Home Virginia Politics Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Two, Turnout Problems

Twelve Days of Christmas for Virginia Democrats: Day Two, Turnout Problems


( – promoted by lowkell)

(This is the second part of a twelve part series looking at the challenges, obstacles, and future possibilities of Virginia Democrats. Check out day one. Please join in by commenting below your thoughts on some of the topics raised in the diary, and please vote in the poll at the end on which rematch you’d like to see in 2015!)

On the second day of Christmas, the Commonwealth of Virginia gave to me …

A system of odd-year elections, shared mainly by Southern outliers and hotbeds of two-party democracy (hah!) like Mississippi and Louisiana that depresses voter turnout from high profile elections in even-years.

In 1948, the great American political scientist V.O. Key wrote that Virginia was a “political museum piece . . . more akin to England about the time of the Reform Bill of 1832 than to any other American state.”

Have we changed much since then?

Virginia now has something resembling a two-party democracy. Based on the last two Presidential elections, the last two Senate elections, and the Democratic sweep of all of the statewide offices in 2013, you might mistake Virginia for a blue state even!

But the system of odd-year elections for state offices distorts turnout, particularly in the growing minority population in Northern Virginia.

Looking back, there are now two completely different gubernatorial races to compare to the last two presidential elections. There were vastly different campaigns in 2009 and 2013, waged by two very different candidates. Although the toxic political environment of 2009 (among other problems) saw Deeds crushed across the commonwealth, a careful analysis can sort out pockets of stronger than expected support (Deeds Country?). But that’s not the focus of this diary.

Instead, I’m interested in areas where both Deeds and McAuliffe did worse than expected. We can explain an area (like Southwest Virginia) where Deeds did better but McAuliffe did worse. On election night in 2013, some may remember that votes were coming in much weaker than expected for the Democrats in Danville and a few other Southside areas. Although at first this gave reason to worry, it instead ended the night as a localized phenomenon explained by difficulties in voter turnout in the poorer, more African-American precincts of Southside Virginia. Some Virginia politicos may also remember that it was poor turnout in Danville that ended State Senator Roscoe Reynolds’s reelection night in 2011.

In 2009, Deeds ran statewide roughly 11 points behind Obama’s average performance and was close to this expected performance in most delegate districts. But in the 13th District represented by Bob Marshall, Deeds was 5.61% behind his expected performance. Four years later, while winning statewide with a coalition that closely resembled Obama’s winning formula, McAuliffe ran 4.73% behind his expected performance in the 13th district as well. The 13th is the poster child for a district where a growing minority population has turned a seat blue in high turnout years, but hasn’t caught up (yet) in lower turnout years.

Another seat to look at is the 2nd, where Futrell was elected by just 223 votes. In 2009, Deeds ran 5.49% behind his expected performance, an indication of turnout problems very similar to the 13th. In 2013, McAuliffe ran 3.37% behind. This is a 58% Obama district, strongly Democratic in high turnout years, but more conservative if turnout doesn’t occur in the right Democratic-leaning communities.

In fact, all of Deeds’s worst performing districts had minority-heavy areas in Prince William County: 52nd (Torian), 50th (Miller), 13th (Marshall), and 2nd (Futrell). Even with McAuliffe’s win, Prince William was a problem for turnout in the campaign. McAuliffe’s worst performing districts were more diverse, ranging from the 16th outside of Danville (the open seat that elected Adams), to the 13th, and the 22nd (Byron), 30th (Scott), 19th (Austin), 2nd (Futrell), and 14th (Danny Marshall). If there is a theme, it’s that problems with Prince William turnout continue, and we also see problems in Danville and Southside. Deeds did not do as poorly in Danville and Southside, probably because he was running better with Southside whites and able to compensate for lower black turnout.

Is there a trend to where both McAuliffe and Deeds both do worse? Here’s what I’ve found. We’ve talked about the 13th and 2nd in Prince William, and also the 50th. Another cluster is in the exurbs of Stafford and Spotsylvania: 54th (Orrock), 88th (Cole), and 28th (Howell), and the neighboring 30th (Scott) in Culpeper and Orange. Is there a deeper trend in these Northern Virginia exurbs? (Comment below if you have thoughts!)

Finally, a red flag in this special election season, the 100th left vacant by soon-to-be State Senator Lewis. In both gubernatorial elections, Deeds and McAuliffe underperformed on the Eastern Shore. Is this just because it was an overlooked region for field offices and GOTV? It could be a bad omen if Republicans win the seat in the special election, our future candidates in statewide office won’t have enough coattails to knock off the Republican in future years.

Elsewhere, the 2nd will be a tough seat to hold in 2015. And with lower turnout, the ever-elusive quest to defeat Bob Marshall may be better for 2017 than 2015.

Between the Republican gerrymander, odd-year elections, and problems connecting with swing voters in competitive districts, Virginia Democrats may wish they had gotten a lump of coal for Christmas instead.

Is there a silver lining? Well, there are some areas where local, Virginia Democrats do better than expected, even if they are as different as Deeds and McAuliffe. It’s hard to believe, but even McAuliffe ran slightly better than expected in some of the coal parts of Southwest Virginia. But these districts are so overwhelmingly Republican that minor improvement is meaningless.

Other affluent, liberal districts in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax don’t have the variance in turnout that we see in Prince William. These are among the safest seats out there for Democrats. Personal antics are more likely to end careers than electoral defeats. Congratulations Delegate Krupicka!

Among competitive seats, there’s only one where the population is affluent and well-educated enough so that we don’t see a dropoff in Democratic performance in gubernatorial years: Comstock’s 34th district. It also had a high crossover of Romney-Kaine voters. So where’s the autopsy on what’s gone wrong in this districts two elections in a row? (Comment below with your thoughts!)

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