Wednesday, June 10, 2009

2009 Outlook: The good news and the better news

I don’t know when the first head-to-head polls showing Creigh matched up against Bob McDonnell will be out. Soon, I’d imagine. And when they do come out, I have no idea what they will show. To tell the truth, I could care less.

But as I sit here today, I have a pretty good idea where, all else being equal, the election will wind up on Nov. 3, no matter what the polls show us in the meantime, and that will be with Creigh winning this race by 4 to 5 points.

Before I get into the reason why this is so, I would just caution that we are a long way from Election Day. There will be plenty of gaffes to play out, negative advertisements to debunk and perhaps even scandals that bubble up to the surface. So, like a strong football team that can be undone by a weak one thanks to some ill-timed turnovers, quirky bounces of the football or a key player having a preternaturally great day, so can Creigh yet lose this race.

In 2005, McDonnell beat Creigh in a statewide election for Attorney General by roughly 350 votes out of nearly 2 million cast. During the primary, Creigh’s opponents would point to this loss as evidence that Creigh could not beat McDonnell.

The numbers, however, show something quite different; they show that Virginia is a different place in 2009 than it was four years ago, much to the favor of Democrats.

Take party identification. Virginia is simply significantly more Democratic. In 2005, according to Gallup polling, 46.2% of Virginia voters self-identified as Democrats or leaning Democratic, while 45.8% identified as actual or lean Republicans. The difference was .4% in favor of Democrats. Just a year earlier, however, the advantage was 11.3% in the Republican Party’s favor, a precipitous drop-off likely reflecting the diminishing approval of the Bush Administration around that time.

In 2008, meanwhile, the same poll showed self-identified Democrats and leaners at 47.5%, and self-identified or leaning Republicans at only 38.5%, a gap of 9% in the Democrat’s favor.

In addition, population in Virginia has shifted to Northern Virginia, which is more urban and more Democratic than other areas. For example, the top four Congressional Districts for Creigh in 2005 were 3, 8, 11 and 10. Creigh collectively took about 61% of the vote there (McDonnell actually won the 10th, but I have grouped it with other NoVA districts – 8 and 11 -- for purposes of this analysis.)

In 2005, those four districts constituted 35% of the total vote. In 2008, these districts constituted 37.6% of the total statewide vote, and increase of 2.5%.

McDonnell won all the remaining Congressional districts, including Deeds’ “home” districts of the 5th and 6th, as well as 1, 2, 7 and 9, with about 54.5% of the vote. Those districts constituted 65% of the vote in 2005, and 62.4% in 2008.

Do some math, and here is one thing you can learn. If all the 2005 vote percentages between Creigh and McDonnell are left in place, with the exception of adjusting the total vote count to reflect the population shift toward NoVA, it would add roughly 3,000 votes to Creigh’s total and he beats McDonnell easily. The reason is because population is moving into the areas where Democrats perform best.

So, if the candidates simply “repeat” their performances from their last contest, even though in 2005 Creigh lost, in 2010 we’d be saying, “Hello Governor Deeds.”

Of course, those percentages will not remain static, as this is a new election, with new issues and candidates with different levels of experiences and skills than they possessed in 2005. Who has the upper hand?

That brings us to the anecdotal, subjective factors, including:

- President Obama continues to enjoy high approval ratings in Virginia.
- In 2005, McDonnell outspent Deeds 2-1 (much of it during a primary, but still campaign cash spent to get his name and platform out to voters). In 2009, neither candidate will want for money.
- Gov. Kaine has approval ratings over 50%.
- Democrats are, for the most part, coming together after a hard-fought primary. The RPV, on the other hand, is bitterly divided over fundamental issues of ideology and defining the principles for which the party stands, disputes that are not so easily buried just for the sake of an election;
- On social issues, McDonnell is much more conservative than the Virginia electorate.
- While the national Republican Party can help McDonnell with money, there is a noticeable lack or party leaders able to help McDonnell appeal to the Democrats and Independents he will need to pull out a victory. Indeed, the names mentioned as potential surrogates for McDonnell, such as Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Sean Hannity, rush Limbaugh and even Mark Sanford, may fire up the Conservative base, but they would almost certainly alienate Independents and moderates in doing so. That is a tough circle to square.
- Creigh, on the other hand, will have the support of our popular governor, two popular senators and eight Democratic Congressmen to serve as surrogates on his behalf across the Commonwealth, not to mention President Obama.
- Consider electoral performance since 2005 in statewide elections:
o 2006 – Webb wins Senate election over Allen with 49.6% of the vote
o 2007 – Democrats retake the Senate
o 2008 – Obama becomes first Democrat to win state since 1964 with 52.6% of vote
o 2008 – Warner wins Senate election over Gilmore with 65% of the vote

That is a lot to overcome.

I’ve been scratching my head trying to understand what factors mitigate in McDonnell’s favor, to wit:

- McDonnell has beat Creigh once (see above – that was then, this is now).
- McDonnell is a good campaigner and comes across as a moderate.
- Despite the dominance of the Democratic Party in Virginia and nationally since 2005, the GOP insists we are, in our hearts, a Center-Right country. We just don’t know it.
- The Republicans are really sad about all their losses lately, and they really, really, really want to win badly.
- Creigh lacks toughness (not true)

Of course, a campaign and an election, indeed, will take place, and anything can happen. The point is, Creigh starts with numerous factors that give him an advantage from the get-go.

The good news is this is Creigh’s election to lose.

The better news is that Creigh is pretty darn smart, and that is unlikely to happen.

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