Last year, Elias Murillo was all about the politics. He was really into Bernie Sanders, even went to a Sanders rally in Fairfax County. When Sanders lost, Murillo switched to Donald Trump, the other guy he figured would step up for regular people. It was all very exciting, a show that just kept on going. For a while, he even felt hopeful.
Now, Murillo knows Virginia is electing a new governor in three weeks, but he’s paid little attention.
“Everybody’s put it aside,” said the 31-year-old graduate student and part-time office cleaner. “With all the hate and all the tragedies going on, with Las Vegas and natural disasters and threats and the back-and-forth with the president and North Korea, it makes it hard to vote for governor. It’s just become so hard to focus, to keep up with it all.”
Virginians speak of being exhausted by events. They say that they have only so much bandwidth and that President Trump takes up most of the space they allot to politics. They say they haven’t heard much about the governor’s race in the news, which seems devoted mainly to the president’s doings and sayings.
As the nation’s only competitive statewide contest this year, the Virginia race has been viewed by people in the politics business as a crucial bellwether, an early measure of whether voters are motivated to push back against an unpopular president or double down on their drive to disrupt Washington and “drain the swamp.”
But far fewer Virginia voters are closely following the campaign than at similar stages in the past three gubernatorial elections, according to Washington Post polling.
Even those who might be assumed to be searching for a way to send a message about a president they consider inept or dangerous say they are paying little attention to the Virginia race.
Martin Cox, who works for a defense contractor in Leesburg, is a steady Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton last fall and considers Trump “bombastic and noisy.” Cox, 35, usually follows campaigns for governor closely, taking weekend time to thoroughly research the candidates’ views.
Not this year.
“Given Trump’s penchant for sucking the air out of the room, this election could be a way to send a message that he needs to start listening to all sides and tone down the way he speaks,” Cox said. “But I haven’t really heard much about the candidates and I haven’t done my research. When I look at the news now, it’s about Trump saying the latest crazy thing, and that’s where the attention focuses.”
Virginia’s unusual practice of picking a governor the year after presidential elections has historically led to low turnouts; in 2013, a year after 71 percent of Virginia voters cast ballots for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, only 43 percent came out to the polls to choose Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor over Republican Ken Cuccinelli II.
This year’s highly polarized politics have led activists on both the pro- and anti-Trump sides to anticipate stronger than average engagement in the governor’s race, if only as a proxy by which voters could express their views on the president. Both parties are eager to urge Virginians to see the governor’s race through a national prism; Obama and former vice president Joe Biden are campaigning for Democrat Ralph Northam, and Vice President Pence appeared with Republican Ed Gillespie on Saturday, as Trump may yet do later in the month.
Voters and political experts alike offer three main theories to explain the indications of deflated interest:
●The Trump effect, in which the president’s big personality and ability to dominate the news steals attention that would typically gravitate toward the governor’s race.●
●Decreased news coverage of the governor’s race resulting in part from the dramatic decline in the number of reporters covering state news and the amount of space and time devoted to the campaign in newspapers and on TV.
●Unusually low-key candidates who have failed to excite voters. Northam, the lieutenant governor, and Gillespie, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, are both more moderate in their politics than the most popular figures in their parties. Compared to the candidates both parties put up for governor four years ago, Northam and Gillespie seem like throwbacks to a quieter, gentler time.
“No one in their right minds would call Ralph Northam or Ed Gillespie firebrands,” said Pete Snyder, chairman of Gillespie’s campaign and chief executive of Disruptor Capital, an investment firm in Alexandria. “They’re campaigning in their Virginia gentlemanly way, and we’ve built into our modeling that we’re going to have a low-turnout election.”
The Democratic contest in the spring primary drew unusually strong turnout, raising Democrats’ hopes that an anti-Trump backlash might fuel support for Northam in November. But in past governor’s races, Republicans have proved themselves more likely than Democrats to vote in off-year elections. Voters in both primaries last spring chose milder, more moderate alternatives to more populist candidates, Democrat Tom Perriello and Republican Corey A. Stewart.
And even some voters who have paid little attention to this year’s campaign say they’re in the mood for something a bit less volatile.
“These guys are both dulled-down, watered-down versions of where the parties are now,” said Murillo, who lives in Manassas. “They’re not a brand name, and maybe that’s a relief after a president who’s so vocal.”
Patrick Day, a 35-year-old teaching assistant at a Virginia Beach elementary school, said he got caught up in the frenzy of last year’s election and voted for Trump mainly as a way of rejecting Clinton. “I knew this guy was a crapshoot, and man, what a crapshoot he is,” said Day, who now wishes he’d cast his ballot for the Libertarian Party candidate. “Trump’s making a great argument that maybe Hillary wouldn’t have been so bad.”
Despite his eagerness to shift directions, Day hasn’t paid much attention to the governor’s race. “For me, life got busy,” he said. “People are getting fed up with politics. It just never ends with our president. If he wouldn’t talk or tweet, he’d be a lot better. There’s so much hate going around on Facebook and everywhere else that nobody wants to talk about politics anymore.”
Veterans of Democratic and Republican campaigns alike say they are seeing voters step back from the battlefield.
“As people become more and more disillusioned with politics, they tune it out,” said Mo Elleithee, a longtime Virginia Democratic strategist and executive director of Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service. “A lot of people are just fed up and tired of everything, whatever side they’re on.”
“The media coverage of all things Trump virtually blocks out the sun for anybody else,” he said. “Our politics are becoming hyper-nationalized and celebrity-driven. It’s hard for people who want to be informed to get the same access to information they once had.”
Many news organizations in the state — and especially the midsize newspapers and TV stations that in previous cycles had full-time political reporters based in Richmond — have cut their staffs sharply as advertising dollars have shifted away from traditional news outlets and toward social media.
Nationwide, the number of reporters covering state houses plummeted by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, according to the Pew Research Center. The trend has continued since then, as has the shrinking of overall staffing and space for news in many papers.
“You had reporters fighting over desk space in the Capitol press room,” said Bob Lewis, who covered Virginia politics for the Associated Press through the terms of five governors and now works at McGuire Woods, a law firm in Richmond. “Now, there’s nobody there. As newspapers and TV stations cut back, there was less money for reporters to travel around the state doing profiles of candidates or just talking to voters.”
The result, some say, is a campaign that gets less coverage than many Virginia voters are accustomed to seeing. “You had a press corps that was steeped in historical knowledge of Virginia and its politics,” Elleithee said. “You had multiple reporters from each paper writing about the candidates and issues. Most of the local and state news infrastructure has been decimated.”
The remaining reporters still cover the campaign, but “their stories just don’t gain much traction,” said Jeff South, a journalism professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who directs the school’s Capital News Service, through which student reporters cover state politics. “The amount of coverage has been at least as pervasive as in past years, but voters seem too exhausted to pay attention. They’re so jaded by what’s happening in Washington that that carries over to their views of the state election.”
Jill Mulhall, a freelance editor who lives in Bristow in Prince William County, usually relies on local news outlets such as InsideNoVa.com and the Gainesville Times, as well as Facebook, to learn about the candidates. But this year, she said, “the governor’s race is not getting the headlines like it used to. And there’s not as much in the mail or people knocking at the door.”
Mulhall, 47, is a Democrat and plans to vote for Northam, but “he doesn’t inspire me,” she said. “I don’t have reservations about his competence, but I get the sense that both he and Gillespie are lying low. I guess it’s harder to grab attention with Trump in the White House: When one person fills up the whole room, there isn’t a lot of space left over.”
Emily Guskin contributed to this report.