The two top candidates for Virginia governor are focusing the bulk of their efforts on trying to get core Democrats and Republicans to turn out and vote, an unusual strategy for both in a state where contests have long been dominated by cautious appeals to the middle.
Republican Ken Cuccinelli II and Democrat Terry McAuliffe are running parallel scavenger hunts for Virginians inclined to their side but not yet certain to show up on Election Day.
Both are trying to mimic the methodology of President Obama, whose highly technical field operations last year and in 2008 drew unprecedented numbers of Virginia voters. Both are lobbing relentless attacks at the other designed primarily to stoke their own sides. And as they prepare this Labor Day weekend to enter the last, frenzied stretch of the nation’s premier political contest of 2013, both think that in this low-turnout election, the winner will be the candidate best able to motivate his base.
By one measure, the task is harder for McAuliffe in an off-year election when fewer of the young and minority voters who helped propel Obama to historic victories in Virginia typically come to the polls.
But by another, the disadvantage falls to Cuccinelli, whose party has some catching up to do when it comes to compiling the sophisticated files of voter information that powered Obama's data-driven win last year.
Either way, the vote hunt is ongoing. On a recent evening in the small basement office of the Alexandria Democratic Committee, Bob Mack and his team of McAuliffe volunteers crafted a plan for the nine weeks remaining until Election Day: focus on known Democratic voters — and get them to the polls.
A 53-year-old Alexandria resident who works for a health-care billing firm, Mack is one of McAuliffe’s 150 neighborhood team leaders. He also was a team leader for Obama in 2012. And he sees a dynamic now similar to August 2012, of voters “not being really engaged just yet. It’s something about the fall, maybe it’s in the air. But as soon as that hits, it does sort of change things.”
When the time comes, Mack and his team will be ready, he said. “The lists, the way they’re designed right now, are of likely Democratic voters who need a little encouragement to get out.” If there’s one thing McAuliffe’s campaign understands, he added, it’s the importance of proper targeting.
Thirty miles west, in Sterling, volunteers for Cuccinelli hopped from driveway to driveway late Friday, targeting Republicans likely to vote.
The first door to open for Christy Sharn, 43, and Brooks Ward, 17, belonged to Marina Blair, a stay-at-home mother who identified herself as a conservative and practically apologized for not having campaign signs on her lawn.
Across the street, Ray and Joan Blankenship were about to climb into their car when Sharn and Ward approached their driveway and politely asked if they could pose a few questions.
“We have some conservative and liberal views,” Joan Blankenship replied, before both explained why she has moved away from the GOP and he still favors Republicans.
The hallmark of the governor’s race this year might be that neither of its headliners is especially popular with voters or expected to draw big numbers of voters to the polls Nov. 5.
A Quinnipiac University survey released recently made clear both candidates’ challenges. The poll found that 34 percent of likely voters viewed McAuliffe favorably, 33 percent unfavorably and 31 percent didn’t know enough about him to have an opinion. Cuccinelli’s appeal was dimmer: His rating was 35 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable, with 22 percent unsure.
McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic Party and a close friend of Bill Clinton’s, has been mired in partisan battles and accusations of mingling business with politics for much of his public life. Cuccinelli, an ardent conservative and hero of Virginia’s tea party movement, is struggling to win over the moderates who propelled the commonwealth to the blue column in the past two presidential elections.
Looming over the race, too, is the criminal investigation related to the current governor, Robert F. McDonnell (R), including a grand jury probe involving his family’s acceptance of gifts from a wealthy Richmond area businessman. And as always, the race is being watched nationally as a bellwether for both parties’ fortunes in next year’s congressional midterm elections.
For those voters who still need persuading, McAuliffe sells himself as a pragmatic businessman better suited to an increasingly moderate state than an extremist foe who as attorney general has investigated climate change research at the University of Virginia and supported “personhood” legislation that some think would outlaw certain forms of contraception.
Cuccinelli casts himself as the only experienced, authentic and substantive candidate in the race vs. a self-centered and scandal-tarred Democrat with a string of questionable business ventures and no record of helping Virginians.
Both campaigns agree that messaging might matter less than getting out the vote this year. And much of the messaging has come in the form of attacks on the other guy.
Democrats have focused on Cuccinelli’s record on women’s issues, while two McAuliffe ads in heavy rotation attack the attorney general over his office’s controversial handling of a complex gas royalties case in Southwest Virginia. The state inspector general is investigating whether an assistant to Cuccinelli improperly aided out-of-state energy companies in their legal fight against local landowners.
Republicans have focused most of their negative fire on GreenTech, the electric car firm co-founded by McAuliffe. TV ads have emphasized the company’s decision to locate a factory in Mississippi rather than Virginia, its operations in China and its failure to produce the numbers of jobs McAuliffe had promised. GreenTech is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission over its use of a visa program for foreign investors, though there is no indication that McAuliffe — who resigned as GreenTech chairman in December — is under investigation.
Only Virginia and New Jersey elect their governors the year after presidential contests, and turnout typically seesaws as a result. In Virginia, the proportion of registered voters who voted careened from 75 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2009 — a record low for a gubernatorial contest — back to 72 percent last year.
“You have to do much more work to figure out who to target in a 45 percent turnout election” than in a presidential year, said Jeremy Bird, Obama’s 2012 national field director.
Democrats don’t think McAuliffe needs a huge leap to prevail. Just some incremental improvements — boosting African American and Hispanic turnout by a couple of points over 2009, and luring some of the state’s growing Asian American population — could well be enough to let him win such a closely divided state. The campaign is also searching for young people and, specifically, single women, to boost support in targeted ways.
“The voter file that the Democratic Party of Virginia has is incredibly detailed,” said Mitch Stewart, who was Obama’s battleground states director in 2012 and Virginia state director in 2008. He works with Bird at a new consulting shop, 270 Strategies.
The list includes information about more than a million Virginia voters who engaged with the state party or the Obama campaign in 2012. And it contains demographic and consumer information that allows strategists to form detailed profiles of voters and draw up the right message and use the right medium — Facebook, Gmail — to call attention to a race that few are watching.
On social media, Democrats are using a tool that urges supporters to share positive stories and tailored messages directly with their Facebook friends.
The state Democratic Party’s coordinated campaign — its joint turnout effort with the statewide nominees — is being run by Michael Halle, who was Obama’s general election director in North Carolina in 2012 and his deputy field director there in 2008. Several other staffers who did field or data work for Obama are also on board with McAuliffe.
Republicans think Democrats are letting Obama’s victories cloud their judgment. Cuccinelli strategist Chris LaCivita said some polls of the race, including the Quinnipiac survey showing McAuliffe up by six points, have been based on political assumptions that turnout will be like it was in 2008 or 2012.
“That’s not science. That’s a political guess,” LaCivita said.
The Cuccinelli team, LaCivita said, has invested heavily in online voter outreach, direct mail, television and neighborhood canvassing.
The voter targeting and GOTV efforts are mostly Dave Rexrode’s mission as Cuccinelli’s campaign manager. The Republican National Committee is also pitching in, and the GOP expects to have a bigger infrastructure — measured in offices, field personnel and outreach to minorities — than it did in 2012, along with a precinct-by-precinct focus that was absent last year.
“We’re very confident that our targeting, our identifying of voters, and our turnout of voters will exceed what we’ve done in the past,” LaCivita said. “A lot of people have learned from what was done — and, more importantly, what wasn’t done.”