOP donor base in Virginia is showing its impact.
Winning campaigns don’t shake up their staff. After trailing in yet another poll last month, Cuccinelli shook up his staff. Instead of acknowledging that his campaign is failing to appeal to women and independent voters, Cuccinelli is blaming internal campaign mechanics and taking it out on his staff.
It helps to have a message that is consistent with where voters are. Just look at the government shutdown. Cuccinelli still won’t call out his Tea Party allies to stop playing chicken with shutdown and default. When asked about the shutdown, he said, “It is a federal government shutdown. I’m running for governor” – ignoring the outsized presence of affected federal workers in the Commonwealth. His embrace of Ted Cruz, who quarterbacked the GOP’s shutdown strategy, is already putting him in hot water with Virginians. This inconsistency and lack of clarity on major issues would signal trouble for any campaign this far along in a race.
If you’re going to tell voters why they shouldn’t vote for the other guy, you have to give them a reason to vote for you. Cuccinelli is running a relentlessly negative campaign. I don’t begrudge him that. Elections are about choices, and there are plenty of differences between these two candidates. But here’s the thing – if voters don’t like or trust you (see above section on polling), they tend to react badly to your negative ads. And if you’re not giving them a reason to vote for you, chances are pretty slim that they will.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s still a lot of time left in this race, and Virginia is a competitive state. But the clock is ticking, and I don’t see them making any of the necessary changes they need to turn this race around.
As someone who has been there before, I’d much rather be in McAuliffe headquarters these days than Cuccinelli’s.