Monday, April 27, 2009

Sabato's "Ten Keys" To The Governor's Mansion Suggests Deeds, McAuliffe Have Best Shot To Beat McDonnell

UPDATE: Jim Moran's office got in touch to say the Congressman is not under investigation and denies any wrongdoing with respect to PMA. I have changed the wording of the post below with respect to Rep. Moran to more clearly reflect the publicly-reported status of this matter.

Despite some substantive differences among the three Democratic candidates for Governor, virtually every Democrat is certain that either Creigh, Terry McAuliffe or Brian Moran would be a far superior choice to Bob McDonnell, come November.

Given this, one huge factor Democratic primary voters should have on their minds in choosing a Gubernatorial candidate is which one has the best shot of winning in November.

Such a determination now necessarily involves a great deal of speculation, but that doesn’t mean the determination should not be made. Indeed, at one time or another, each candidate or their supporters have argued why they have the best chance to beat McDonnell, each following a different model of a recent Democratic statewide victory. Moran claims he will be able to run up the total in NoVA and Hampton Roads needed to beat McDonnell (Webb). Creigh claims he will have stronger appeal to the Independents and moderate Republicans a Democrat needs to win statewide in the Commonwealth (Warner). Terry McAuliffe claims he will have the biggest bankroll, and his outsider status and message of change will bring new voters into the process (Obama).

Depending upon which candidate you support, each of these arguments also has a counter-argument of why they are flawed.

There is also the problem of an uncertain political environment. 2008 was, to say the least, an upheaval election. The sheer numbers of people who went to the polls, in Virginia and nationwide, was mind-boggling. Will this level of interest be sustained without the drama of an Obama/Clinton battle, or without the historical potential of electing the first African-American president, or without the palatable anger at the Bush administration and the overwhelming feeling that we were veering badly off-course in the United States?

To try to get a more objective set of criteria with which to evaluate the prospects of each Democratic candidate, I went back to a 2002 article by UVA Professor Larry Sabato in which he discusses the overarching factors that provided “ten keys to the Governor’s mansion” from 1969 to 2001. (Sabato, Larry, “A Democratic Revival in Virginia,” The Virginia News Letter, February, 2002).

As Sabato dismantled the nine elections he looked at, he scored each of his defined criteria as either favoring the Democrat, the Republican or as Neutral. Each criteria counted equally, and Sabato simply counted up his results. In all nine elections, whichever candidate had an advantage in the number of “ten keys” which mitigated to his benefit, he won the election. I applied the ‘Ten keys” to 2005, and it easily “predicted” a Kaine victory.

Obviously, in assigning a winner to each criteria, there is a fair amount of subjectivity and ample room for debate. That said, applying Sabato's "ten keys" leaves either Creigh or McAuliffe with a claim to having the best chance to beat McDonnell, and Moran as presenting the greatest risk of losing.

Here, then, are the “ten keys” and, based on my assessment, what they predict for how each Democrat might fare in the general election (obviously, these circumstances can change between now and election day):

1. The economy, as measured by changes in per capita income and the unemployment rate in the twelve months prior to Election Day.
Advantage to the R.

2. Campaign Organization and Technology
Neutral. Potential edge to D if Mcauliffe is nominee.

3. Candidate Personality and Appeal
Neutral. All four candidates are likable enough people.

4. Retrospective Judgment on Previous Governor
Advantage to the D.

5. Presidential Popularity as measured by public opinion poll ratings for the six months prior to election day.
Advantage to the D.

6. Scandal.
Neutral, with the following proviso: Scandal, by its nature, is unpredictable, but it bears mentioning that Brian Moran’s big brother Jim has been repeatedly mentioned in the press in connection with the PMA scandal as a recipient of PMA donations and as a political ally of Rep. James Murtha, Appropriations Committee Chairman. If that develops further, it would swing this category solidly to “Advantage to the R,” but I would note that Jim Moran's office denies he is under investigation or that he has done anything wrong.

7. Party Unity.
Neutral. While Democrats obviously have a divisive primary, there is more serious civil war in the GOP ranks. Still, if Democrats are unable to rally around the primary winner, the short-term advantage for this key will go to the R.

8. Campaign Money.
Neutral. This will be a closely watched race with national implications. Money will not be a problem for either candidate. Still, if McAuliffe is the nominee, it may turn “Advantage to the D.”

9. Prior Office Experience of Candidates (where statewide elective office is given more weight that a district or local office).
Neutral if Creigh is the Democratic nominee. Advantage to the R if Moran or McAuliffe is the nominee.

10. Special Issues and Dominant Circumstance.
Impossible to determine at this point in time.

So, the result for the nine categories we were able to evaluate is as follows (assuming Democrats come together over our nominee):

* McDonnell v. Creigh: D (+1)
* McDonnell v. McAuliffe: N (provisionally D+2 based on campaign organization and technology and potential fundraising ability)
* McDonnell v. Moran: N (provisionally R+1 based on scandal risk associated with Jim Moran)


  1. Using this set of purposefully slanted academic criteria, the issues don't matter and the electorate is an unwary slave to circumstance, unable to parse the bulldrek. Sorry Larry, that's why you sit in a comfy chair and accomplish little for Virginia but much for yourself.

    Actually, according to this rating scale, it's advantage R across the board, though perhaps less of an advantage with Creigh than the other two. That's a nice situation for Sabato, who apparently expects T-Bob to win due to precedent and has shaped his criteria to fit that circumstance. Had Creigh won against McDonnell in 2005, Creigh would have clearly had the advantage and very likely a clear shot to the nomination. But Larry has read the tea leaves and thinks he can throw a bone to Creigh, who may not get the nomination, and have his cake too. This means Larry and has a 2 of 3 shot at the Democratic nominee that will lose to McDonnell. Well, I believe that Larry underestimates the 10th criteria and the electorate. I also believe that the economy may be worse than Larry appreciates and that the nominee may be able to hang it where it belongs: around the neck of the Republican Party.

  2. Hi Dan - You misunderstood the post. Saato created the criteria in 2002. The application of the criteria to the current election was my doing. You critique still applies, but to me, not Sabato.

    While it may be more fair to wieght the criteria (1.e., special circumstances probably is more signifcant than, say, statewide experience), that is not what Sabato does, so I simply followed his methodolgy.

    Also, I don't think Sabato means the 10 criteria as a particularly rgiorous or academic analysis. Rather, his article makes clear it is the basis for a parlor game of spectulation.

    My point was that in evaluating how each Democrat would do in the general, hving some criteria is better than no critieria.

  3. I remember going into the 2000 presidential election, the conventional wisdom, especially among academics, was that the incumbent's party would win because the economy was doing so well. America was prosperous, we were at peace, and the administration was generally believed to be successful at governing. Based on history, those criteria should have led to another Democratic victory. Or so the political science and history professors told us.

    Of course, the incumbent, Clinton, had personal scandals, but the actual candidate, Gore, should have been able to shield himself from the fall out from that because it was Clinton's personal failing, not a failure of his policy or his party. Indeed, despite his personal failings, Clinton was viewed favorably by the public.

    Despite all the academic's advantages, we know that Gore did not win. Ok, maybe he did because of the butterfly ballots in Florida, which were thrown out. But the race was far closer than it should have been, based on the predictions of the ivory tower academics.

    All the political science speculation is fun to read. But in the real world, I'm not sure how accurate a predictor most of it is. Remember those who can, do. Those who can't teach. Or write scholarly books.

  4. There are some rather large leaps of logic that you employ to prevent admitting that McDonnell has the advantage.

    "3. Candidate Personality and Appeal
    Neutral. All four candidates are likable enough people."

    The latest polling, both Rasmussen and Research 2000, shows McDonnell as the only candidate with a positive image. All the other candidates, specifically McAuliffe and Moran, have more people finding them "unfavorable" than "favorable". In the latest Rasmussen, this was true of Deeds as well. You blow off this criterion without any analysis, when all of the analysis points to this being an advantage for McDonnell.

    "9. Prior Office Experience of Candidates (where statewide elective office is given more weight that a district or local office).
    Neutral if Creigh is the Democratic nominee. Advantage to the R if Moran or McAuliffe is the nominee."

    This just makes no sense, especially when you specifically state that statewide elective office is given more weight, then you put Deeds, a state Senator, on the same level as McDonnell, a former AG. No matter who the Democratic nominee is (but especially if its McAuliffe), this is an advantage for McDonnell.

    I'd even argue that #4 could be off, as Kaine has relatively average approval ratings (mid-50s), and little-to-no legacy to leave behind, except becoming a part-time Governor to become a full-time Chairman. But I'll grant you I'm biased.

    However, with #3 and #9, there is actual data and facts which you completely ignore that are undeniably advantages for McDonnell. So its Deeds (R+1), McAuliffe (R+2 - N), and Moran (R+3 - R+2).

  5. I think those are fair points, VABlogger. Admittedly, I am biased, and I applied the criteria in a way most favorable to the candidate I support. I think your analysis is a perfectly reasonable assessment.

    Having gone through this exercise, I suspect that Sabato's ten keys work much better as a historical analytical tool, than as a predictive one, because I think either side can make arguments in favor of their guy to turn a close race into D+1 or R+1.

    For example, I could make the argument that party unity favors the Ds. At the end of the day, most Democrats will come together over the nominee. Sure, there will be some spoil sports when it comes to each candidate, similar tot he PUMAs after the presidential, but that is all. I don't think it will matter much.

    The Virginia GOP, however, seems engaged in a much more fundamental struggle that theatens to tear the party apart. That all said, McDonnell does notsemm a part of that srtuggle philisophically, as far as I can tell as an outsider -- he strikes me as a candidate philisophically acceptable to all virginia Republicans. It remains to be seen, however, whether he has left bad feeling from l'affair Frederick, and how the whole thing will play out at the convention.

    I think we can agree, however, that the ten keys show one thing: Whether the Democratic nominee is Creigh or McAuliffe, it will be a very interesting election. If the nominee is Brian Moran (which I don't think will happen), less so. At this point in time, McDonnell looks to be the winner in that match-up.