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The Proof of Political Wisdom Is in the Results of the Election

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Elections are always great for providing answers to questions that seem impossible to predict before polls close but are absolutely obvious afterward.

This is a weekly column that runs Thursdays but must be completed by Tuesdays. That means we can set out the factors that political observers thought would decide this week's election. And you, the readers, can decide whether the observers got it right.

Here are eight key questions we hope will be answered by Tuesday night's results.

1. Did last year's presidential campaign pump up voters for a Virginia election or tire them out?

The race between Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and John McCain (R-Ariz) not only drew record numbers of Virginians to the polls, but it also got people excited and got them to volunteer their time to talk with neighbors. Former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe built a campaign around the idea that Obama had made politics cool again and that people new to the process would want to be involved again, if they were asked.

But gubernatorial primaries are entirely different animals. For starters, they are held in June, when people aren't used to thinking about elections. In interviews, many voters have said they did their part last year and were not pleased to find it was campaign season again already. By early this week, the conventional wisdom had settled on the idea that turnout would be low, probably less than 10 percent of registered voters. The outcome of the election will depend on just how low.

2. Does a candidate have to hail from Northern Virginia to win?

Northern Virginia, the state's economic engine and largest population center, has helped determine the outcome of many statewide elections in the past decade and is in part responsible for the state tilting blue. One of every five voters in the state live in Northern Virginia, and the region's residents made up more than 40 percent of the electorates in 2006 U.S. Senate primary. The last two successful statewide candidates, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Jim Webb, hail from Northern Virginia. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) is from Richmond.

But even though McAuliffe and Brian Moran are from Northern Virginia, it has been R. Creigh Deeds of tiny Bath County who generated all the buzz in the days before voters went to the polls. Win or lose, Deeds has proven that even someone from rural Virginia can compete. He has done that partly by talking about statewide issues in addition to proposals important to specific areas, such as pledging to tackle Northern Virginia's transportation problem in his first year in office.

3. Do voters require candidates to have a Virginia record?

Two candidates in this race have lengthy ones, and one has none. Deeds spent nine years in the House of Delegates, then eight in the Senate. Moran stepped down from the House to run for governor after serving since 1996. He had traveled the state on behalf on Virginia Democrats seeking election to the House and helped Warner, the governor, build a coalition to support tax increases in 2004.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe is friends with governors across the country and counts former senator Tom Daschle and former president Bill Clinton among his backers. He says that being an old hand to politics but a novice in Richmond would help him import the nation's best ideas to Virginia.

4. Do endorsements from local officials make a difference?

For a while, Moran was touting new endorsements almost daily. Even now, there's no question that he received far more endorsements from legislators, mayors and local elected officials than his two rivals. Deeds had several arrive during the waning days of the race. McAuliffe had some endorsements, but they were clearly harder to come by for a man with no record in state politics (see above).

Political consultants and experts say endorsements only matter if the endorsers actively work to get other voters to the polls. Otherwise, they say, they don't mean much.

5. Terry McAuliffe: love him or hate him?

His personality certainly isn't vanilla. Voters either thought him infectiously boisterous, a guy who thought big and could get things done. Or they considered his demeanor akin to that of a used car salesman, making big promises with little regard to the realities of governing.

His years at the top of the national political world were either vital experience that helped him amass a Rolodex he could use to benefit Virginia or a sign that he steeped himself for years in the distasteful big money, backroom aspect of politics.

6. Can primary voters be reached through their televisions?

So few people vote in primaries that political consultants are constantly debating whether spending thousands of dollars, perhaps even millions, on TV ads is worth the money. After all, only a fraction of the folks watching at home will cast a ballot. Turnout was a mere 115,000 in 2005 and 155,000 in 2006.

But McAuliffe counted on the ads. He started airing them in January, earlier than any statewide candidates in recent history, and kept them up regularly in most markets across the state through the primary. In the past 10 days, he started a blitz in the pricey Northern Virginia market. In the final weeks, Deeds began TV ads, even scraping together enough money to go up in Northern Virginia (although he did have to lay off some staff). Moran, meanwhile, counted on party loyalists and longtime activists, who might not need television advertising to decide to get to the polls.

7. During an economic recession, do voters need the message to be jobs, jobs, jobs?

All three candidates touted job creation as a significant part of their platform, but only McAuliffe made the one word -- jobs -- his mantra. On the stump, he frequently mentioned how he started his first business at age 14 and that over the years, he had created thousands of jobs. He said he unexpectedly entered the race late last year in part because he thought his background could help Virginia cope with the economic crisis gripping the state. Will voters who are nervous about skyrocketing unemployment rates and escalating uncertainty in the economy reward McAuliffe?

8. Is it really true that a newspaper endorsement still matters?

Newspapers might be losing circulation and staff, but -- awkward as it is for the political reporters at this paper-- conventional wisdom seems now agreed that The Washington Post editorial board's surprising endorsement of Deeds on May 22 allowed the rural senator to make a last-minute foray into Northern Virginia and helped convert him from likely also-ran to true contender.

Choosing the rural guy over two Northern Virginians was the kind of counterintuitive move that gave Deeds some credibility just as voters were tuning in. And the Deeds campaign was nimble enough to see the possibilities that came with the endorsement and exploit them in mailings, TV ads and new Northern Virginia campaign stops in the race's final days.

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