Commentary Magazine


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Turnout In Virginia

The popular blog on Virginia state politics, Not Larry Sabato, identifies a factor in Virginia’s gubernatorial race which few national observers have picked up on:

10,000 More Democrats…Voted in Fairfax County in Tuesday’s Democratic Primary than voted for Sharon Bulova in February’s special election for Chairman of the Board of Supervisors against Pat Herrity. Ouch.  I know Special Election turnout can be low- but lower than a state primary that featured fierce rainstorms in the morning and evening prime voting times? If I were a Democrat running in 2011 in Fairfax County (Senators, Delegates, Board of Supervisors), I would be VERY concerned.

All true but, of course, there’s also this year’s gubernatorial election and other state races. It seems the Democrats this year should be concerned. All of the local races in Northern Virginia and the Democratic primary race this year have had appallingly low turnouts. And in those Republicans either won or mounted shockingly close races (in a House of Delegate race in the Democratic stronghold, Alexandria, for example.)  The hotly contested Democratic primary clocked in with 6% of the vote. What does this mean?

It is a reminder that off year elections don’t generate the sort of interest and turnout that presidential races, especially once-in-a-life-time presidential races, do. The hundreds of thousands of new voters, many college students and African American who lifted Obama to victory (the first Democratic presidential winner in Virginia since LBJ), may be nowhere to be found on Election Day in November 2009. The electorate, in short, is going to look more like an “ordinary” one than the Obama electorate.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the Republicans should be cheering. After all, Tim Kaine and Jim Webb won in statewide, pre-Obama races, foretelling the shift in the electorate away from a dependable Red state. But it does mean that Democrats, especially when running an amiable but unexciting Creigh Deeds, will once again have to work to turn out the vote. (No wonder Deeds moved his campaign office from Charlottesville to voter-rich Northern Virginia, which happens to be his Republican opponent’s home base.) And it means Deeds (who ran and lost to Bob McDonnell in a nail-biter for attorney general in 2005, running 2-3% below the top of the ticket) will need to find a way to energize traditional Democratic voters who may not be very jazzed by a middle-of-the-road, relatively pro-gun, rural candidate. (Will college kids and minority voters turn out in droves for him? Unclear.)

And McDonnell also has his work cut out for himself to try to differentiate himself from the least liberal of the Democrats who sought the nomination. But in a lower turnout race, the candidate who has won in Northern Virginia counties (plus Virginia Beach) will at least start with a natural base of support. And he also may have the advantage of  enthusiasm from party activists who see this as do-or-die time for the GOP in Virginia.

The issues and personalities in the race will matter. But the cliché is true — the guy who wins is the one who gets the most votes on Election Day. And to do that, you actually have to get your voters to vote.