Are Virginians bored of politics?

Chris Saxman Partner, New South Strategic Partners
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This year’s gubernatorial election pits Democratic nominee and businessman Terry “the Macker” McAuliffe against Republican nominee and current Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a.k.a “the Cooch.”

Macker and Cooch sounds more like an ABC sitcom pilot than the top contenders in one of the most-watched governor’s races in the country.

Don’t let the news stories and advertising fool you, Virginians are not paying attention.


The trend in Virginia for over 35 years has been that the person elected governor the year after the president has been elected is of the opposite party. That has been Virginia’s tradition since 1977. In fact, five Democratic governors were elected during a period of Republican presidential dominance while four Republicans were elected with Democrats in the White House.

Whether based on presidential popularity, opposition intensity, and/or internal atrophy, the result has been the same. When your guy wins the White House, the next year their guy wins the Executive Mansion.

Nine elections in a row is a strong trend that is likely to continue. Yet it’s still a strange year in Virginia politics; if there was an election to break that trend this would be the one.

The most important divide in any election is between those who vote and those who do not. Virginia voters this year are very disengaged from this race. The political class is engaged, as always, but without enthusiasm.

Since Virginians are blessed and cursed with a consequential election every year, they know when to focus on political campaigns.  Previously just a bellwether before the congressional mid terms, Virginia is now an electorally important battleground state. And coming off a presidential election in which it was key, Virginia voters are on political vacation until Labor Day.

Turnout in the last four presidential elections has trended up overall from 68 percent in 2000 to  over 71 percent in 2012 with a spike of 74.5 percent in 2008. Gubernatorial elections in the year right after the national battles show the trend going in the exact opposite direction.

Mark Warner was elected governor in 2001 with turnout at 46 percent, Tim Kaine’s 2005 election was 45 percent, and Bob McDonnell’s  2009 victory saw only 40.3 percent of registered voters make the effort to vote.

So while the presidential turnout has gone up six points over twelve years, the gubernatorial numbers have dropped six.

This year it is likely, given the strong trend line and increase in registrations ahead of Barack Obama’s reelection, that turnout will be below 40 percent. Given the lack of enthusiasm overall, I would say e38 percent turnout is possible.

August is always political vacation season in Virginia and it is easy to doze off in the humid heat as baseball yields to football and families gear up for school, but aside from that I cannot recall seeing more than a handful of new political bumper stickers on cars as I travel the Commonwealth.

Rarer still are the yard signs and roadside 4x8s which used to be customary here in Virginia until political consultants pushed all available resources into direct voter contacts and paid advertising to drive media impressions.

The television ad war is firing up as we head into back to school season.

Both campaigns are building out the infrastructure nuts and bolts to turn out “our” voters and suppressing “theirs.”

With enthusiasm so low, how else do you get people to vote? The campaigns will have to take the ballot to the voter!

In Virginia, absentee voting begins 45 days before election day, which this year is November 5th, so I would watch the absentee ballot programs in the vote-rich commuting counties of Fairfax, Loudoun, and Prince William. Sure there are others, but this would be a good sample.

It’s still August and many people are on vacation, but come Labor Day in Buena Vista, where Virginia’s election season traditionally kicks off, all hell is going to break loose.

The Macker and Cooch is coming this Fall!

By mid-October as polling will clearly show, Virginia will have made her quiet, quick, and nationally important decision in the ever changing, never ending American political market and off we go into 2014.

Curb your enthusiasm. We have.

Chris Saxman