Home 2017 Races Ten Takeaways From Last Night’s Virginia Republican and Democratic Straw Polls

Ten Takeaways From Last Night’s Virginia Republican and Democratic Straw Polls

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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.

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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 12Connolly’s St. Patrick’s Day event on March 17, the Arlington Dems’ Blue Victory Dinner on April 8Del. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

  • From the Mt. Vernon Dems:

    NORTHAM AND FAIRFAX WIN MVDDC 2017 VIRGINIA DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY STRAW POLL

    Lt. GOVERNOR RALPH NORTHAM AND JUSTIN FAIRFAX VOTED TOP DEMOCRATIC NOMINEES FOR GOVERNOR AND LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR

    ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Lt. Governor Ralph Northam won the Mount Vernon District Democratic Committee’s 2017 Democratic primary straw poll for governor, while Justin Fairfax picked up the most votes for lieutenant governor. The two winning candidates received more than three-quarters of votes in their respective category.

    A crowd of over 250 gathered on Saturday, March 5, 2017, at Don Beyer Volvo in Alexandria to celebrate Mount Vernon District Democratic Committee’s annual Mardi Gras Masquerade.

    The straw poll ballot included the Democratic primary candidates for Governor – Northam and former Congressman Tom Perriello – as well as the Democratic primary candidates for Lt. Governor: Justin Fairfax, Gene Rossi, and Susan Platt.

    Perriello served as U.S. Representative for Virginia’s 5th congressional district from 2009 until 2011, and was later appointed Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rossi has served almost three decades in the Justice Department –as a 27-year career federal prosecutor, and most recently, chief of the Specials Unit of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia’s Alexandria Division. Platt served on Capitol Hill as Chief of Staff for Vice President Joe Biden’s senate office, and then turned to legislative work helping Virginia businesses to grow, hire more Virginians, and pay higher wages. Fairfax, a former assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, served as deputy of the Major Crimes and Narcotics Unit and is a small business owner.

    The event was attended by a number of elected officials including Congressman Don Beyer, Senator George Barker, Senator Adam Ebbin, Senator Scott Surovell, Delegate Mark Sickles, Delegate Marcus Simon, Delegate Mark Levine, Delegate Paul Krizek, Mount Vernon District Supervisor Dan Storck, and Fairfax County School Board Member Ilryong Moon.

    Each primary candidate addressed the crowd before ballots were cast.

    The straw poll’s gubernatorial front-runner, Northam said, “As a doctor –we like to listen and we like to hear what’s on folks’ minds. And as we travel around this great commonwealth, people have a common theme out there –they want a good paying job that they can support their family with, they want access to affordable and quality health care. They want to make sure their children have access to a world-class education system and they want to raise their families in safe neighborhoods and communities.”

    When it comes to Virginia’s economy, Northam shared, “We have brought in over 187,000 jobs to the Commonwealth in the last three years … Our unemployment rate has gone from 5.4 [percent] to 4.1 [percent].”

    “I’m proud to be a Democrat. And when we elect Democrats, good things happen,” Northam said. “We need to be at the table. We need to make sure that all Virginians have access to affordable and quality health care. We need to make sure that women have access to quality reproduction health care.”

    “As far as safe communities –I fought during Desert Storm proudly,” said Northam. “I took care of wounded soldiers during Desert Storm. I know all too well what assault weapons do to human beings. We do not need assault weapons on our streets and in our homes.”

    The poll’s top pick for lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, shared, “We have to make sure people know that we are protecting them and that we have their backs.”

    “Also, we’ve got to have a hopeful vision for this country for getting people higher paying jobs [and] getting people into colleges affordably. Taking care of the burden of student loan debt that’s crushing so many of our young people’s financial dreams and criminal justice reform [are things] we’re very passionate about,” said Fairfax. “We have to resist Trump but I also think we have to let people rise in their lives by doing those things that help them pursue and achieve the American dream.”

    “Stay inspired –because I believe that Virginia is going to be the match that sparks the wildfire of progressive change throughout this country,” Fairfax said. “So, what we do in 2017 matters –the eyes of the country and of the world are on Virginia –and I think that we’re going to do something special and write a new great narrative in American history.”

    Voting was conducted by secret ballot. At the end of the evening, MVDDC Chair Kate Spears announced winners of the straw poll.

  • Stephen Spitz

    Did you know that Susan Platt received from $120,000 to $180,000 each year between at least 2001 and 2016 from tobacco company Altria as a lobbyist for them? And that she has admitted that she is receiving tobacco money for her campaign? Justin Fairfax is not receiving money for his campaign from tobacco companies.

  • Another Scott

    Thanks for the reporting – it’s greatly appreciated.

    Impressive, but perhaps as you say, a not unexpected win by Northam.

    I’m glad Tom is running. I don’t like Virginia’s system which has candidates play musical chairs and “it’s my turn” with important state-wide offices. I would really like to see the Governor have the opportunity to run for at least 2 terms. (Having a governor be a lame-duck on his first day in office seems to me to be ill-advised.)

    I hope and expect that there will be an intense but fair battle between Northam and Perriello for the nomination. The battle in the fall isn’t going to be a push-over, and the candidates need to know how to fight and bring the voters with them then. I also hope and expect that the losing candidate will work just as hard to elect the nominee as if they were the nominee themselves. We can’t afford to turn Virginia into East Brownbackistan. A fair but hard-fought battle will build interest in the election among those who aren’t political junkies and will get more people thinking about the importance of the election.

    The party needs younger candidates to gain state-wide recognition, so even if Tom or Justin doesn’t win their nominations, it could be good for their and the party’s prospects going forward. We need to be seen as the party of smart, vibrant, hard-working public servants who are willing to put in the work to address the huge challenges facing the state and the country in coming years. Not just a party of “not Republicans” or “we’re the party of your parents and your tribe, so you’ve got to vote for us”…

    Thanks again.

    Cheers,
    Scott.
    (Who is still undecided in most of the Democratic races.)

  • totallynext1

    Lowell…Totally agree on Ralph having some fire under him at the event. That was striking and well received by me. This is the year to freakin be proud as a Democrat and not do the whole..gee let me try and reach conservatives crap. We have the independents on our side – just look at the turn outs at various community meetings.