OK, most people still have yet to vote, but the writing is on the wall, clearly, with the Republican leading Democrat Creigh Deeds by at least 10 points in the pre-election polls.
The polls tell more about where Virginia is politically right now than that we’re about to elect a Republican to lead state government for the first time in 12 years. Foremost, they tell us that we’re about to make this move even while President Barack Obama and Gov. Tim Kaine, both Democrats, maintain approval ratings among Virginians over 50 percent, with Kaine near 60 percent in some polls.
The conventional wisdom forming on the McDonnell-Deeds race the past few weeks has Deeds running one of the worst statewide campaigns in the past quarter-century, and McDonnell for his part running one of the more savvy.
We decided to put three Virginia political scientists on the spot to get their insights on the conduct of the two campaigns – specifically, to get a sense of what the McDonnell campaign has done to be 30 hours away from being Virginia’s next governor, and what the Deeds campaign did to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a state that has been trending blue for close to a decade now.
Blame to go ’round
Deeds in a conversation with me in late August pinned the blame for his sagging poll numbers on the national climate.
“The polls aren’t about us. It’s about what’s going on in Washington,” said Deeds, who was trailing McDonnell by double digits at the time, before his brief but spirited comeback in the polls following the revelations about McDonnell’s rather pointed 1989 grad-school thesis that spoke negatively of working women, public education, gays and others.
Christopher Newport University political-science professor Quentin Kidd thinks the national climate is too convenient an excuse.
“I don’t want to dismiss the Deeds campaign’s troubles by blaming the voters, and I think that’s what you do when you say it’s just a bad year for Democrats. I think voters are making a more rational choice than that. I think the Deeds campaign has not presented the voters with a credible alternative to Bob McDonnell,” Kidd said.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say, Oh, it’s just a bad year for Democrats, and so essentially it doesn’t matter what a Democrat says, voters are not going to listen because they’re frustrated with Democrats. No, I think voters would have listened to Deeds, but Deeds never really gave them anything to listen to. The fault is with the Deeds campaign, not with the voters,” Kidd said.
Bob Holsworth, the political scientist and founder and president of Virginia Tomorrow, thinks the Deeds campaign went off the rails the night of the June 9 primary.
“If you take a look at his initial comments after getting the nomination, he’s essentially going to run as the third term of Warner-Kaine. If Kaine run as Warner’s younger brother, he’d run as both of their’s country cousin. And the reality was that wasn’t exactly what the public wanted,” Holsworth said.
“The Democrats felt, We’ve got all these accolades, we’re the best in business, the best for raising a kid, the best-managed state. We’ll just run on that record, and there won’t be a problem. That was a colossal miscalculation,” Holsworth said.
The next miscalculation came with the eerily-long summer of silence from the Deeds campaign, which ostensibly spent the warm-weather months raising money for the fall having decided that McDonnell was wasting his money running TV ads and building up a hefty lead in the polls.
“They allowed Bob McDonnell absolutely free run this past summer,” retired Bridgewater College political-science professor David McQuilkin said. “Creigh Deeds was almost invisible. He did not come out with much of anything. He did not challenge much of anything. He did not even really come out strongly with his program. He essentially took June and July off after winning the primary, and he allowed McDonnell to define who he was, and he allowed McDonnell to define the issues.
“By the time we start the race in its more significant form in late August, early September, he’s already behind, and behind significantly. And it’s to a point where it’s going to be difficult for him to catch up,” McQuilkin said.
And, hey, give McDonnell some credit …
“Both campaigns had to respond to an altered national environment. McDonnell was very effective in doing that – moreso than people would have thought at the beginning,” Holsworth said.
“Basically he understood that the national-policy agenda that the Democrats were articulating could be used to his advantage here in Virginia – that issues such as card check, cap and trade, gave him the opportunity of garnering both popular support and particularly business support,” Holsworth said.
McDonnell also understood, Holsworth said, “that people are anxious and concerned about the level of federal spending, that they believe it’s going to result in federal tax increases, and McDonnell I think captured that issue pretty well and took away from the Democrats the issue of fiscal responsibility here in Virginia.”
“And he managed to criticize the national-policy agenda of the Democrats without simply becoming a Nobama type of guy,” McDonnell said. “He criticized certain elements of the Obama administration, but he praises him on charter schools, he praises him on merit pay for teachers, he was quote-unquote ‘delighted’ when he won the Nobel Prize. He understood that Obama still has some personal popularity even if the political agenda has become less popular in Virginia, and he finessed that issue extraordinarily well.”
The McDonnell side didn’t exactly finesse the now-infamous Deeds mano-a-mano with himself over taxes, but it did play the YouTubed tete-a-tete between the Deeds that doesn’t want to raise taxes and the other Deeds who does to its ultimate benefit.
“That had repercussions and reverberations far beyond transportation,” Holsworth said. “When Deeds essentially said, The first thing I’m going to do is get a bipartisan group together, and if they bring me back a tax increase, I’m going to sign it. I think that became a defining feature of the election – McDonnell saying, I’m not going to raise taxes, and Deeds saying that the first thing he was going to do was raise taxes to pay for transportation.
“Once the Democrats cede the issue of fiscal responsibility to Republicans in Virginia, they’re in huge trouble,” Holsworth said.
Thus was McDonnell able to seize the all-important middle of the Virginia political road.
“It wasn’t something that you saw as part of a rotation of TV ads. It was a consistent drumbeat, and he studiously the social issues that are the background of his heritage, his ideology, his philosophy, and that which has defined him in many respects as a political figure in Virginia for the last 20 years,” McQuilkin said of the McDonnell strategy, which was correctly based early in the ’09 election cycle on the assumption that whoever ended up being named the Democratic Party nominee would put a good bit of negative attention on McDonnell’s social-conservative leanings.
The McDonnell team counterpunched before the first shot could even come across the bow from the Democrats, wallpapering Virginia TV stations with bio ads presenting McDonnell as a family man surrounded by strong women who was running to be the next “jobs governor.”
“He cultivated this good-looking, apparently-progressive, jobs-oriented persona. By presenting himself as a moderate, he began to draw off the independent voters who were not happy with the way Republicans have been selling themselves to voters, and saw McDonnell as the new image of Republicanism. He’s anything but, but that’s how he portrayed himself,” McQuilkin said.
“I think the McDonnell campaign knew all along that he would get hit as a social conservative, that that would be the charge leveled against him, so he was preparing all along this image of him as a moderate, family-oriented man who was focused on the economy. And if he could implant that image in the minds of the voters, if he could set that as the stage, then whatever the charges that were leveled at him would have to be really serious charges in order to change the image that he had established for himself,” Kidd said.
“The thesis story was a real serious charge, but it wasn’t serious enough to overcome all of the groundwork that he had laid up to that point,” Kidd said.
The thesis: An ace in the hole, overplayed
The drumbeat of positivity for McDonnell created by the wall-to-wall TV ads helped drown out the noise from the Deeds campaign regarding the grad-school thesis, which seemed, for a day or two, anyway, capable of shaking the McDonnell effort off its foundation.
How McDonnell was able to sidestep the thesis controversy will be studied in poli-sci classes for years to come.
“A couple of things happened with the thesis. The first is the environment in which that took place,” Holsworth said. “I think the Democrats when that came up thought they had 2009’s Macaca moment. But you take a look at it, the environments in 2006 and 2009 were very different. First, the McDonnell campaign did some good damage control. He basically said that some of the more egregious statements were things he no longer believed in. He ran those ads with his daughter and the people who worked for him about his commitment to career-oriented women.
“And then secondly,” Holsworth said, “Allen’s faux pas came at a time when the public in Virginia was growing completely disenchanted with the president, Virginia’s demographics were becoming more Democratic, and there was increasing frustration about the war. Webb was able to capitalize on that in part because the national mood was more favorable. Here, once McDonnell made the case that he wasn’t looking backwards any longer, it became far more difficult for Democrats to use that against him successfully.”
Also part of the context: “Some of the issues where the Democrats might try to connect this really aren’t salient today. No one would think Roe v. Wade to be under attack in an Obama administration. So there was really no easy hook on which to place the thesis other than the idea that Bob McDonnell is reactionary,” Holsworth said.
“The other dilemma I always felt on that, too, was when you saw McDonnell in person, when McDonnell was one-on-one with Deeds, it was going to be very, very difficult to sustain the argument that he’s a guy who is on the fringe of Virginia politics. He’s been in the middle of these major policy debates in Virginia for 15 years. So to try to paint him as a Mike Farris was going to be very difficult,” Holsworth said.
Kidd remembers talking with Deeds campaign strategists the weekend the thesis story was coming out in the press.
“I understood that the strategy was to ride the story for several weeks, ride McDonnell’s poll numbers down for several weeks, and then lay out an alternative to the voters, the Deeds alternative. But they never got around to laying out the alternative. And I think they never got around to laying out the alternative because the candidate himself didn’t know why he was running for governor,” Kidd said.
Here Kidd takes us back to a Northern Virginia forum where a member of the audience threw a softball at Deeds in a Q-and-A. “He was asked the simple question that every candidate should be able to answer, which is, in this case, Why do you want to be governor?”
Deeds “fumbled and stumbled and hemmed and hawed, and he never could really answer the question,” Kidd said. “I remember thinking, How horrible, you’re running for governor, you have to know why.”
“I look back on that moment, and it occurs to me, that moment was probably as telling as any other moment in this campaign. Because if the candidate himself doesn’t know why, he can’t just immediately say I’m running for governor because of a, b, c and d, he doesn’t know why he’s running, his campaign doesn’t know why he’s running, then the voters aren’t going to know why he’s running,” Kidd said.
Conversely, the McDonnell campaign was able to tell voters why its candidate was running for governor.
“I think what the Bob McDonnell campaign did right was know what it wanted to say to the voters,” Kidd said. “From as far back as I can speak about this current gubernatorial race, Bob McDonnell was talking in a pretty focused way about the economy, about jobs, and about the role of government in making it possible to have a more efficient economy. With brief respites here and there, he really stayed focused on that central message, and it worked because the economy has been really tough, we’ve been in a recession, the state’s budget has been cut pretty dramatically.
“He stayed focused like a laser beam, and even when the Washington Post came out with the thesis story, and the Deeds campaign really turned on that story, the McDonnell campaign was thrown off for a week or so, but they shifted and went right back to their message about the economy. That was very smart. They ran a very disciplined campaign. And what they did was a night-and-day contrast to what the Deeds campaign did, which to this day I can’t tell you what their central message is,” Kidd said.
– Story by Chris Graham