6 takeaways from Election Night 2013

November 5, 2013

Terry McAuliffe is the next governor of Virginia. Chris Christie has won a historic reelection victory in New Jersey.  Now comes our favorite part of elections -- sorting through the data!

We'll have a big winners and losers post tomorrow on The Fix but wanted to offer a handful of thoughts on what we've seen tonight and what it might mean.

* Virginia isn't for social conservatives. Ken Cuccinelli beat McAuliffe among voters who said the economy was the most important issue and among those who named health care as the biggest priority.  But, among those who said abortion was their most important voting issue -- roughly one in five voters -- McAuliffe crushed Cuccinelli by something close to a two-to-one margin. (Worth noting: Virginia voters were given four options to choose as their most important issue, only one of which -- abortion -- involved a social issue.) Half of Virginia voters said that Cuccinelli's position on issues was "too conservative," while fewer than four in 10 said he was "about right" on the issues. What those numbers tell us is that McAuliffe's efforts -- primarily through a blitz of campaign ads in northern Virginia -- to paint Cuccinelli as a warrior for the social conservative movement worked. Even though "economy"  and "health care" voters sided with Cuccinelli, it wasn't by anywhere close to a large enough margin to offset his losses among voters who prized social issues.

* The Republicans' unmarried people problem: Cuccinelli carried married men and married women by single digits. But, he lost among unmarried people by massive margins.  Unmarried men favored McAuliffe over Cuccinelli by almost two dozen points and unmarried women by more than 40.  The only solace Republicans can take -- and it's not much of one -- is that Cuccinelli's dreadful performance among unmarried voters was significantly worse than that of Mitt Romney in Virginia in the 2012 presidential election; Romney lost single men by 16 points and single women by 29. The lesson for Republicans is that while they don't need to win unmarried voters, who are still heavily outnumbered by married ones, they can't lose anywhere close to as badly as Cuccinelli did and hope to win a statewide election in Virginia.

* The Virginia white vote is eroding, rapidly: In 2009, 78 percent of the Virginia electorate was white -- and Republican Bob McDonnell rolled up a 35-point win over Democrat Creigh Deeds among white voters. Four years later, the electorate was only 72 percent white, and Cuccinelli led McAuliffe by 20 points within that demographic group, according to exit poll results. That trend of white voter erosion is nothing new. In the 2012 election, it was on stark display.

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* Republicans don't need independents; they need moderates: Despite Cuccinelli's loss, he actually won among self-described independents. At the same time, he lost by more than 18 points among self-described "moderates" -- further proof that these two categories are hardly the same thing. The fact is that an increasing number of conservatives identify as "independent" these days even as they continue to reliably vote Republican. That's why Mitt Romney won independents by clear margins in states like Ohio but still lost the state. We would all be better served switching our focus to "moderate" voters rather than independents -- and that includes Republicans searching for the way forward.

* The path forward is clear for Republicans. They just have to convince their base: Christie's win, contrasted with Cuccinelli's loss, could hardly provide a starker contrast for the GOP and a clearer message about how it wins in the future. Exit polls showed Christie winning among women and running even with his Democratic opponent among Latinos. If Republicans could emulate that in other states, they would win just about all of them. Christie is a pragmatic, conservative politician who won a massive victory in a blue state; Cuccinelli was a very conservative tea party-esque candidate who lost to an unheralded opponent in one of the nation's premier swing states. Tea partiers often argue that Republicans can only win presidential races with a true conservative on the ballot. The problem for the broader GOP is the definition of a true conservative has become increasingly stringent. As Tuesday's elections demonstrate, the GOP -- at least in places like Virginia and New Jersey -- would be much better served nominating a Chris Christie conservative than a Ken Cuccinelli or Ted Cruz conservative. Of course, this message has often fallen upon the GOP base’s deaf ears (think Sharron Angle, Ken Buck, Christine O’Donnell, Richard Mourdock, Todd Akin) and it likely will again.

* And/but ... Chris Christie ran as the un-Republican: Christie's victory was much more about the Chris Christie brand than the Republican brand. He spent very little time talking about his Republican credentials and much more time talking about his own accomplishments in the state. And the data in the exit polls proved that while New Jersey voters like (love?) Christie, they don't like his party much. Just 38 percent of Garden State voters had a favorable view of the GOP while 58 percent had an unfavorable one. Christie and his allies will argue that his victory is evidence that a Republican can win in a blue state. But, did Christie really run as a "Republican"?

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Chris Cillizza | November 5, 2013