With Democratic Voters Choosing Deeds, a Few Answers

By Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 18, 2009

You can say this about last week's Democratic primary for governor: The results were not wishy-washy.

After weeks of predictions of a close election among three evenly matched candidates, Virginia voters bucked convention and handed state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath) a clear and convincing victory. With his nomination came some answers to questions posed in this column last week:

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

The State Board of Elections reports that 319,176 Virginians voted last week, 6.44 percent of active registered voters. That was a significant jump over turnout for the 2006 Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, when 156,000 voters participated. It's also at the upper end of predictions made by the campaigns as they prepared for the election. Still, given the millions of dollars spent on the race, including significant mass communication through radio and television ads, that's pretty tiny. Tiny not just in comparison to the almost 1 million who voted in last year's presidential primary or the 3.7 million who voted in the November election but tiny in comparison to average primary turnout in other parts of the country.

Although some voters clearly were turned on to politics by the energy of last year's election, plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests a lot of Virginians were not prepared for another big election so soon. When the summer turns to fall, however, Deeds and Republican Robert F. McDonnell clearly hope they'll be ready again.

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

No. Deeds beat Brian Moran and Terry McAuliffe in every region of the state, including vote-rich Northern Virginia, even though Deeds was the only one of the three not from the state's most populous region. His victory was so dominant that he captured 50 percent of the vote and 10 of 11 congressional districts, including the one held by Moran's brother, U.S. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D).

Deeds, who hails from one of the least populated parts of the state, proved that someone from rural Virginia can not only compete, but win. He did that by talking about statewide issues and about parochial concerns, such as pledging to tackle Northern Virginia's transportation problem during his first year in office.

But Northern Virginia, the state's economic engine and largest population center, remains key because one of every five voters lives in Northern Virginia, and the region's residents made up 36 percent of the electorate in last week's primary. Deeds and McDonnell know that. Deeds is moving his headquarters from Charlottesville to Northern Virginia, most likely the Alexandria area, where he is expected to make a big push, and McDonnell has dubbed himself the Northern Virginia candidate because he grew up there and most of his and his wife's family members live there.

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

It seemed to help, although the fact that former delegate Moran, who had a lengthy one, got fewer votes than former Democratic national chairman McAuliffe, who had none, would suggest it was not determinative. Still, there's lots of talk that if McAuliffe remains interested in the governorship, he could take a lesson from U.S. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.). A businessman, Warner turned to electoral politics after chairing the state's Democratic party and traveling throughout Virginia for years. He, too, lost in his first bid for office, falling in a race for U.S. Senate in 1996 before his successful 2001 run for governor.

Things look bad for McAuliffe today, but if he spent the next four years helping the Virginia party, raising money for local candidates, maybe launching an alternative energy foundation or investing in more Virginia businesses, could he take another stab at the governor's mansion in four years? Stranger things have happened.

4. Do endorsements from local officials make a difference?

Yes and no. Deeds had a slew of endorsements from legislators and newspapers, but Moran had far more. And McAuliffe, who did not have a record in state politics, managed to pick up some impressive endorsements, including those from the League of Conservation Voters and African American newspapers, such as the Richmond Free Press. But Moran, the man with the most impressive list of endorsements from all corners of the state, finished third with about 24 percent of the vote.

Last week, we told you that political consultants and experts say endorsements matter only if the endorsers actively work to get other voters to the polls. We stick to that assessment.

5. McAuliffe: Love him or hate him?

McAuliffe's top staff members have insisted that their internal polling, right up through Election Day, showed McAuliffe's positives running high. They have rejected the idea that his defeat came out of any sense of distaste voters might have felt for McAuliffe's business and political practices. Still, Washington Post reporters talking to voters at the polls heard a different story. Quite a number said they were never convinced that McAuliffe was running for the right reasons. It does seem that many voters decided that the McAuliffe persona was simply not to their taste.

6. Can primary voters be reached through their televisions?

Still unclear. TV ads were coming fast and furious in the final weeks of the primary. McAuliffe started airing ads in January, earlier than any statewide candidates in recent history, and kept them up regularly in most markets across the state through the primary, including a final blitz in the pricey Northern Virginia market. Deeds aired ads in the final weeks and put together enough money to go up in Northern Virginia the final few days. (Deeds almost matched McAuliffe in the final week.) Moran aired a small buy in select markets.

But so few people vote in primaries that political consultants never know whether TV ads are worth the money. About 315,000 Virginians, or 6 percent of the state's registered voters, cast ballots last week. Is that small group of voters worth millions of dollars?

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

Yes and no. All three candidates touted job creation as a significant part of their platform, as they needed to, during the ongoing economic downturn. But only McAuliffe made job creation the central part of his campaign by mentioning how he created thousands of jobs and saying how he thought his background could help Virginia cope with the economic crisis gripping the state. Instead, voters went overwhelmingly for Deeds, who talked about job creation, along with transportation and education, as well as how he could bridge partisan and regional divides. Voters who were interviewed on Election Day talked about the importance of the economy, but they also talked about other issues and wanted someone who would be a strong opponent against McDonnell in November.

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

A bright spot in what has otherwise been a pretty dismal stretch for people who love newspapers: Yes, it looks as if, under certain conditions, sometimes they do. That's not to say the Post endorsement will necessarily make one bit of difference in November. But by choosing Deeds, the one rural candidate, over two Northern Virginians, doing it on the grounds that he'd be better for Northern Virginia, repeating the endorsement several times and doing it right at the time when voters were first tuning in and trying to learn a bit about the candidates, The Post editorial board created the perfect brew to ensure the endorsement was a key to the late Deeds surge.

It didn't hurt that the Deeds campaign in Northern Virginia suddenly took on a "brought to you by the Washington Post" flavor after he snagged the editorial board's nod. By plastering The Post's banner on every sign and mail piece, the Deeds campaign made sure the column didn't get used just to wrap fish.

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