Last night was a busy one here in Virginia on the political “straw poll” front, with major ones held by Republicans in Prince William County and Democrats in Mt. Vernon. Do they have any significance whatsoever? Do they indicate anything beyond which candidate spends the most money and effort to get their supporters out to vote for them? Are they just fun gimmicks to attract people to political fundraisers? Here are a few thoughts and takeaways following the two events last night.
- As I wrote in 2013, straw polls probably matter most if the result is surprising or even shocking in some way. For instance, when Jim Webb defeated Harris Miller at Gerry Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day Party on March 17, 2006, that was a big deal because it was totally unexpected and also because it was on Harris Miller’s home turf (e.g., Miller had previously chaired the Fairfax County Democratic Committee; Gerry Connolly was supporting Miller). Former Webb campaign senior strategist Steve Jarding said in Netroots Rising that Webb’s 58%-42% victory that night marked “a key turning point” in the primary campaign. Why? Because it was a complete shocker that Jim Webb could come into the heart of Connolly/Miller country and defeat him among the type of people who attend Connolly fundraisers. That level of grassroots support and enthusiasm proved to be significant, silly/flawed straw poll or not. Also, Webb supporters – including yours truly – worked to turn that straw poll victory into a positive narrative about the campaign, about how Webb really had a chance to win, etc. That’s part of this straw poll game as well…spin (or “narrative” if you prefer).
- It also matters a great deal whether a campaign decides to seriously contest a straw poll or not. In 2006, for instance, the Webb campaign was leaning against competing in the Connolly straw poll until Chris Ambrose almost singlehandedly talked them into it (after contacting 300 people in Fairfax — including 60% of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee — urging those favorable to Webb to attend the party). Essentially, the lesson here is “you can’t win if you don’t play,” but it’s also a calculated gamble by campaigns whether or not to risk competing and losing. In the end, the Webb campaign competed, won, and reaped the benefits. But it was a strategy that was not without risk, for instance if Webb had lost badly, spent money (but failed) to try to get supporters to turn out, etc.
- For high-profile statewide races, I’m skeptical that straw polls have a great deal of validity in terms of predicting election outcomes. For instance, the 2008 Mt. Vernon Democrats presidential straw poll had Hillary Clinton beating Barack Obama 56%-44%; in the Virginia Democratic primary. Just 10 days later, Obama crushed Clinton, including in Fairfax County, where Connolly’s straw poll was held. Or take the Mt. Vernon Dems straw poll in 2009, won handily by Brian Moran over Terry McAuliffe and Creigh Deeds. In the end, Moran finished last in that three-way primary, behind Deeds and McAuliffe. Finally, in 2013, Aneesh Chopra defeated Ralph Northam in both the Mt. Vernon Dems straw poll 148-61) and also in Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day straw poll (70%-30%). The results of the Democratic LG primary a few months later were that Northam won by a 54%-46% margin overall and also in Fairfax County. Again, not at all similar to the straw poll results.
- All of which brings us to last night’s results: Ralph Northam (179-55) and Justin Fairfax (186-30-21) winning “bigly” in the Mt. Vernon Dems straw poll; Ed Gillespie blowing out Corey Stewart (62%-25%) on Stewart’s own Prince William County turf. How much do these results matter? Again, see #1-#3 above, although I’d definitely point to Corey Stewart’s crushing loss in his own county as a bad, bad sign for him. As astute GOP political observer Steve Albertson noted: “Fully 62.3% of the people that know Chairman Stewart best preferred Ed Gillespie, giving Gillespie a nearly 40 point lead over Stewart in the county Stewart governs. Ouch.” Albertson added: ‘It should be noted this is just a straw poll, and with fewer than 300 participants. It’s not scientific, and it joins a group of straw polls that have showed a wide variety of results. But it is the largest straw poll so far, and the first straw poll (that we know of) in vote rich Northern Virginia; to the extent it is representative of Northern Virginia Republicans at large, it is instructive.” I agree.
- Also not encouraging were the results for “former Prince William Police officer Sen. Bryce Reeves (R-Spotsylvania),” who got shellacked 2:1 by Jill Vogel, with “Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach) in the dust.” Definitely not good news for Reeves, who has focused much of his campaign on attacking Vogel – with apparently little impact, at least at the straw poll last night at the Prince William County “Lincoln-Reagan Dinner” (don’t get me started on the absurdity of that name for the Party of Trump). If this were an isolated event, it would be one thing, but scientific polls so far have all shown Gillespie far ahead of Stewart, so this was definitely not an isolated result. Frankly, if I were Stewart after last night, and also after all the scientific polls, I’d really be questioning whether my strategy of being “more Trump than Trump” (or however he puts it exactly) is working. Doesn’t look like it to me, that’s for sure.
- As for the Democratic straw poll last night, I’d definitely score this one as a strong showing for Justin Fairfax (note: his campaign touted the win in an email earlier this afternoon headlined “Wow! We Won Nearly 80% of the Vote!”), who was the most organized (by far) for this event, and also who ran four years ago and came very close to upsetting Mark Herring, who had been the overwhelming favorite for the Dems’ AG nomination. The question for Susan Platt’s and Gene Rossi’s campaigns is how they’re going to catch Justin Fairfax, especially given that press coverage for the LG race will be far less than for the marquee governors’ primaries. Also, first-time-candidate Platt got going much later than either Fairfax (who was the first candidate in this race) or Rossi, while also-first-time candidate Rossi was not well known prior to throwing his hat in the ring. To me, it would behoove them to try for a strong showing at Connolly’s straw poll, or some other event (a debate, if there is one?) in order to try and gain some traction…before it’s too late.
- Regarding the Democratic gubernatorial primary, everyone I talked to thought Northam would beat Perriello in this straw poll, but no doubt Northam’s margin of victory was impressive. I saw no sign of Perriello’s campaign pushing to win this straw poll, which is part of the reason for Northam’s big win last night, so we’ll see if this continues in upcoming straw polls (e.g., the Alexandria Dems straw poll on March 12, Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day event on March 17, the Arlington Dems’ Blue Victory Dinner on April 8, Del. Alfonso Lopez’s on April 12…). Having said that, Perriello at least showed up, which is important, even though I suspect his campaign knew that Northam would win the night’s straw poll.
- Perhaps most striking to me last night was the continued shift in tone by Northam in a much more fiery, pumped-up, anti-Trump, “red-meat,” populist, partisan direction. To my mind, that’s in part a result of the primary challenge from Perriello, in part a result of the real anger and outrage among Democrats over Trump’s disgusting/frightening/bizarre/extreme/bigoted behavior. Having said that, it remains striking to hear someone who had always struck me as quiet, polite, “nice,” and maybe even a bit shy/reserved as basically shouting last night – emotionally – about that the urgent need for us to stop that “narcissistic maniac” across the Potomac River. It’s also a contrast from articles like this one from 2013 in the Roanoke Times (“Northam runs low-key campaign as conservative-tinted Democrat”), in which Northam is quoted, “I don’t consider myself as a liberal. I consider myself as a moderate person. I think the less government, the better.” Apparently, Northam has decided that this year, he’s going to run as a fiery liberal all the way. We’ll see if Democratic primary voters like that “new Northam” or not…but last night he definitely got cheers among Mt. Vernon Dems for his fighting words about Trump.
- One question for Tom Perriello, who has said repeatedly that a main factor in his decision to run for governor this year was the need to fight back against Trump, is whether Northam’s new stance will steal his thunder and require a shift in tactics and/or strategy. It will be fascinating in coming weeks, for instance, to see whether the Perriello folks continue pushing back against attacks from Northam surrogates like Dick Saslaw, whether they hit Northam on his 2000 and 2004 votes for George W. Bush, etc.
- Finally, I’m very interested to see if core Democratic Party support for Northam – among elected officials and party activists – holds firm in coming weeks/months, or whether there are any cracks, defections, etc. So far, there don’t seem to have been any, and I certainly didn’t see signs of such movement last night. At some point, though, it seems to me that the Perriello camp will be looking for a breakthrough in this Democratic establishment “blue wall.”
So that’s my take, for what it’s worth (not much, probably). As always, please feel free to share your own thoughts in the comments section. Thanks.