Sabato's Crystal Ball

So Who’s Going to Win? Look to the North Stars

Larry J. Sabato, Director, U.Va. Center for Politics October 29th, 2009

We’re heading ’round the final bend in this year’s Virginia contest for governor, so it’s time to take a look at our traditional gubernatorial “north stars.” These stars, fixed in the firmament and reliable indicators for decades, have long guided our prognostications.

Taking the measure of our ten north stars has proven predictive for all the races from 1969 to 2005, and while nothing is foolproof, there’s no reason why the stars won’t illuminate the governor’s mansion on election night this year.

Take a glance at the table here. Ten north stars have shone over forty years of Virginia politics:

Economy: Is the state economy good, bad, or in-between? Do voters feel better off or worse off than they were four years ago?

Party Unity: Which of the two major parties is more unified?

Scandal: Is one of the two major-party candidates enveloped in a serious scandal? For the candidate representing the incumbent state administration, is that administration bogged down in a major scandal?

Campaign Organization and Technology: Which party has the better organization and most up-to-date technology for its gubernatorial campaign?

Campaign Money: Is one candidate significantly outspending the other?

Candidate Personality and Appeal: Does one candidate have an obvious overall advantage in personal appeal and image?

Prior Office Experience: Which candidate comes closest to Virginians’ usual preferences for office experience prior to running for governor?

Retrospective Judgment on Previous Governor: Is the incumbent governor popular or not?

Presidential Popularity: Is the incumbent president popular in the state or not?

Dominant Circumstances: Has any issue, event, or development been on the front burner so long and so vividly that it dominates how voters think about the campaign?

How does the light from each star fall on Democrat Creigh Deeds and Republican Bob McDonnell in the current match-up?

Economy: No question people are worse off than four years ago. It doesn’t matter who or what is responsible. The incumbent party suffers. Clear advantage for Republicans.

Party Unity: Republicans continue to show evidence of a permanent split between their conservative base and the moderate Republicans that used to dominate their legislative party, especially in the state Senate. But these moderate leaders are mainly out of office and in exile, sent to the conservative GOP’s Siberia. On the Democratic side, former Gov. Doug Wilder’s refusal to endorse Deeds was headline news everywhere, as was the defection of premier Kaine donor Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television. The real difference between the parties this year shows up in the enthusiasm being demonstrated by activists. Everyone agrees that Republicans are energized in 2009 as they seek to end their long losing streak, while Democrats appear complacent and disconnected from Deeds. Advantage Republicans.

Scandal: Republicans will point to the Northrop Grumman IT fiasco, and insist that it is a Mark Warner-Tim Kaine problem. But Republicans in the General Assembly and Bob McDonnell, as attorney general, played their roles, too. As serious as the matter is, it gives off a bipartisan odor and has been opaque to most voters. A very different controversy has received much more attention: Bob McDonnell’s 1989 thesis at Pat Robertson’s university. It is conventional wisdom as the campaign winds down that Creigh Deeds failed in his attack on the graduate paper that expressed strong, archaic social views on working women, child day care, gays and lesbians, “fornicators,” and the like. In fact, concern about McDonnell’s cultural positions evened up the contest for a while. But Deeds could not find effective ways to extend his argument, in part because of McDonnell’s ability to reassure voters that he had changed. Nonetheless, the thesis is still widely cited by those who have decided to back Deeds. Advantage Democrats.

Campaign Organization and Technology: This north star wobbles a lot from year to year, and is closely related to campaign money as well as grassroots fervor. The Republican base simply wants to win more than the Democratic base apparently does, and this has shown up in the ‘09 ground game. Advantage Republicans.

Campaign Money: Not every candidate who outspends his opponent wins. In 2005 Republican Jerry Kilgore outspent Democrat Tim Kaine by $24.7 million to $20.5 million, but Kaine won the governorship. Nonetheless, campaign money is an advantage coveted by every contender. In 2009 the GOP again leads substantially–more than $5 million in the GOP’s favor by October 21. Many on both sides suspect the final cash gap will be considerably larger in McDonnell’s direction. Advantage Republicans.

Candidate Personality and Appeal: Creigh Deeds is folksy and likeable, but no one describes him as articulate or charismatic. Democrats say Bob McDonnell is “slick,” yet he is polished and unflappable on the stump and in debates. For decades now, I have applied my “suburban cocktail party test” to elections, national and state. Simply put, which candidate would the average suburbanite most like to invite to his or her next cocktail party? Who would most impress neighbors, family, and colleagues? Remember, the suburbs supply about six out of every ten votes in Virginia. While the Republican’s thesis gave pause to suburbanites temporarily–they worried McDonnell would start talking about abortion and disrupt the cocktail hour–he won them over with a smooth, congenial personality. A long-time resident of Fairfax and then Virginia Beach, McDonnell is a suburban kind of guy. Deeds of tiny Bath County is deeply rural. Advantage Republicans.

Prior Office Experience: In the last century Virginians have regularly promoted lieutenant governors and attorneys general to the governorship. Less frequently, a candidate from the state legislature, Congress, local office, or no office has won the top spot. This is where the 360 votes that separated winner McDonnell from loser Deeds in the ‘05 attorney general’s race really matters. Advantage Republicans.

Retrospective Judgment on Previous Governor(s): Creigh Deeds has wrapped himself in the cloak of former Governor and now U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, whose popularity is still quite high (generally in the 60s). Mentioned frequently but less prominently is incumbent Gov. Kaine, who usually registers many percentage points below Warner in public opinion surveys. Kaine is not a burden for Deeds, but the incumbent’s governorship has not left much of a mark in the public’s mind. Kaine’s acceptance of the Democratic National Committee chairmanship in early 2009 has also taken him out of Virginia a great deal and made him a much more partisan figure. Still, on the whole, the Warner-Kaine association helps Deeds. Advantage Democrats.

Presidential Popularity: This one is a close call. On the one hand, President Obama carried Virginia handily in 2008 and retains majority support in many (though not all) surveys. On the other hand, opposition to his policies appears more intense among Republicans than does backing for his administration among Democrats in Virginia–and in a relatively low-turnout election year, intensity matters. In addition, the thirty-two year old “presidential jinx,” whereby Virginians choose a governor of the party opposite to that of the president, causes worry among Democrats. Deeds has been unsure about the Obama effect, calling himself a “Creigh Deeds Democrat” rather than an “Obama Democrat,” which upset the White House. At the same time, Deeds begged Obama for personal campaigning. He got more than he bargained for: Obama visited Norfolk, but White House aides anonymously disparaged Deeds’ campaign in a widely read Washington Post article as the campaign wound down. You can argue this one either way. We’ll just say No Clear Advantage.

Special Issues and Dominant Circumstances: The Deeds camp hoped that McDonnell’s controversial thesis would carry the day for them in this category. McDonnell’s campaign focused heavily on the probability that a Governor Deeds would favor a gasoline tax increase. Both issues matter to some degree, but to quote the late New Jersey political boss Frank Hague, “Taxes is losers.” Advantage Republicans.

In sum, seven of the ten north stars in the ‘09 Virginia heavens spell out “GOP.” Only two provide illumination for Democratic hopes. One is arguably neutral.

The Republican net advantage of five north stars is equal to the edge held by the last two Virginia governors who not only won, but chalked up victories by large margins (Democrat Gerald Baliles in 1985 and Republican George Allen in 1993).

Republicans will welcome this astronomical blessing. Democrats will say it is not the science of astronomy but the bunk of astrology.

Astronomy or astrology? We’ll all find out on November 3rd.



The North Stars: Virginia’s Governor, 1989-2009

The above table shows how the north stars were aligned for Virginia’s governor races since 1989. For a complete look at the north stars for all races in the past forty years, click here.