A week before Election Day, George Allen’s campaign team got back the results of their final internal poll, and they liked what they saw.
The numbers showed Allen (R) leading Timothy M. Kaine (D) in Virginia’s marquee U.S. Senate race by 5 points, and Mitt Romney (R) ahead of President Obama in the commonwealth by the same margin. Based on that, Allen’s team expected Romney to win the state with roughly 52 percent support, with Allen joining him in the winner’s circle.
“That’s what we were looking at a week before the election,” recalled Boyd Marcus, a top adviser to the Allen campaign, at a discussion Thursday organized by the Virginia Public Access Project and the George Mason University School of Public Policy.
“Obviously there were some things that changed the week before the election,” Marcus said. “But the biggest single change was that Obama got his vote out in a way that nobody from the [Republican] party expected or believed he could do.”
Allen’s advisers weren’t the only Republicans who felt blindsided by last Tuesday’s results.
“I’m going to do the mea culpa right here at the beginning. … There were no Republican consultants or pollsters in this country who got this election right,” Marcus said. “Every one of ‘em got it wrong. Thank God I wasn’t on Fox News election night to do it publicly.”
While Elleithee said the Kaine and Obama campaigns worked in close concert to bring voters out, Marcus said that was not the case on the Republican side.
“Essentially the Romney campaign ran the whole ID and turnout operation through the [Republican National Committee’s] 72-hour model that has been used for the last several years, and it doesn’t work,” Marcus said.
Marcus and Elleithee, both of whom are veteran campaign consultants, agreed that the presidential race played a crucial role in the outcome of the Senate contest. For Kaine, a longtime Obama ally who served as Democratic National Committee chairman, the tie was inescapable.
“Tim Kaine is close to Barack Obama. That’s a simple fact,” Elleithee said, adding that Kaine’s campaign “saw it as a strategic asset” that the two men were on the ballot together. Kaine never sought to run away from their relationship.
Elleithee said the campaign expected there to be at least some Kaine-Romney voters, but almost no Allen-Obama voters, and the results suggest that was true. Obama won with 51 percent of the vote, while Kaine got close to 53 percent.
On Allen’s side, Marcus said, “We felt like, frankly, we could run better in rural Virginia than Mitt Romney and we did, a little bit. But in the end this election was really driven by the presidential race.”
More than once, he made clear that if Romney had won, Allen likely would have too. And he noted that Allen “ran closer to Romney than almost any other open-seat [Senate] challenger in the country. … What we weren’t successful in doing was getting the Romney campaign to win.”
The Kaine-Allen contest was essentially tied from early 2011 until this fall, both men said. After opening up a small lead in both internal and public polls in mid-September, Kaine’s campaign did hit a bump at the same time as Obama’s did – after the first presidential debate, which observers from both parties agreed was won by Romney.
“We felt the ground shift under us,” Elleithee said of the debate’s effect. “It wasn’t a free fall by any stretch of the imagination. But I think what happened was, Republicans became energized. A lot of Republicans that were not excited about Mitt Romney suddenly had reason to feel excited.”
But Kaine’s campaign believed the Republican bump would be temporary, and that the Democratic ground operation was superior. The Democrat continued his strategy of running mostly positive ads portraying him as a moderate and a dealmaker.
Allen’s campaign took a different tack, launching ads in the summer aimed at women and independent voters.
“We were trying to soften our image, and that was obviously one thing we had to do throughout the campaign. … After the 2006 campaign we certainly came out of that with a negative image,” Marcus said, referring to Allen’s race-changing incident when he referred to an Indian-American Democratic campaign worker as “macaca.”
As Kaine’s team did frequently during the campaign, Elleithee complained about the influx of money that came into the race from “shadowy” outside groups. More than $50 million in outside money was poured into the contest, roughly 60 percent of it aimed at helping Allen and hurting Kaine.
“The biggest problem I have with the outside political advertising from the super PACs is that much of it just not what you’d like to have on the air,” Marcus said.
“It was crap! It was total crap,” Elleithee interjected, and Marcus agreed: “That’s right.”
Marcus complained that many super PAC ads seem to have been made by people who knew little about this race or Virginia generally. The Republican specifically singled out the anti-Kaine ads run by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as “just about the worst” of the campaign, calling them “real cookie-cutter stuff.”(The Chamber had not responded to a request for comment as of this posting.)
Asked what he wished he’d done differently, Marcus joked that he would “have somebody run over all those people who ran against us in the [Republican] primary … but unfortunately that’s not allowed.”
Looking ahead to future races, Marcus said the Republican party has “a major, major need to reach out to new groups” beyond white voters. Elleithee suggested the results proved again that it’s “always better to run as a centrist” in Virginia, where most voters are “non-ideologues.”
Unlike in 2006, Marcus said, Allen did not lose this time because of a self-inflicted wound.
“The smartest thing we did in the campaign was we stayed very disciplined. We didn’t shoot ourselves in the foot,” Marcus said.
Elleithee agreed that there was “no singular defining moment that shaped the campaign. This was just a long hard slog.”