VIRGINIA, November 15, 2013 — This loss hurt.
Republicans had seemingly prepared themselves for Ken Cuccinelli’s defeat in Virginia. Washington Post polls had been showing a likely blowout victory for Terry McAuliffe for weeks. But once the votes were tallied, the margin was achingly thin: Just 55,374 votes kept Cuccinelli out of the governor’s mansion.
It’s one thing to lose a blowout, but buzzer beaters stay with you. And for Republicans, this one should.
Since the election, conservatives have accused prominent Republicans of sitting on their hands. Pundits have noted that Cuccinelli lacked appeal to moderates. Every factor — from a $15 million spending edge for McAuliffe and his allies to bad blood within the state GOP — has received a share of the blame. Each explanation is backed by at least a kernel of truth.
Yet when contemplating what might have been, there’s an important lesson in the Virginia race for any campaign manager scratching out notes on a legal pad or formatting early spreadsheets for a 2014 or 2016 race: Data-driven turnout matters.
Mitt Romney lost Virginia in 2012, with 1,789,618 million votes, or about bout 780,000 more than Cuccinelli won in 2013. Cuccinelli’s losing margin represents just 3.1 percent of Romney’s vote total.
Conventional wisdom says that Romney would have appealed to more moderates than Cuccinelli. And off-year elections like the gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia often see half the turnout (or less) of presidential elections. Conservatives have pointed to a lack of support from prominent Republicans, both outside and inside the state.
For all the headwinds he faced, were there 60,000 voters among those 780,000 who might have gone to the polls for Ken Cuccinelli with some more prodding? Were there 60,000 inactive Romney voters who might have been dissuaded from the barrage of attack ads, or who could have been convinced that the race was close enough to make sure they got out to vote?
If the answer is yes — and math strongly suggests it is — then there was a path to victory for Cuccinelli, and McAuliffe’s victory was not inevitable. Even with all the adversity, Cuccinelli could have won with better identification and turnout.
Coupled together, President Barack Obama’s 2012 win and Cuccinelli’s 2013 defeat demonstrate the importance of data-driven, grassroots-focused campaigns based on identifying voters and getting supporters to the polls. The concept is hundreds of years old; Abraham Lincoln stated it most famously in the 1840s, and has been quoted continuously in political training sessions ever since. Modern tools may give campaigns more opportunities to discern a voter’s preference, but the basic concept remains the same.
It’s too late for Republicans to do anything about it on a state level in Virginia. But next year is an election year, too. Like the odd-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia, mid-term elections don’t have the national awareness and media buzz that accompanies a presidential election. It falls to the candidates and their campaigns to drive turnout, and the team that does it the best tends to win.
Given the troubles of the current Administration, people who voted for Romney and other Republicans in 2012 probably feel pretty good about their choice in retrospect. In fact, they might volunteer that information – to someone walking through their neighborhood knocking on doors, to a telephone operator who calls with a political survey, or even to their friends through online social networks. They might be willing to take an action that tells how they feel, such as calling or writing to a state legislator or Congressman on a particular issue.
Throughout the country, people are ready to raise their hands and give information that suggests how they’ll vote in 2014, and possibly in 2016. And whether it’s through a Facebook post, a retweet, a response to a phone poll, or an online ad clicked, people show you how they best communicate and how to best communicate with them.
Historical trends show drop-offs in voter participation in midterm elections. If those trends continue in 2014 and Republicans can identify and bring back just 75 percent of the people who voted for them in 2012, the Senate will probably flip and they will add 25-30 House seats to their majority.
You can write the 2014 playbook for Democrats today. They will accuse GOP candidates of being extremists on gun rights and life issues. With a good grassroots plan in place, Republican campaigns can mitigate these attacks.
Maybe Ken Cuccinelli and the Virginia Republican apparatus did squeeze every vote they could out of the Old Dominion. Maybe there wasn’t any way to drag another 3.1 percent of Romney’s voters from their homes.
Or maybe losing Virginia in 2013 has provided Republican campaigns with an important roadmap for victory in 2014.
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