The Biggest Lessons From Virginia, New Jersey Elections? Personality Matters


So the center-right Chris Christie wins by a mile in a blue state while the far right Ken Cuccinelli loses a close one in a purple state. I know elections go way beyond ideology, but for all the pure ideological dorks and extremist pundits out there who refuse to acknowledge such, I’d be very curious to hear how they justify Tuesday night’s results in their minds.

The truth is there was way more at play in both elections than the ideologues care to learn. But for the rest of us, the main lesson we should take from both results is that the cult of personality as well as public perception play a much larger factor in determining who wins elections than anything else.

Let’s start with Virginia, since it was the closer one. Voter turnout in non-presidential election years is always disappointingly low. The fact is there just aren’t that many high information voters out there and the low information voters only show up to vote for the president because they think he’s king. Case in point, in the last gubernatorial election four years ago (arguably a state where you’d expect a higher than average share of high information voters since the northern half’s entire economy is centered around the nation’s capitol), voter turnout was just 35.6% with about 2 million votes. Tuesday night there were about 2.2 million voters who showed up at the ballot box, so the turnout wasn’t much higher than in 2009.

So of the less than 40% of voters who turned out and are arguably mostly high information, Democrat Terry McAuliffe received about 245,000 more votes than his Democratic predecessor four years ago, while Republican Ken Cuccinelli received around 155,000 votes less than Governor Bob McDonnell (as of this writing). While there will be endless speculation among the über-nerd pundits about how Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis’ presence in the race made a difference, if any, to assume every single voter who showed up to vote for Sarvis would’ve also showed up to vote for Cuccinelli and only Cuccinelli absent Sarvis is too speculative for me to believe (at least without any evidence).

There were bigger factors at play here. First, and perhaps most importantly, there is personality to consider. Cuccinelli was successfully portrayed as a right-wing extremist (something that you’d think would help him according to the Rush Limbaughs and Sean Hannitys of America) with his positions on gay marriage, abortion, and social issues which were used relentlessly against him in ads throughout the growing Northern Virginia suburbs.

Second, Cuccinelli was running against the legacy of Gov. McDonnell’s administration (fairly or unfairly), which was plagued by allegations of corruption and a growing ethics scandal.

Third, McAuliffe benefited from over $35 million in tremendous campaign fundraising efforts by superstar juggernauts like Bill and Hillary Clinton as well as President Barack Obama himself – nearly double Cuccinelli’s total.

Fourth, as I’ve been illustrating for the last year, Democrats have been outhustling the GOP in all swing states when it comes to the ground game of growing their pie. For the last eight years, Democratic forces have been combing through blue districts in all the swing states and registering more voters in their column (then getting them to the polls as quickly and conveniently as possible starting on day one of early voting). They are aggressively marketing their brand into every corner of America that’s within their reach while Republicans are foolishly still waiting for voters to come to them as well as cluelessly relying on 20th Century models to get out the vote such as landline phone banking and chain mail messaging.

Finally, McAuliffe was able to successfully portray himself as a mainstream centrist Democrat who would focus on bipartisan governing – which brings me to Christie.

Turnout for the New Jersey gubernatorial election was understandably lower than it was four years ago, as most people knew it was a given Christie would win re-election. But there is something to be said that of the 15 states that have the biggest margin of registered Democrats, only two of those states currently have a Republican governor: Christie and Michigan’s Rick Snyder (the Michigan GOP swept Lansing in 2010 in the wake of that state’s economic collapse). For all the flak Christie gets from the far right for… whatever they hate him for, if anyone bothered to check his record they would learn he’s a actually a pretty conservative leader. He’s lowered taxes, cut spending, balanced the budget, created more charter schools, vetoed radical gun control bills, and even vetoed a bill that would have legalized same sex marriage in his state.

Yet like McAuliffe, he’s been able to successfully portray himself as a mainstream centrist Republican focusing on bipartisan governing through “a pox on both houses” rhetoric and carefully orchestrated photo ops of him shaking hands with and high-fiving Democrats, such as President Obama. While the far right will tear him a new one in their radio booths and online chat rooms for doing so, he just managed to win re-election as a Republican in a D+12 state with 60% of the vote.

So what are the lessons to take from all this? Well, for one, personality and perception matter. In non-presidential election years, turnout will hover anywhere from 35% to 40%. The bulk of that turnout is comprised of mostly high information voters who show up to vote in off election years, not just presidential ones. And it turns out most high information voters are gravitated toward personalities who present themselves as bipartisan leaders willing to work with the other side of the aisle. In these cases, Christie has a Democrat majority legislature he has to get along with while McAuliffe will similarly have to deal with a Republican majority legislature.

While the ideologues refuse to listen to any reasoning or rationale that doesn’t reinforce their preconceived notions about what “Americans really want,” any objective observer will understand how both elections ended up producing the results they did.