The Virginia Gubernatorial Election

On Tuesday, the Democrats won the governorship in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Though Terry McAuliffe held a substantial lead in the polls over Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli throughout most of the campaign, McAuliffe’s actual margin of victory was just 2.5%, winning 48.0% to 45.5%. The narrowing of the lead during the final days of the campaign has led to much speculation over the “meaning” of this election.

This was a race between two unpopular major party candidates to succeed a Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, whose own tenure has been rocked by influence-peddling scandals. (Both McDonnell and his wife have been indicted by Federal prosecutors since I wrote this originally.) McAuliffe, a former Chair of the Democratic Party, raised prodigious amounts of money during the Clinton Administration and was accused of shady business practices. Even left-leaning commentators like Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones had little good to say about the Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia:

McAuliffe represents an unseemly slice of Washington. His primary role in politics for the past two decades or more has been raising money—most notably, for the Clintons. He cooked up the idea of essentially renting out the Lincoln bedroom during the Clinton administration as a fundraising vehicle, and he smashed all previous presidential fundraising records in the process. When McAuliffe was the Dems’ top fundraiser, a campaign finance scandal besieged the Clinton White House. Coincidence? No. McAuliffe was all about pushing the envelope when it came to the political money chase.

That alone might not be enough to render him a distasteful political candidate. What’s different about McAuliffe is his brazen mixing of his campaign fundraising activity and attempts to enrich himself personally. Many of McAuliffe’s business deals have come about due to his place in the political cosmos, not because he possesses a wealth of business skill. That tangled history has linked him to a long list of unsavory characters.

McAuliffe’s Republican opponent brought his own substantial baggage to the campaign. Long a crusader for right-wing causes, Cuccinelli built a reputation by aggressively opposing abortion rights, same-sex marriage, immigration reform, and gun control. In its post-mortem on the election the Washington Post put the blame for Cuccinelli’s loss directly at the feet of the candidate himself:

Fundamentally, what caused Tuesday’s Republican wipeout was Mr. Cuccinelli himself and the record he compiled — a clear, consistent right-wing agenda forged over a decade in Richmond.

The Cuccinelli record had nothing to do with job-creation or the state’s economic well-being or alleviating deepening transportation problems, all of which are central to Virginians’ well-being. It was mainly about bashing homosexuals, harassing illegal immigrants, crusading against abortion, denying climate change, flirting with birthers and opposing gun control. A hero to the tea party and a culture warrior of the first rank, Mr. Cuccinelli lost because he was among the most polarizing and provocative figures in Richmond for a decade. That made him the wrong candidate for Virginia.

Recent polls show the levels of voter dissatisfaction with the choice between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli. In the final pre-election poll by Public Policy Polling, both major candidates were viewed unfavorably by 52% of likely voters. However Cuccinelli was by far the loser among voters who viewed both candidates unfavorably; in that 15% of the Virginia electorate, McAuliffe outpolled Cuccinelli by 61% to 16%.

What factors influenced this result?

Pundits have proposed a variety of explanations for McAuliffe’s slim victory. Some pointed to the sustained turnout of African-American voters, who constituted 20% of the voters on November 5th, a figure equal to their share of the electorate in the 2012 Presidential election. For an election being held in an “off-off” year, that is a substantial tribute to the mobilization of black voters by the Democrats in Virginia, and particularly the efforts of the Obama campaigns, that began in 2008.

Another common argument concerned the government shutdown that took place in the weeks leading up to the November election. Virginia has a large number of government workers, not only in the suburbs around Washington, but in places like Norfolk where defense industries constitute an important part of the local economy. Observers suggested that disgruntled government workers turned out for McAuliffe to express their unhappiness with the government shutdown which they, and most other Americans, largely blamed on the Republicans, particularly the Party’s Tea Party wing. The dissatisfaction with the Tea Party spilled over onto Cuccinelli with his own strong ties to that faction.

Despite these factors that advantaged McAuliffe, the margin between the two major party candidates narrowed as the election drew near. The Democrat held a single-digit lead during most of September and early October, but by the middle of that month his margin ballooned into a lead of 10-17%. The highest figure recorded for McAuliffe rather surprisingly came from Rasmussen Reports, the Republican polling firm which consistently over-estimated support for Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign.
During the last weeks of the campaign Cuccinelli took a cue from Tea Party politicians like Ted Cruz and began to stress his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare.” Cuccinelli had led the charge against the law in 2010 when he filed suit to declare it unconstitutional, an action that was quickly followed by similar suits from Republican attorneys general across the country. Conservative commentators have since argued that Cuccinelli waited too late to bring the ACA to the forefront of his campaign, and had he done so sooner, he would have defeated McAuliffe.

The Sarvis Vote

Another complication for understanding this election was the candidacy of Libertarian Robert Sarvis. Sarvis had once run as a Republican but left the party because he thought it was too socially conservative. He holds a rather mixed bag of issue positions, some considered left-wing like his support for the legalization of marijuana, and some from the right like his opposition to income taxes and gun control. Conservative commentators have suggested that Sarvis was instrumental to McAuliffe’s victory by siphoning votes away from Cuccinelli. Some pointed to campaign contributions to a Libertarian PAC from a highly-placed Obama fundraiser in Texas as evidence for Sarvis’s role as a stalking horse for the Democrats.

Whether Sarvis was closer ideologically to Cuccinelli or McAuliffe probably did not matter much in voters’ decision-making calculus. One constant in the Virginia polling data was how little the public knew about Sarvis or his positions on the issues. In a late-October pre-election poll by the Washington Post, fully 43% of likely voters reported knowing “nothing at all” about Sarvis, and another 35% chose the “just a little” option. Only 3% reported knowing “a lot” about Sarvis, with another 18% saying they knew “a fair amount.” That 21% of voters who claimed to know something about Sarvis stands in stark contrast to the two major-party candidates, where the comparable figures were 81% for McAuliffe and 86% for Cuccinelli. While some of the nearly 7% of Virginians who cast ballots for Sarvis on November 5th probably supported him on the issues, it seems likely that most of his voters were largely ignorant of his positions.

Evidence from the Election Results

I have subjected some of these arguments to empirical testing by examining the vote by jurisdiction as reported by the Virginia State Board of Elections for the 133 counties and cities in Virginia. The model below estimates the vote for Cuccinelli as a function of the vote for Republican Bob McDonnell in the 2009 gubernatorial election and a few demographic factors like the proportion of African-Americans and Hispanics in each jurisdiction and the fraction of the population in each locale that were employed by the Federal government. Because the government shutdown affected civilian and defense workers differently, I have estimated separate effects for both groups. I also include the vote for Sarvis to see whether his candidacy influenced the margin between the two major-party candidates.

I start with a model that includes only the 2009 vote and demographics.

Data: 133 Virginia Counties and Cities
Dependent variable: Vote for Cuccinelli

               coefficient   std. error   t-ratio   p-value 
  Constant     −0.996052     0.0633928    −15.71    9.50e-32 ***
  McDonnell-09  0.827063     0.0334505     24.73    8.75e-51 ***
  Afr-Amer     −0.0889980    0.0128968     −6.901   2.09e-10 ***
  Hispanic     −0.139432     0.0192821     −7.231   3.77e-11 ***

Mean dependent var   0.040395   S.D. dependent var   0.583154
Sum squared resid    4.267090   S.E. of regression   0.181874
R-squared            0.904941   Adjusted R-squared   0.902731

All variables are measured as "logits."

Unsurprisingly the 2009 gubernatorial vote has by far the greatest predictive power, but both the demographic factors show significant effects as well. Of particular note is that the size of the Hispanic population in a jurisdiction has a slightly larger effect than the size of the African-American population. A statistical test for the equality of the two effects shows that the Hispanic coefficient is significantly larger than the one for African-Americans.

If we now add in the measure of Federal employment in each jurisdiction we find it adds no additional explanatory power to our simple demographic model.

                coefficient   std. error   t-ratio   p-value 
  Constant      −1.04497      0.0760838    −13.73    6.07e-27 ***
  McDonnell-09   0.816998     0.0345162     23.67    1.37e-48 ***
  Afr-Amer      −0.0918772    0.0131170     −7.004   1.26e-10 ***
  Hispanic      −0.129533     0.0210656     −6.149   9.21e-09 ***
  Fed_Emp       −0.0199454    0.0172078     −1.159   0.2486  

Mean dependent var   0.040395   S.D. dependent var   0.583154
Sum squared resid    4.222768   S.E. of regression   0.181633
R-squared            0.905929   Adjusted R-squared   0.902989

While the coefficient for Federal employment has the expected negative sign, it is only slightly larger than its standard error and falls well short of the conventional p

This is a rather surprising result given the journalistic coverage of the effects of the government shutdown on the race. It turns out that jurisdictions with larger proportions of Federal employees are also ones with larger Hispanic populations (r=0.42). If we exclude the Hispanic measure from the model, the coefficient for Federal employment then becomes significant.

                coefficient   std. error   t-ratio   p-value 
  Constant      −0.829620     0.0765776    −10.83    7.57e-20 ***
  McDonnell-09   0.824725     0.0391062     21.09    1.24e-43 ***
  Afr-Amer      −0.112898     0.0143573     −7.863   1.30e-12 ***
  Fed Emp       −0.0628453    0.0178336     −3.524   0.0006   ***

Mean dependent var   0.040395   S.D. dependent var   0.583154
Sum squared resid    5.470150   S.E. of regression   0.205923
R-squared            0.878141   Adjusted R-squared   0.875307

However this model does a poorer job of explaining variations in the Cuccinelli vote than the model that includes the Hispanic measure. Additional tests separating out civilian and defense employment show no improvement in explanatory power. Observers who saw a correlation between Federal employment levels and the gubernatorial vote were likely reacting to the more significant correlation with the size of the Hispanic population.

Finally I include the vote for Robert Sarvis, which definitely has a significant and negative effect on the vote for Cuccinelli.

               coefficient   std. error   t-ratio   p-value 
  Constant     −1.21892      0.123557     −9.865    2.03e-17 ***
  McDonnell-09  0.831222     0.0330809    25.13     2.51e-51 ***
  Afr-Amer     −0.0882480    0.0127363    −6.929    1.85e-10 ***
  Hispanic     −0.138816     0.0190369    −7.292    2.82e-11 ***
  Sarvis       −0.0833661    0.0398514    −2.092    0.0384   **

Mean dependent var   0.040395   S.D. dependent var   0.583154
Sum squared resid    4.126027   S.E. of regression   0.179540
R-squared            0.908084   Adjusted R-squared   0.905212

As I mentioned earlier, most voters had little idea who Sarvis was or what he stood for. Rather than representing support for either the candidate or his policy positions, the Sarvis vote more likely represents dissatisfaction with one or both of the major party candidates.

As it turns out, I found a similar pattern in voting for the British Liberal Party during the 1960s and early 1970s. In that article, and in my dissertation research, I showed that voters who switched their support from the Conservative or Labour parties to the Liberals often had specific issue disagreements with their party of origin. Since most voters viewed the Liberals as ideologically “between” the major parties, unhappy supporters of those parties could cast a protest ballot without having to cross all the way over to the opposition. Moreover, in many cases these switchers held positions that differed from the Liberals’ own positions on the issues. For instance, voters who opposed Britain’s entry into the Common Market were more likely to move to the Liberals despite the fact that the Liberal Party was itself the most pro-Market of the three main British parties.

The theoretical basis for this argument follows from the work of American political scientist V. O. Key who argued that elections were primarily retrospective evaluations of past performance and not mandates for future policy. Seen in this light, it makes eminent sense that voters for Sarvis were more likely to come from the ranks of potential Republican voters than Democratic ones. Voters who might otherwise have supported Cuccinelli, but were unhappy about the scandals plaguing the McDonnell administration, found it convenient to vote for Sarvis rather than having to cast a vote for McAuliffe. The same pressures would not have applied as strongly to Democrats despite their mixed views about Terry McAuliffe. While some Democrats might have been turned off by his rather smarmy reputation, the pressure to “rally round the flag” and oust the Republicans probably kept many Democrats from defecting to Sarvis. As a result, the Sarvis coalition contained more likely Republicans than likely Democrats, resulting in the negative coefficient we see in the results above.