Home 2021 Elections How Important Has the WaPo Endorsement Been In Virginia Democratic Statewide Primaries?

How Important Has the WaPo Endorsement Been In Virginia Democratic Statewide Primaries?

It's been a mixed bag historically, but the endorsement might have more impact when the endorsed candidate isn't from NoVA and/or well-known?

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The Washington Post editorial board (actually, it’s mostly just been Lee Hockstader for about 15 years now, but hardly anyone knows that) has finished its 2021 Virginia Democratic statewide endorsements, going with Terry McAuliffe for governor, Sam Rasoul for Lt. Governor and Mark Herring for Attorney General. How big a deal is the WaPo endorsements these days? Let’s take a quick look at how it’s done historically. As I wrote back in June 2017:

  • In 2006, the Washington Post endorsed Harris Miller over Jim Webb for U.S. Senate. WaPo endorsement in hand, Miller proceeded to lose the nomination AND to get beaten badly in the paper’s core readership area: 69%-31% in Arlington County, 61%-39% in Fairfax County, 66%-34% in Loudoun County, 61%-39% in Prince William County, 60%-40% in Alexandria and 65%-35% in Falls Church. Overall, given that Webb only won the statewide primary by a 53%-47% margin, there’s certainly no sign the WaPo’s endorsement helped Miller. I’d also note that the WaPo’s paper circulation was *much* larger in 2006 than it is today, so you’d think its endorsement would have been a bigger deal back then. Apparently not in any positive sense!
  • On May 22, 2009, the Washington Post endorsed Creigh Deeds for governor over Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran. How did that one work out? According to polling, this endorsement certainly could have boosted Deeds – although of course many other factors were in play, such as the vicious nastiness between McAuliffe and Moran, which turned a lot of Democratic primary voters off. The effect wasn’t necessarily apparent immediately, as SurveyUSA had Deeds at 26% pre-endorsement and 29% about ten days after the endorsement. Another pollster, PPP, had Deeds at 20% pre-endorsement and 27% a week after the endorsement. Deeds kept gaining after that, winning the primary with nearly 50% of the vote. In the Post’s core readership area, Deeds did very well, with 43% in PW County, 47% in Loudoun County, 50% in Fairfax County, etc. So I’d say this is a good case for the WaPo’s endorsement making a difference, although personally I’d argue that the dynamics of that race — Moran and McAuliffe pounding each other viciously, while Deeds basically stayed out of it — were also a major factor. Also note that Deeds – who hails from rural Bath County – wasn’t at all well known in Northern Virginia, so the WaPo endorsement of him over two well-known candidates from Northern Virginia might have helped him a lot more than if Deeds had been from Northern Virginia and/or had been well known in that part of the state. Of course, we’ll never know, but that election’s probably the best case for the WaPo endorsement making a difference in a Virginia Democratic primary.
  • In 2013, the Washington Post endorsed Justin Fairfax for Attorney General and Ralph Northam for Lt. Governor.  Northam ended up winning the Lt. Governor nomination over Aneesh Chopra, while Fairfax ended up losing the AG nomination (by a narrow 51.7%-48.3% margin) to Mark Herring. So the WaPo was 1 for 2 in this case.
  • However…looking at the WaPo’s core readership area, Justin Fairfax lost Falls Church 68%-32%, Arlington County 61%-39%, Alexandria 60%-40%, Fairfax County 54%-46%, Loudoun County 85%-15% and Prince William County 51%-49%. No sign of any particular Washington Post effect there, considering that Fairfax received 48.3% of the vote statewide. And Ralph Northam lost Falls Church 57%-43%, Arlington County 54%-46%, Loudoun County 51%-49% and Prince William County 51%-49%. Northam won Fairfax County 54%-46% and Alexandria 51%-49%. Again, I’m not seeing a clear Washington Post endorsement boost, given that Northam won the primary statewide over Aneesh Chopra by a 54%-46% margin statewide.
  • In 2017, the WaPo endorsed Ralph Northam for governor over Tom Perriello, and it arguably played a significant role in helping boost Northam to victory. Also, in the WaPo’s core readership area, Perriello received just 38% of the vote in Arlington; 39% in Alexandria; 40% in Fairfax County, 36% in Falls Church, 36%. Perriello did better in Loudoun County, where he got 48% of the vote, and in Prince William County, where he got 50%. That compares to Perriello’s statewide 44% showing. So…Perriello overperformed his statewide performance in Loudoun County and PW County, while underperforming in the rest of the Post’s core Virginia readership area.
  • Also worth noting is that the VEA poll (5/9-10, 2017) by Public Policy Polling, which had Northam winning by 10 points, almost exactly what the actual final result was – had Northam up 35%-33% in Northern Virginia, with the remaining 32% undecided. Given the final results, it looks like Northam’s two-point lead in Northern Virginia did increase significantly in Arlington, Alexandria, Fairfax County and Falls Church, but not particularly in Loudoun County or PW County. So…maybe the WaPo endorsement persuaded many of those undecided voters to vote for Northam? Or maybe it was Northam’s advertising blitz in Northern Virginia? Or perhaps it was the fact that nearly every single elected official in Northern Virginia in the election’s closing days sent out emails urging people to vote for Northam? Or that voters in Northern Virginia simply preferred Northam for any number of reason(s) other than the WaPo endorsement? Maybe some other factor(s)? Who the heck knows.

Conclusion: It’s very hard to draw a straight line between one endorsement, such as the Washington Post’s, and the outcome of a statewide Democratic primary. Still, all else being equal, it seems like you’d rather have that endorsement than watch it go to one of your rivals. Also, just a thought, but could it be possible that a WaPo endorsements might have more impact when the candidate they endorse isn’t well known (e.g., Creigh Deeds), or when there’s a multi-candidate field (e.g., 2009), or both? If so, could the WaPo endorsement of Sam Rasoul – who is from Roanoke and also not particularly well known in Northern Virginia – in this year’s LG primary have a major impact? Of course, most of the Democratic LG candidates this year aren’t well known in Northern Virginia. As for the AG race, it seems to me that the WaPo endorsement of Mark Herring helps him mostly in that a WaPo endorsement of Jay Jones would have helped introduce Jones to NoVA voters, and Herring obviously didn’t want that to happen. Fortunately for Herring, he avoided that, and also got a very strong endorsement from the WaPo in the process…

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